Julie Delpy, the voice of a generation (of expats)

I don’t know how many of you were teenagers in 1994. I was. I was 16, wore long, checkered, sleeveless dresses over white t-shirts. I had long, straight hair parted in the middle and no make-up. It was the glorious grunge era. (I can’t believe, though, that hipsters took out the checkered flannels again).

In the spring of that year a film came out. It was called Before Sunrise and had all the ingredients that could make an expat-to-be dream: a young, handsome, sensitive American boy meets an intellectual, beautiful, complicated French girl on a train. They are both doing the Inter-rail, which was all the rage back then. (Traveling Europe by train, with a single ticket, was the myth of pre-Ryanair students). They talk and talk and realize they won’t have more time together unless they both stop in Vienna and spend there a whole day, only to part before sunrise to go back home. Watching it now, the film appears dated. Even slow, compared to nowadays super fast dialogues and not a single moment of non-action. But something happens during that film: it is the first modern representation of expats’ interaction. Julie Delpy, a French actress and director who should be by now way more famous than she actually is (in the sense that if you ask people on the street, not many will know her name) was the female lead of Before Sunrise. Ethan Hawk played the young, sensitive American.

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If it is difficult today to label someone as the voice of a generation – because there are, simply, so many different voices able to embody an era – I have no doubts that Julie Delpy is the voice of her expats’ generation.

She went on, after the grunge era, to interpret a first sequel of Before Sunrise (called Before Sunset) and to direct several films. Among the latter, two veritable jewels: 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York. Two different stories on the same theme: interaction and communication and practical issues in everyday life between partners coming from different countries and cultures and traditions and mind frames. If you are an expat and have somehow missed them, don’t lose any more time. You’ll love every minute.

This year Julie Delpy came back with another sequel of the film that made her internationally famous. It’s called Before Midnight (which may have to do with the fact that middle-aged people rarely make it till before sunrise). The two leads, Jesse and Celine, are now in their forties. They had lost each other, then met again after that first encounter in Vienna and they now have twin daughters and live in Paris. Jesse is a well-known novelist, Celine juggles work, children, husband. They are on holidays in Greece, invited by a fellow author when their hosts offer them a romantic night at the hotel, while they babysit the girls. Of course, the night turns out more complicated than expected and we witness a magnificently written dialogue among two deaf persons: Celine had to give up many of her artistic ambitions in order to care for her children; Jesse kept pursuing his and ended up being the one in the spotlight. The sex is fading, their insecurities and middle-age frustrations are eating up what’s left of their chemistry. They resent each other. Eventually, they will find a way to talk again but until that moment any expat will find him/herself deeply touched by their exchange.

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Julie Delpy’s work doesn’t speak much to uni-nationals. Every time I have recommended her films to a non-expat (how shall we call non-expat? How to define them in a non “non” way?) they didn’t like it. Too neurotic. Too cliché. The way she describes – for instance – French society sounds so stereotypical to French people and yet whoever lived in Paris for a while will recognize it immediately as being exact.

I thought for a long time it didn’t have to do with nationality, but simply with different taste. I now realize it has everything to do with nationality. From Before Sunrise till Before Midnight all the tension is given by the cultural differences between the main characters. Each of them has progressively moved toward the other but there’s always something missing in their mutual understanding. That “something” will look indefinable and yet so familiar to anyone who married out of the tribe.

(This is not meant to be a film critic. I couldn’t do it anyway, since I watch movies at least 6 months after they came out)

7 comments

  1. Yes, yes, YES! I have adored Julie Delpy since the moment I first saw Before Sunset (which, for some reason, I got hold of long before Before Sunrise). It was after my first stay in France, but before I moved there long-term. Years later, my French boyfriend and I went to see Two Days in Paris in the theater, and we laughed our heads off. No single-countried person that I’ve shown the film to has appreciated it nearly as much, if at all…. It makes me feel a little less lonely as an ex-ex-pat to find this resounding appreciation of Delpy on your blog. Thanks!

  2. Expat / bi-cultural / multi-cultural… it was an Indian friend living in Singapore who suggested I see Before Sunrise and After Sunset. I’d done the Euro-rail thing in the late 80s and have met folks while traveling where the depth of connect and conversation has lasted across continents and decades. So both films struck a chord. I just picked up Before Midnight in Jakarta and planned to watch it… Your post prompted me to pull the DVD off its shelf and plan to watch it this week!

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