Beyond the Multiplex

Julie Delpy on her film "2 Days in Paris" -- and why people are calling her the new Woody Allen (an interview and podcast). Plus: Rosario Dawson lights up a dark thriller.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published August 9, 2007 11:30AM (EDT)

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So far this week, the morbidity and mortality report on major European directors is silent. We'll keep our fingers crossed and turn our attention to the living. Eric Rohmer has just finished another film at age 87, and with luck we'll see it soon. A mere sprat of 76, Jean-Luc Godard continues on his path of willful eccentricity, either as a blindingly original artist or a total irrelevancy (take your pick). Manoel de Oliveira takes the cake, of course. He made his first film in 1931 -- 1931! -- and is planning to shoot another one next year. If he makes it there, he'll be 99 when the cameras begin to roll. (He showed up in Cannes last May, looking healthier than some 60-year-olds.)

Somewhere near the other end of the spectrum, we find two very different French directors, both the same age (which would be 37) and both offering us partly ironic or sardonic visions of Paris, that most filmed and most romance-saturated of cities. Actress Julie Delpy is a smart cookie and showbiz lifer who, to no one's surprise, has finally turned her attention to filmmaking. (She directed a film called "Looking for Jimmy" in 2002, but it remains largely unseen.) She started acting in French movies at age 8, but first attracted notice for her performance in Godard's "Detective," made when she was 14.

If Delpy remains best known to indie-film buffs as the girl Ethan Hawke lets get away after their all-night prowl through Vienna in Richard Linklater's "Before Sunrise" (and then meets again, nine years later, in "Before Sunset"), that's only one corner of her career. She's worked with Godard, Carlos Saura, Agnieszka Holland, Jim Jarmusch and Krzysztof Kieslowski, appearing in each installment of the Polish filmmaker's great "Three Colors" trilogy. She was in "An American Werewolf in Paris," "But I'm a Cheerleader" and seven episodes of "ER."

If Delpy first got roles for her long blond hair, lithe frame and perfect, translucent skin, what has sustained her through such a varied acting career is the focused wit and energy of her performances. Those attributes are very much on display in "2 Days in Paris," an itchy, uneven but frequently very funny romantic comedy, in which she stars opposite Adam Goldberg. (She also wrote, directed, co-produced and edited the film, along with composing the score.)

Our next witness is writer-director Christophe Honoré, something of a critic's darling in France who has yet to make the slightest impact on American audiences. I'm not sure "Dans Paris," his fourth feature, will do anything to change that. It's an elliptical story of two brothers, their troubled family life and their feckless love affairs; it's difficult to summarize and difficult to love, and it deliberately risks boring or alienating its audience. But Honoré brings a sensual poetry to his films that's rewarding on its own terms. He builds unforgettable moments out of implausible elements, and uses his cast of hot young French talent to delicious effect.

I can draw no plausible connections between two movies set in Paris and Talia Lugacy's Gothic rape-revenge thriller "Descent," except that it too is built around a terrific actor with deep indie roots (in this case, Rosario Dawson) and that Lugacy's good-bad movie is channeling a decadent strain of trashy Euro-art films, or trying to. Dawson's performance is nearly good enough to redeem this trippy, schizophrenic fantasy, but if you think that sounds like a qualified endorsement you'd be right.

"2 Days in Paris": He's a cruel hypochondriac and she's a nutso nympho. But they'll always have Paris!
You won't get a sense, right away, of how borderline-crazy "2 Days in Paris" is going to get from its first few minutes. Which are frankly pretty irritating. Jack (Adam Goldberg) and his French girlfriend Marion (Julie Delpy) are just stopping off in Paris for a weekend on their way back to New York, after a holiday in Venice. Jack's a xenophobic Manhattanite straight out of mid-period Woody Allen, afraid of germs and foreigners, but even more contemptuous of American tourists. Marion is a hothead who demands immediate service and picks fights with strangers, and seems to encounter a moonstruck ex-boyfriend at every Parisian cafe.

Delpy narrates the opening scene in awkward voice-over, and at first the movie seems overcrowded with shtick: Jack thinks he's getting the flu, their cab driver is anti-Arab and anti-Semitic, and a load of overweight Midwesterners drift through on a "Da Vinci Code" tour. (Jack deliberately sends them in the wrong direction.) But stick with it. As "2 Days in Paris" zings along from one overamped frogs-vs.-Yanks cliché to the next, two things happen: Delpy's direction begins to give the characters more air and space, and you adjust to its hectic pace. Around the time that Marion's dotty, adorable mother -- played by Delpy's real mother, the actress Marie Pillet -- compliments Jack on his penis (she's seen pictures!) I finally grasped the idea: This movie is out of its mind.

