Bergman and Antonioni are gone; for many of us, they represented the first stirrings of our cinematic passion and thus the images they recall are all jumbled up with lost youth. But it's impossible for me to be sad today: I've just seen a fantastic film by a new auteur and I'm thinking that though the ashes are wholly masculine, the phoenix is wearing a dress.
Along with many of my generation, I was a creature of the cinema, and by that I mean the cinema, not the movies. The Cinematheques in Paris (Chaillot, Ulm), the Thalia in New York, the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley were mother's milk to me (that's the whole kind, foamy au lait, not skim or soy). I was busy trying on personalities: by day, summering with love in a crocheted mini-dress; by night, seeing films from which I emerged alternately: as a waif in a striped t shirt and black cap with a Herald Tribune under my arm, (Jean Seberg), as a tall, thin gamine with bangs who didn't mind killing people(Anna Karina), as a coolly neurotic blonde beauty who was a hooker in the afternoons (Catherine Deneuve), as a voluptuous fleshpot with hooded eyes who plotted to kill her former lover (Simone Signoret), as a dark-haired cipher unable to love (Anouk Aimee), or a sexy but elusive icon with a pouty mouth who knew how to keep two men dangling (Jeanne Moreau).
But the images one saw of women, however muse-like and iconic, were as adjuncts to the alter egos of these directors--and almost nothing like the women I knew. Though they were adored as actresses and frequently had films written for them after the directors fell in love with them, their female characters were very much at arm's length-- beautiful, sexy even, but removed somehow from reality, the connective tissue to a male fantasy world.
After college, I went whole hog and worked for film festivals and for the French and finally in Los Angeles, often with European filmmakers whom I still revered, just as often finding myself at odds with the Hollywood system that had by then so taken over. Sometimes, in a pitch meeting, I would liken a particular scene or character to something out of Truffaut or Malle and a kind of somnolent look would come over the face of the executive; they were apples and I was pommes, not even oranges, mind you, and I was surrounded by them.
Recently though, women have become among the most interesting directors,(along with Judd Apatow, that is) taking up where their auteur antecedents left off, creating female and male characters that are recognizable, approachable, flawed and terrific. The women filmmakers still have to be scrappier and smarter--but when they are finally able to hop on the carousel, the ring they capture isn't just brass, it's a giant cocktail thing that is a showy, perfect treasure.
Julie Delpy's Two Days in Paris proves that moxie, intelligence, wit and commercial savvy can share the same frames--that it's possible to appeal to cinephiles and philistines alike. Go see it as soon as it opens.
Delpy inherits the ring (and I know she's a vintage lover--I've stood on the early-buying line behind her at the Santa Monica Civic Center), not from her own kinsmen as it happens, but rather our own currently in-the-doghouse American son, Woody Allen. Her first film as an auteur (and let's just say she wrote, produced, directed, scored and sang for her supper on this one) recalls early Allen--Manhattan and Annie Hall to be precise--in a way Woody used to be able to summon that makes you sit up and smile in warm recognition. Her leading lady (herself, natch) will take her place alongside the best of Allen's characters and her leading man, Adam Goldberg is her deft companion in over the top neurotic fun. It's an American romantic comedy set in Paris, a French movie in its overt fondness for the characters, a hybrid that totally works.
Sofia Coppola was able to find this mixture in Lost In Translation, (though in Japan). Maybe it's the cultures rubbing up against each other that enables these women to dig so deep about relationships, the fish-out-of-water thing that allows the two lovers the space they need to circle each other and figure it out. Let's just hope that Delpy won't make the same mistake Coppola did by straying so far from home on her next outing. Delpy's next announced film is period, about a Countess, the way Sofia bumpily followed LIT with Marie Antoinette. It must be so tempting to play with costumed royalty, but it's odd that they would make similar choices after such brilliant, contemporary slices of life.
Henry James once warned Edith Wharton of same fairly early on in her career after she had written a period novel set in Italy. " I applaud, I mean I value, I egg you on in your study of the human life that surrounds you. Let yourself go in it and at it. It's an untouched field really: the folk who try, over there [he meant the US], don't come within miles of any civilized, however superficially, and "evolved" life. And use to the full your remarkable ironic and satiric gift: they form a most valuable and beneficent engine."
In other words, it's a rather more upscale version of the usual advice given to emerging writers: write what you know. As far as I'm concerned,Delpy should make Two days in LA, Two days in NY, Two days in London....her version of a franchise--something Hollywood clamors for but which never appeals to the likes of me.
She made me completely jealous of her wit and her vision and so proud that she was able to pull it off. Felicitations, Julie, you follow in the grandest tradition.