Julie Delpy’s new Netflix comedy gives voice to women ‘On the Verge’

Julie Delpy, whose new Netflix comedy strives for honesty about being a middle-aged woman, in Paris on Sept 2, 2021.The New York Times
Julie Delpy does not mince words when it comes to women and age.

“Fifty is not the new 30,” she said during a recent video call from her hotel room in Paris. She was there to promote her television creation, the 12-part series “On the Verge,” which she wrote, oversaw and stars in.

“There’s almost a cruel thing about women that if we can’t procreate anymore, what are we?” said Delpy, who also directed several episodes. “And then you become a grandmother and you exist again in your 70s. You have this dead zone.”

A coproduction from Netflix and Canal+, “On the Verge” is a sometimes absurd and yet all-too-real comedy that follows four mostly well-off friends in Los Angeles as they grapple with middle age — only to realise that after all these years, they still have no clue what they’re doing. The idea seems to have found a ready audience: After its debut last week, the series quickly cracked the Netflix Top 10 in the United States, reaching No. 7 by the weekend.

So much for dead zones. And not bad for a talky, slice-of-life series that also toggles between English and French.

Delpy, 51, has made a career out of creating and portraying worldly female characters in films where most of the action takes place on a walk, on a train or around the dinner table. It hasn’t always been easy getting those characters from page to screen, she said, but it has been especially tough since she started writing about women her age.

Per the usual romantic comedy formula, women in their 20s and 30s are often shown screwing up and struggling to figure things out, and it’s supposed to be cute. But by a woman’s 40s or 50s — the part that comes after the happy ending — she is meant to have herself all put together, right?

In “On the Verge,” that notion is, literally, a joke.

“I loved how all our characters were just beginning to find their confidence when they are about to turn 50,” said Elisabeth Shue, who executive produced and stars in the show. She described filming one particular dinner party scene from Episode 2 that, for Shue, “was a perfect reflection of Julie’s artistic sensibility.”

“It was just a lovely mixture of insanity and humour born out of insecurity and chaos,” she added.

In the series, Delpy plays Justine, a successful chef with a bustling restaurant. She is writing a cookbook while working long hours at the restaurant, raising a young son and enduring a barrage of passive-aggressive insults from her sulking, out-of-work husband. Shue plays her friend Anne, a clothing designer with a trust fund, a vaping habit and a husband who is struggling to accept their gender-fluid son.

Tony winner Sarah Jones plays Yasmin, a mother and wife who gave up her career and is desperate now to reclaim something for herself. Alexia Landeau (who co-wrote several episodes and executive produced) plays Ell, a jobless single mother of three children by three different dads.

Despite the characters’ struggles, “On the Verge” is very much a comedy, and Delpy isn’t afraid to crack jokes about serious topics like the stresses endured by working mothers, toxic masculinity or ageism. In one early scene, Yasmin is interviewed by a woman half her age and is told that she is, basically, too old. When Yasmin starts to panic and clutches her chest, the young interviewer asks if she is having a heart attack.

The scene details an experience that will resonate with many women; Delpy gives the audience permission to laugh, even as they’re cringing.

“I’m 46, not 96!” Yasmin shoots back.

It’s a comic, cerebral sensibility has been honed throughout Delpy’s career. Her parents, Albert Delpy and Marie Pillet, were both actors (they played her on-screen parents in Delpy’s 2007 feature, “Two Days in Paris”), and she grew up in France surrounded by artists, theater actors and writers. Her first big on screen role came when Jean Luc Godard cast her in his 1985 film “Detective,” when she was 14. She went on to work with Agnieszka Holland on the Golden Globe-winning film “Europa Europa” and with Krzysztof Kieslowski on his “Three Colours” trilogy.

She spent much of her childhood backstage at her parents’ experimental theatre shows or dancing, making music and writing on her own; later, she studied filmmaking at New York University. It’s that mix of experimentation and structure (Delpy is quick to point out that the show is meticulously scripted) that she brings to “On the Verge.”

“It’s sophistication obliterated by absurdity,” said Giovanni Ribisi, who plays Justine’s endearing yet infuriating boss, speaking about Delpy’s sensibility. “Julie has made a mark with her own style. She’s a craftsman. She’s got personality. Like they had in the 1970s.”

When Delpy played Céline opposite Ethan Hawke in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” (1995), her character resonated with a generation of 20-something women in the 1990s — women who were thrilled to see a romantic female lead who could be both philosophical and funny. “Before Sunrise,” shot on a modest budget, proved to audiences and critics alike that a simple tale about two people meeting on a train and talking all night long could go on to become one of the most enduring romantic films of the ’90s.

Delpy went on to co-write the sequels, “Before Sunset” and “Before Midnight,” with Linklater and Hawke, earning Oscar nominations for best adapted screenplay for both films.

She has directed seven films, including the drama “My Zoe,” released earlier this year. With “Verge,” she got to tackle subjects close to her heart, show off her comedy chops and explore the lives of women who, even in their 40s and 50s, deserve more than a few throwaway lines.

“It’s fun to be able to talk about real things,” Delpy said. “Although it was a bit of a struggle to get there.”

Delpy started thinking in 2013 about the four main characters in “On the Verge,” and a script soon followed. A few people were interested in the project over the years as she shopped it around, but financiers and studios were reluctant to back “a show about women in that age range,” she said.

“I think it eventually happened, in part, because people are ready,” Delpy said. “It was the right timing, finally.”

Olivier Gauriat, an executive producer of the series, signed on in 2019 because he was a fan of Delpy’s work on screen and off. But he was also drawn to what she was trying to do in “Verge” with regard to female representation and age.

“There are not many shows out there revolving around women at this age,” said Gauriat. “Canal+ and Netflix were very supportive, and I think that’s what was interesting to them. They gave her carte blanche.”

Preproduction on “Verge” began prepandemic, before being shut down with the rest of Hollywood. Delpy went back to the scripts. She adjusted certain storylines to reflect what was actually happening. By the time shooting finally began, she had revised the timeline to take place in January and February of 2020, eight weeks during which a crisis was building but few understood what truly lay ahead. Viewed over a year and a half later, “Verge” feels like a time capsule of those early days just before everyone started stockpiling toilet paper and hunting for N95 masks.

Delpy said she had decided to incorporate real world events because the characters were, as it says in the title, on the verge of something new and unknown, and so was the world around them.

“Everything is changing for these characters, but everything is changing for the world as well,” she said.

Things may be changing, but Delpy harbours no illusions that women over 40 are suddenly the new “it girls.” There’s a moment in “Verge” when Jerry tells Justine, “You’re in a cultural blind spot” — no one cares about women her age.

It’s funny because it’s so absurdly insulting. It’s also funny because it rings true.

“The show is talking about not having to lie about your age,” she added. “Or pretend you’re something else.”

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