We are nowhere near the moody, languid romance of "Before Sunrise" here. As Delpy observes in our highly entertaining conversation at a New York hotel bar, neither Jack nor Marion is all that likable a character. The fights she picks in public get nuttier and nuttier: In one scene, she counterattacks another racist cabbie by making a Nazi salute (and a Hitler mustache with her finger) and intoning loudly, "Welcome to France! Welcome to France!" When she spies yet another ex-boyfriend in a cafe, she flies into a violent rage and accuses him of being a pedophile who frequents 12-year-old prostitutes. "You're like Mike Tyson," Jack observes in wonderment. "I'm dating Mike Tyson."

Jack is a painfully ignorant and arrogant American, who doesn't speak a single word of French, but then the natives turn out to be just as weird and sex-crazed as advertised. Marion's father (again, that would be Julie's dad, Albert Delpy) is a painter, but only of pornographic topics. Someone at a party launches into a long monologue about the hostile nature of the female genitalia. (Or as Delpy puts it, amid giggles, "the shape of the shaved poussy.") When Marion's parents call the fire department -- bewilderingly, since they have a leak, not a fire -- Marion can't keep her eyes or hands off the handsome lunks in their skin-tight, Scottish wool uniforms. Then there are all those racy text messages on Marion's phone, which Jack slowly decodes with the help of his Larousse dictionary.

Delpy definitely never solves all the film's conundrums: I wasn't convinced that Jack and Marion should end up together, or that I cared whether they did. (Although I do love the fairy -- the anti-globalization activist fairy, of course -- who convinces Jack to pursue Marion at the crucial juncture.) But Delpy's writing is sharply observed and often hilarious, and her own performance as the perennially enraged Marion -- whom she says was inspired by Robert De Niro's Jake LaMotta in "Raging Bull" -- is one of her most memorable. Most of all, there's an active filmmaking intelligence at work in "2 Days in Paris," one that's going to learn from the experience and move onward. (Delpy has already started work on her next film as a director, "The Countess," a macabre historical thriller in which she will also star.)

Delpy can seem like an intimidating renaissance woman who writes, directs, edits, composes music and for all I know paints, knits and makes a mean gazpacho. But in conversation she turned out to be friendly, funny, completely amenable to criticism and eager to listen as well as talk. She reports that she recently quit drinking and smoking to keep her energy level up, although it's hard to imagine that was a problem. Her character in the film, Marion, has also quit smoking, and complains that she has a fat ass as a result. It did not seem remotely appropriate, let alone gentlemanly, to raise this issue with Delpy. Suffice it to say that she looks as lovely as ever.

You know, you sit through this movie and then you watch the credits, and it's pretty amazing. Your name just keeps coming up.

I know. That's why I didn't put all those credits at the beginning! That would have been really embarrassing.

Let's see. You wrote the film, you directed the film, you co-produced the film, you edited the film and you ...

Composed the music! I also designed the poster, but that isn't in the credits.

Wow. Did you, like, tape down the electrical wiring too? And put out the snacks on the deli table?

No, but I did stuff you don't want to know about, like running errands for production. Bringing in tape decks that broke down during editing, getting them fixed. My friends would say, "Isn't it stressful to be the writer and director, and to act in the film?" That part is not stressful. What's stressful is being the person who has to fix the computer that crashed. My boyfriend, who's in the business and has seen many films being made, couldn't believe what I was doing. He would say to me, "That's not your job!" Well, OK. But who else is going to do it?

Is that just your personality? You like to be in control? If something goes wrong, you're the person who's going to jump in and fix it.

Sometimes I am good at delegating. I'm not a DoP [director of photography]. I can explain what I want, but I don't know how to light it. I can be very precise about what I want, but there are things I can't do. I don't know how to record good sound, but I know good sound is very important. So I allow time for the sound man, because I don't want to loop the film [i.e., rerecord the dialogue after filming]. For a film like this, I think looped sound would be terrible. We have two or three lines that we had to loop, and every time I see the film I can hear them. I really hate that. But I did have to take on some technical things I don't love doing. I'd rather focus on the creative side.

You couldn't possibly do all the stuff you do on this movie and get any sleep.

