Julie Delpy Rocks 'New York'

Always more than an ingenue, she's taking on everything that's wrong with movies—and she's bringing Chris Rock

As in Paris, New York's setup is heavy with voice-over; Delpy puts us deep inside the psyche of her character before she shows the character behaving badly. The sequel is at once less emotionally resonant than the first film and more radical a bait and switch. In the movie, the equilibrium of the blended household she has built with boyfriend Mingus is disrupted by the arrival of Marion's father, sister and ex-boyfriend, visiting from Paris for the art show. Paris used romantic-movie tropes to call bullshit on certain types of romanticism, but New York puts more into the Trojan horse, smuggling into a cheerfully vulgar domestic farce a utopian model of post-racial relationships, a rumination on selfhood as a commodity, and a study of a fortysomething working mother's emotional life within a culture obsessed with flattening work/life balance into binary "can we have it all" reductions.

For Delpy, upping the subtextual stakes was part of the attraction of making a sequel. "There's a bittersweet quality in the first film. Like, 'Okay, it's working out for now, but how long is this gonna last?' The reality of life is sometimes tough, and people break up. I wanted to explore that. Like moving on to a new boyfriend: How do you build your life on this rock, quicksand? Marion has a new boyfriend—so who is it? And I thought of Chris."

Rock's Mingus is a public intellectual whose conversations with the cardboard cutout of Barack Obama he keeps in his home office constitute New York's only real nods to race as an issue in contemporary American life. It's a movie in which a white woman and a black man are raising a family together, without ever suggesting that racial difference is an issue in their home or in their relationship. Its very nonchalance could be considered a step forward.

"One of the reasons Chris said yes was that the screenplay was not about, like, this dramatic issue about black and white," Delpy says.

Still, she knows that if future species were to judge our civilization based on Hollywood films, they'd probably assume that interracial relationships were either illegal or somehow scientifically impossible. "And actually, that was probably an issue for some of the distributors that really liked the film but were terrified of the fact that it's not the subject matter of the film," Delpy says. "I've had even friends that reacted, like, 'Um, why would you pick Chris Rock?' I was surprised. Like, smart, educated people. And I've never had that in France, even though France is pretty racist. And then when they saw the film, they're like, 'Oh, I get it.' I made them forget that it was an issue."

At the big art show in the film, Marion literally auctions her soul to the highest bidder. She's initially blithe about it ("My gallerist promised me she's not going to sell my soul to the devil—just some rich motherfucker"), but once the deal is done, she panics. The subplot allows Delpy to probe her own thorny feelings about spirituality, which flared up with the 2009 death of her mother.

"I thought it was funny, the concept of selling the soul," Delpy says. "If the soul exists, then the people you love should be sending you messages. But they don't, the people that are gone. A soul would mean an afterlife, and they don't show up, so there is nothing. And it's a very sad thing. But I make it lighter because humor is part of our survival, I think. It's one of the reasons why [the species] made it—outside of being belligerent, violent and ruthless."

The art piece puts Marion in contact with Vincent Gallo, playing himself. "The actor, the director, the poet, the fashion model, motorcycle racer, legend," as he refers to himself in the film, is also an expert in self-commodification: His real-life website infamously offers his services as a sperm donor (for natural or artificial insemination) for the price of $1 million. (Gallo's site contextualizes the offering as part of "a conceptual work [of] Internet art [that] questions celebrity, procreation, ego, social agenda, and views of religion, race and sexuality.")

Delpy doesn't want to say too much about Gallo's one-scene role in her movie because "I think it's more fun to discover." Here's what I'll say: It's the best stand-alone scene in the movie—and not because of the potential shock factor. The gimmick actually gives Delpy the director a shtick-free space away from the juggling act of the narrative so that Delpy the actress can deliver, with subtlety and vulnerability, Delpy the director's insight into the internal life of the character.

Delpy insists the only aspect of the film that's autobiographical is that Marion, like Julie, has since the first film had to live through the death of her mom. "I included it because she was in the first film, and I didn't know how to exclude her without telling the truth," she says. But Marion also struggles with asserting an identity as an artist, as a domestic partner and as a mom, and this is a conflict that's a part of Delpy's own life since she gave birth in 2009 to a son with her boyfriend of five years, film composer Marc Streitenfeld (Prometheus).

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