Julie Delpy on breaking motherhood taboos in "My Zoe" & seeing the last of the "Before" franchise

"I could kill them with my teeth," the director, writer & star said on "Salon Talks" of anyone threatening her kids

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
February 27, 2021 8:30PM (UTC)
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Julie Delpy (left) in the film she wrote and directed, “My Zoe." (Blue Fox Entertainment)

Julie Delpy's son has just wandered in to the Zoom call. We are in the midst of talking about her labor of love new film, "My Zoe," which she wrote, directed and stars in. "It's wild in my home," she says, as she shoos him gently away. "I wrote it on a notepad, I put it on the thing. My office is my office today," she explains, "Nothing."

In other words, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter's pandemic is going a lot like yours and mine. Yet somehow, despite distractions, she's managing to stay incredibly productive.

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Though she's known best in the U.S. for her role in the generation-defining "Before Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight" trilogy and "2 Days in New York" and "2 Days in Paris," Delpy has acted in, written, directed, produced and composed for dozens of projects over her 30-year career in the entertainment industry. And if you know her solely for comedic and romantic work, "My Zoe" (which costars Daniel Brühl and Richard Armitage) may come as a surprise. In it, she plays Isabelle, a recently separated geneticist whose life is thrown into turmoil by a sudden family tragedy — and whose response to her grief raises serious ethical dilemmas. She talked to Salon recently from her "wild" home about the inspiration for the dark film, why she loves playing women who defy convention and how she'd "kill with my teeth" anyone who crosses her child.

This conversation has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

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I hope this movie sparks a lot of conversations. It's difficult to talk about without giving too much away, so I'm going to punt this to you. Julie, how would you describe this film?

It's a drama, but with a bit of a twist. For me, the film is also a study on a woman character who doesn't follow what is expected of a woman.

Women, for generations, have been given the role of the person who needs to mourn and accept loss, because women were giving birth and losing babies left and right. The normal process would be to mourn; that is expected of a woman. This is the journey of a woman who is exactly the opposite of what the world is expecting from her. Yes, she does something that is unethical, but I wanted to have this emotional approach to the unethical thing she does. She does it out of love. She doesn't do it out of weirdness or creepiness. It might be creepy in the end, but she does it out of love. I just wanted to have this emotional approach to a subject matter that is such a taboo.

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This story goes back 30 years, to your relationship with one of the first directors you worked with, in the "Colors" trilogy.

After I shot "White" with Krzysztof Kieślowski, he knew I wanted to be a director, I wanted to go study at NYU. A lot of other people around me we were like, "Oh no." Directors were like, "You're not going to be desirable anymore because you're going to be in charge." But he was very supportive of me being a director and a writer. He was best friends with Agnieszka Holland, who's a wonderful Polish director. He started basically tutoring me into what screenwriting was about.

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This idea came from a discussion about fate and accepting fate, and the role of women, and accepting what a woman is supposed to do or be. He thought it was an interesting idea to break ground and to bypass what is expected. There have been a million movies about mourning. But, what if you decide to completely break what is expected of the woman role, which is not mourn, but go in a direction that's completely the opposite? Rebel against fate? He liked that idea.

This took years to grow because I almost needed to have a child myself to really feel it in my guts, this love that's completely unconditional. Then I had a separation, which was very difficult, like most separations I know. The film, it's about, "How do you cut a child in half? How do you do this thing and keep that child alive?" It's almost impossible in a way.

The film is an allegory about separation and shared custody, in a weird way. At the time I was writing it, I was in the middle of that feeling of, part of my child being taken away from me. Even if I was sharing custody and the child was not taken away from me, one part of it was. It was a mix of feelings.
 
The movie takes very sharp and unexpected turns, but right from the opening moments, the tone is set. All of these issues about faith, about morality, about fate, about science, they're all there in the first five minutes.

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Simone Veil, the French politician, once told me, "Misogyny is not about hating on women. It's for men to not like women that don't fit their idea of what a woman should be."

Isabelle is exactly the kind of woman I think could trigger a lot of anger from certain kind of men. Not all men, thank god. There are wonderful men out there, they are all around me and they support me. My dad first, and there's wonderful feminist men that I adore, and all a lot them. But, some men will think, "I'm not at peace with a woman breaking the mold of what a woman should be." Isabelle is exactly that.

What you're really talking about here is, in academic, feminist terms, women's morality.
 
I think the woman breaking ground and also getting outside of her role, that's what feminism really is about to me. It's not about anything else but for women to not be what they're expected of. Even if what Isabelle does is the wrong thing, I'm not judging. That's why I didn't use music and score in the film. It's easy, when you put in music. You make everyone cry, and then they feel a certain way. I just wanted to leave it raw, for people to judge for themselves, their own emotion about it.

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There is this very beatific vision of what motherhood is, very placid, calm, serene and nurturing. The ferocity of it and the dangerousness of it are something that we don't see often.
 
And the complexity of motherhood. Motherhood is not just one thing. Motherhood is a million things. I have many friends with kids, and we all have such different views. We all agree on politics, on work, blah, blah, blah. And then motherhood, we're completely different. Everyone has their own way of dealing with motherhood. It's always being portrayed as one thing, how it should be, the nurturing mother. Why mothers should be a certain thing?

For example, I'm the fun mom. The dad is dealing with the organization, and, I've chose that role because that's who I am, and it's okay. I'm also the nurturing mom, I'm very loving, and caring, and cuddling and all that stuff. And cooking, a lot, because that's part of my family rule, is that we give love with food, with good food. Especially now, if you don't make good food to people everyone's going to lose their mind, it's the only way to survive this, is to actually make great food.
 
And some great cocktails?
 