I don't sleep very much. I can spend many, many weeks with very little sleep and I have a high level of energy. As long as I eat. You have to feed me, and then everything can go on and on forever.

You and Balzac. He supposedly slept, like, three hours a night. And drank 15 cups of coffee a day.

I just drink tea. But gallons and gallons and gallons of tea. I'm like a tea addict. As long as I don't drink alcohol and don't smoke cigarettes, I have tons of energy. I don't drink anymore and I quit smoking, so I'm ready to roll. Doesn't mean it's always good. Because when I don't do anything, it becomes this weird thing that I turn against myself. I can become obsessive.

The targets of your satire are all over the place. You make fun of French families, Parisian cab drivers, neurotic New Yorkers, fast-food restaurants, "Da Vinci Code" tourism ...

The Bee Burger place! It's not a real place, obviously. We created it. We had to pick a shade of orange that no other company had trademarked. And we never say "Da Vinci Code." The Americans say they're on a "Da Vinci tour" or a "Codebreaker" tour. What is that? You have to be careful with all these legal issues. Actually, "Da Vinci Code" is probably in the public domain, part of everyone's knowledge, but I covered my ass. I didn't want legal problems with anyone, ever. I had a T-shirt with George Bush with Mickey Mouse ears, and I decided not to wear it in the film. Not because of George Bush! Because of Mickey Mouse. You can definitely have problems with the Mickey Mouse people.

You definitely can. Was it always the plan that you would do all these different things in the movie, wear all these different hats?

I knew I was going to write. I knew I was going to act and direct. As I started working on the film, I realized I wanted to produce as well. I was doing the casting, and I was very much involved in postproduction. I earned my producer credit. Then, when we were done shooting, I told the producer that we needed to hire an editor and he said, "Well, it's not in the budget! Good luck!"

Had you ever edited a film before?

I did. I edited a film called "Looking for Jimmy" [in 2002] that I directed. It was a collaborative work with two other people that was really made in the editing room. I had 24 hours of footage, which were all over the place. I showed them to friends of mine who were editors, and they said, "There's no movie there." I was able to edit a movie -- a weird movie, but a movie -- out of something that everyone was telling me was no movie. That was a great teaching tool, to make a movie out of nothing. Not nothing, there were a lot of funny moments. But I learned more editing that movie than I could have learned in any kind of school.

So this movie was easy, by contrast.

Yes, yes, yes. For this movie I had an assembly [a basic edit] very quickly. It was very simple to edit. Then you have to tweak it and make it funny and all that. But it was not a crazy nightmare or anything.

A lot of directors who edit their own work wind up with a cut that's like 146 minutes or something. And they love every second of it. You didn't do that.

You have to let go of your ego as a director, and you have to let go of your ego as an actress. If you have your big scene where you look gorgeous -- because I am also a woman! -- but it doesn't work in the film, you cut it out. You have to be heartless. I had a scene with my old neighbor, who raised me, who I love. It didn't work. Out! You can't have feelings when you edit a film. You forget about your hang-ups and what you like and the message you wanted to put through. If the message doesn't work, forget it.

It's the same thing being a writer. When I'm on the set, and I wrote that amazing scene, and on the set the amazing scene is actually shit, you throw it away. You put aside your ego. I'm very open to criticism, to different propositions. It's the collaborative work of making a movie. If the DoP comes up with a better shot, I'm going to take it. I probably do have an ego, because otherwise I wouldn't write and direct and do all that stuff, but I'll put my ego aside to make a film that works in a second. I don't mind if someone tells me it's shit. I'll say, "Oh, OK." If I see myself in a scene and I'm not good, I can see that: "Ooh, I suck in that scene." I don't care so much. I don't have fear of failure. I think the only way to learn is to accept it.

Well, it's clear you didn't overly fall in love with the character of Marion. You push her right to the edge. There are times in the film when she seems nuts.

Yeah, she seems nuts. But neither character is very likable.

It's a romantic comedy with two characters the audience may not like. You really wanted to take that risk.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. In the end, deep inside, I do like them. I think at the end of the film you do like them a little bit. They're very human. I think they're real. If you meet Prince Charming in real life, he's probably going to have an alcohol problem. Prince Charming is neurotic. Prince Charming is a hypochondriac. I like characters who are not perfect and kind and sweet and funny. Jack is so mean sometimes, like the things he says about her mom. And she's crazy and flirtatious. Yes, she is! When she sees the firemen, in their cute little tight pants, what can she do? But it doesn't mean she's a bad person.

It seems to me that you've captured something pretty specific here. These characters aren't kids. They're grown-ups with a past behind them. They're in their 30s, yet they're still going through all these anxieties about forming adult relationships. A certain demographic might really identify with this. I mean, they're actually a little old ...

To be having these problems! [Laughter.] Yeah, exactly. I see people my age dealing with these issues in their mid-30s, or sometimes into their 40s. None of my girlfriends have kids. They'll have kids right before it's too late! Or not. A lot of people say your 30s are like your 20s now, and I think that's actually true. We put work and career before family and relationships, and then you start thinking about the family stuff in your mid-30s. Which is really late. Only now, I'm thinking, "Maybe I should have a baby!" Wait, I'm 37 -- ooh! Two and a half years left! I don't want to be, like, paranoid about it. I believe I have longer than that. In my family women are fertile until they're about 48. I don't want to go into that frenzy.

It's interesting that you totally avoid that issue in the movie. When you think about a romantic comedy with characters in their 30s, you almost expect the baby question to be on the horizon. And I don't think it's even mentioned.

I thought about it. I had that moment on tape, and I took it out. It made no sense with the characters. It was just one line at one point, but it didn't work.

Give those guys another two years and they might start thinking about it.

Yes, maybe.

If they don't break up. This is a romantic comedy, so the plot doesn't hold any huge surprises, but you don't lean too hard on a happy ending.

Well, it's not all perfect, the ending. I made it ambiguous, because I see love as ambiguous. I want love to be this ever-after thing, but there's a side of me that's cynical and believes that's impossible. Even though I'm happily involved with someone, and I believe in love right this minute, I keep changing all the time. When I was editing the film, I'd be "Happy ending, unhappy ending. Happy ending, unhappy ending." I change my mind on the subject all the time, and the film reflects that feeling.

One thing that everybody's asking you, I am sure, is about directing your parents in the film. Just to be clear about it, your real parents are both professional actors, and they play Marion's parents in the movie. Presumably the characters are different from your real parents. At least I hope so.

They are slightly different. What they have in common is that my parents are very open-minded, free spirits.

So your parents were '60s people.

Not as much as in the film. They were '60s people, but they were actors.

Your mother did not sleep with Jim Morrison, as far as you know?

No, she didn't. She was very faithful to my dad, and they were very much in love.

Of course.

But they have similar traits. My dad is someone who likes to talk about sex a lot. But in a sweet way. He's not a pervert. Not a real one. [Laughter.] In the film, I make it over the top: Every Frenchman Jack meets talks about sex, whether it's about the shape of the shaved pussy ...

That scene is definitely one I won't quote for publication.

Directing my parents was great fun. The minute they were on set, I was the director and they were the actors. They were cute; they were really impressed by me directing. They've never seen me like that. In real life I'm very laid-back, always joking, I'm kind of the clown at the party. I'm goofy, and suddenly when I'm directing I become strong. People are not used to seeing me like this.

I've heard you've gotten a mixed response in France. You do have this sardonic, kind of anti-romantic portrayal of Paris, which we tend to think of as the most romantic city in the world.

Some people were offended by the film. I have to say, when the distributors first saw the film, they were horrified by the scenes with the racist taxi drivers, and then by the fight in the cafe with the ex-boyfriend pedophile. [Laughter.] They were horrified. They were like, "You don't like Marion anymore. It's over. You have to cut it out." I said no way.

Well, politeness is so important to the French. To get in a fight with someone in public like that is really violating a social code, isn't it?

Not really. People argue a lot. I think there's a contradiction, because people scream at each other in Paris all the time. You walk down the street and some car is in the crosswalk, and people start yelling. I argue with people all the time in Paris. It doesn't last very long and it's part of everyday life. Marion is an extreme example. When Jack says, "I'm dating Mike Tyson," it's kind of true. [Laughter.]

My references for this film are so different from the film itself. I was watching, for example, "Jaws."

"Jaws"! Is Marion a shark?

No, actually, French men are. Each time they come near her, there's this little music that's quite similar to "Jaws." To me Marion is like Jake LaMotta.

Jake LaMotta. From "Raging Bull"?

I was amused by those kinds of weird references in my own head. She has anger issues, and she just snaps at people. I think it's endearing, because it's so unusual for a woman to be like that. She could fight in an Irish bar, challenge all those guys and say, "Come on!" But she doesn't look like a big, tough girl. That's what I think is funny, those contradictions and contrasts. Same thing with Jack. He's this neurotic guy, but I picked Adam because he has the face of a nerdy, neurotic guy, but he has this body with muscles and tattoos. He doesn't look nerdish at all. I play a lot with that. It's fun.

You know what? In the end, the film is doing very well in France. People are laughing. The distributors were worried, but people are not offended.

So I'm sure every journalist is telling you that this is like a Woody Allen film.

It's a compliment! I take it as a compliment.

Well, you know what it is? It's the urbane, witty, dense and fast dialogue and the neurotic characters. But it's also the narration. It's the fact that Marion -- who is played by you, the author of the work -- narrates parts of the film in that self-conscious way. It reminds me of "Manhattan."

I'm going to tell you something: I've seen many of his films, almost all of them, but I've never seen "Manhattan." There are certain films I've refused to see on DVD that I want to see on screen. "The Godfather," I waited until they showed it at the New Beverly in Hollywood. Kurosawa's "Ran," I want to see that one the first time on the big screen.

Hey, you know what? "Manhattan" is playing at Film Forum, here in New York, right now.

Really? I'm leaving today for Washington. I could have seen "Manhattan" on the big screen! That sucks. I hope I didn't imitate a movie I've never seen. That would be a horrible thing.

"2 Days in Paris" opens Aug. 10 in New York and Los Angeles, and Aug. 24 in Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Hartford, Conn., Minneapolis, Philadelphia, Portland, Ore., San Diego, San Francisco, Washington, Seattle and Austin, Texas, with more cities to follow.

"Dans Paris": Jazz, beautiful women, a would-be suicide and the ghosts of the New Wave
Come to think of it, Christophe Honoré's "Dans Paris" might be a crazy film about Paris too, but its craziness is of a darker, subtler sort. It's a completely different movie from Delpy's in terms of aesthetic and spirit, but there are some odd similarities. "Dans Paris" also begins with a narrator, as a character named Jonathan (Louis Garrel, supernally handsome son of the underappreciated director Philippe Garrel) extricates himself from an overcrowded bed -- which has both a woman and another guy in it -- and wanders out to the balcony of a cluttered suburban apartment to address the camera.

"Dans Paris" also takes quite a while to get going, after Jonathan apologetically introduces the main characters and then explains that he's going to turn back into one of them, and will no longer be omniscient. Big early chunks of it are not in fact set in Paris but somewhere in the countryside, where Jonathan's brother Paul (Romain Duris) has decamped with his girlfriend, Anna (Joana Preiss). They make a handsome, exasperating couple -- Duris with his tensely coiled frame and quiet half-smile, Preiss with her bony, feral sexiness -- but Honoré gives us only a few narrative shards of their decomposing relationship.

When the story leaps back to that cluttered Parisian apartment, where Paul has holed up, three days before Christmas, with a bad case of the lovesick blues and several days' growth of beard, the movie gradually begins to make sense. The place belongs to Jonathan and Paul's father, Mirko (Guy Marchand), a crusty worrier with a perpetual cigarette. In their hapless fashions, Jonathan and Mirko are trying to stop Paul from killing himself. But as each wanders through his day -- Jonathan navigating an endless series of angry ex-girlfriends and new conquests (sometimes these are the same thing), and Mirko just trying to buy a Christmas tree and cook some chicken soup -- they may be making matters worse rather than better.

There's an improvisational quality to Honoré's directing that is often endearing and occasionally maddening. He sets much of the film to an invigorating jazz score, and he seems to be trying on different aspects of French cinema's 1960s and '70s heritage like thrift-store clothes, and then discarding them. If the early scenes with Paul and Anna suggest Godard, the bittersweet sexual comedy later in the film feels more like Rohmer or Jacques Rivette. For that matter, the spirit of Agnés Varda, one of the least-appreciated figures of the French New Wave, hovers over the whole enterprise. One of my favorite scenes involves nothing more than Paul, locked up in his bedroom, singing along to a cheesy pop single from the past he's just dug up. (It's Kim Wilde's "Cambodia," from 1982.) That's a Varda touch if I've ever seen one.

When Paul finally summons up the courage to call Anna, their conversation is rendered in song, as a Michel Legrand-style duet (the music is by Alex Beaupain). This is clearly a nod to the great Jacques Demy (of "Umbrellas of Cherbourg"), and it's also the trail Honoré has followed more recently in his musical "Love Songs," which premiered at Cannes this year. Like his higher-profile countryman François Ozon ("Swimming Pool," "5x2"), who's about the same age, Honoré is figuring out how to make new films in what look like the sunset years of French movie history.

Also like Ozon, who has relied repeatedly on Charlotte Rampling, Isabelle Huppert, Ludivine Sagnier and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi, Honoré is building a revolving repertory company with some of the finest French actors. Garrel and Preis have each appeared in three of his films -- both were in "Ma Mère," his debauched fable of incestuous mother-son love among Parisians run amok in the Canary Islands -- and Duris was previously in his 2002 picture "Seventeen Times Cécile Cassard."

It's possible that Honoré is still finding his way toward a mature style, and it's also possible that what you see in "Dans Paris" is what you get: a wistful, wispy tale about a group of wounded men trying to heal themselves, gamed up with a certain amount of self-referential artistry and genuine intellectual daring. I'll take it. There's a vivid comedy to this family's emotional state of siege, an easy confidence to Honoré's camerawork, and plenty of beautiful bodies.

"Dans Paris" is now playing at the IFC Center in New York, with wider release to follow.

"Descent": The lustrous Rosario Dawson, as a college girl gone to the dark side
I'm not big on recommending bad movies just for "the performances," but ever since emerging in Larry Clark's 1995 "Kids," Rosario Dawson has been one of those actors who can shine through almost any material. Her luscious lips and wry, intelligent eyes are the only thing I can remember about Edward Burns' 2001 "Sidewalks of New York," and the only good thing I can remember about Ethan Hawke's "Chelsea Walls." She was terrific in more decent fare like Spike Lee's "He Got Game" and "25th Hour," and Quentin Tarantino's "Death Proof" segment of "Grindhouse." I bet she was good in "The Adventures of Pluto Nash" and "Josie and the Pussycats" too, although I may never know for sure.

It's long past time for Dawson to find dramatic roles that go beyond playing the striver-chick from the projects in one earnest indie after another, and I guess she accomplishes that with Talia Lugacy's lurid rape-revenge drama "Descent" (which Dawson produced). I know movie producers aren't going to let a multiracial, cappuccino-complected New York woman play a Jane Austen heroine, or one of Chekhov's "Three Sisters," or Goneril. Maybe Dawson wouldn't want those parts. But come on, writer-directors: When you've got somebody this luminous, this capable of lighting up a movie from within, your responsibility is to create roles that fit her.

Not that "Descent" isn't intriguing, on its own level. It's a lot like a '70s exploitation movie, with its determination to seduce and shock the viewer with alternating currents of electrical stimulus, and its weird combination of arty arch-decadence and neo-Victorian moralizing. In other words, count me in! Dawson plays Maya, an ambitious college undergrad who hooks up with the wrong frat brother, a narrow-eyed surfer type named Jared (Chad Faust) who spins a line of romantic bullshit. On their second date, he rapes her, and if this isn't as brutal a rape scene as the one in Gaspar Noé's infamous "Irreversible," it's still plenty harrowing and shot close to real time.

As beautiful as Dawson is, I'm not sure she should be playing characters 10 years younger than her age; Maya is much more convincing as a coke-snorting nightclubber in the aftermath of the crime than she is as a newly scrubbed coed. She cuts her hair, starts wearing lipstick and gets sucked into an underworld presided over by the faintly criminal and undeniably charismatic Adrian (Marcus Patrick), who seems to be a club DJ, a dealer, a pimp and perhaps Mephistopheles as well. Eventually Maya plots gruesome revenge against Jared, with Adrian's help, and the movie descends into gruesome, improbable fantasy.

It's on the way to the nightmarish final scene that Lugacy's film finds some truly interesting things, maybe by accident. Doing coke with Adrian and making college boys suck her toes empowers Maya and restore some sense of self-confidence; it's as if the film is too focused on its plot to cast judgment on her allegedly immoral behavior. There's a mysterious, powerful, erotic moment that happens almost by accident when Maya is dancing to a throbbing dance number in Adrian's club. She's caught in a spotlight, seemingly lost in thought amid a writhing mass of bodies. That's Rosario Dawson, beautiful and alone. She doesn't fit in with the college girls or the homegirls. Even in a crowd, she's on her own.

"Descent" opens Aug. 10 in New York and Los Angeles, with more cities to follow.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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