I actually stopped drinking completely during the pandemic. Not that I was drinking much. I would have a glass of wine once in a while.  I just realized that if I start drinking during this time that we're all locked in, that's all I'm going to be doing.
 
This film takes place in a five minutes from now world that's very easy to imagine. You created this world before the pandemic, and now we are daily confronting, "Who gets resources? Who is prioritized? What is okay and what's not okay? How do we experiment on human life?" What did you do to prepare for this? What kind of work did you do to understand these bioethical issues?
 
I read a lot of science magazines, and talking about bioethical issues. It's something that you read in all science magazines, "Let's get ready for this. We have the technology, how are we going to deal with the next step?"

While the world is evolving a certain way, we're all going to face other pandemic. I was thinking, COVID is 1% death rate, imagine an Ebola-style virus that's not 1%, that's 60%. Then we have to face a tremendous issue, complete falling apart of social structures as we know them. Just look at what's been happening in Texas, just a cold week can destroy. How do we prepare for that as a culture? I think it's clear that societies that are selfish and thinking of just themselves are going to collapse. If we don't have a structure that links us all, it's going to really make us weaker. I think we're strong as one, not as little patches of super rich and super poor. That's not really viable, I'm afraid. I'm not criticizing capitalism; it's great.

COVID is a horrible thing that happened. So many people lost their lives, and children and grandparents, the misery of everyone. It's also reminding us that we need to be a little more in charge of each other. The film is based about a personal fear, the fear of losing a child, but also the fear of what the world could become as well. Is she doing something terrible, or is she doing something that is fair?

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Emotionally, personally, intellectually, I'm completely against cloning, 100%. I think it's a weird thing. We don't want to reproduce individuals. We're enough on earth anyway. We shouldn't have to clone people now. But, there's an element to it in the loss that's, to me, interesting. Because, wouldn't you do anything to save a child? You would do anything to save that child, you would give your own heart, your kidney, your liver. But then, how far would you go? And it always interests me because I don't know how far I would go if I was presented with the possibility.

Before I had kids I understood what it meant to say, "I would give my heart to someone else, I would give my kidney." Once I had kids, it's like, "Oh, I would give someone else's." I would completely just organ harvest someone for my children.

I know, you would do immoral things. That's the thing. If someone was trying to hurt my child, I could kill them with my teeth.

Oh sure, no problem.

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I would bite them to death.

This is a film that has a very strong maternal point of view. And yet, you had a hard time making it. This was a film that had a lot of challenges, that you have said, arose from sexism. Tell me about that, and how it finally has made it to us now.

It was the hard work of a lot of people, of producers not giving up, Gaby Tana, and Daniel Brühl, and Malte Grunert got involved. And, when Daniel Brühl read the script . . .  He's kind of the reason why the film happened. I was struggling for years and years and years.

This is your fourth film together.

I sent him the script, and he was crying for an hour afterwards. He's a very sweet, sensitive guy. He says, "We have to make this film." I was like, "You can't play my ex, you're too young. Just play the doctor." And so, it got made that way, with people who really believed in the film.

Misogyny is a systemic thing, just like the rest of it, just like racism. It's subtle, it's not obvious. Some people say they love women, but they love only women who comply to their idea of women, who don't speak too much, shut up, do what they want. And they, "Love women," but no, "You don't love women, you love a certain kind of women. You hate women who speak up, you hate women who don't do what they're supposed to do to your standard of what it's supposed to be."

In this film, the women really, really, go places that are, for some people, uncomfortable. It's a taboo. It's a taboo that partly was the reason why the film was so hard to make. If it was about a woman losing a child and crying the whole time, I think it would have been much easier. The fact that she rebels against the condition of what women should be doing at the loss of a child is what I think triggered the fact that it was so hard to make.
 
Do you feel there's reluctance to tell different kinds of women's stories? To tell stories that go outside the more traditional ideas of what motherhood is, of what womanhood is? You've been at this for 30 years, do you feel that is getting better?

I think it is getting a little better. People are open now to talk about it. There's still some people that resist it, of course, it's going to be like this. I don't want to compare because it's unfair, but it all goes together. Gay rights, women rights, this circle. I remember my mother saying, "Now it's equality for everyone" in the '60s, '70s. And then, you have to fight back again and again. It's never a won battle, and it's something we always have to keep in mind. Also, to fight against fascism. It could come back obviously, we know that now.

So, it's the same fight, it's something we have to be very vigilant about. The film is a female point of view on a subject matter that makes some people uncomfortable. I've seen people react to the film angrily at me, and at the subject matter, and not even look at the film as a film. Not even say, "Okay, it's interestingly filmed." Or, "I like the structure, the acting." No, no, no, no, a visceral reaction. It's interesting to see that this is happening. At least I've achieved that. Maybe I haven't achieved making a lot of friends, but . . . 

It provokes a strong response, which is I think what one hopes for when making art.
 
It's not going to be a film that everyone's going to say, "I love it, I'm so happy I saw it." It's not this kind of film. Some people will really go for it, and some people will be like, "This is not what I'm expecting."

You have been staying busy throughout this whole pandemic. It looks like you're working on something new. Can you tell me what you're doing now?
 
I shot a show for Canal+, a French show. That's already acquired by Netflix. It's a comedy set in Los Angeles, about women in their 40s and 50s, and how to manage being a mother, and a working woman and a wife. I wanted something a little more rooted in truth, so I based it on specific friends of mine.

And, when will we get to see that?
 
It's going to be in the fall.

One more thing. I know you've been getting this question for 25 years now, but have we seen the last of Jesse and Celine?
 
I think we have. Because, we haven't come up with a story that all three agreed on for a fourth one. And it should have been this year, so it's too late. I think Richard sent me an email about some idea, which I thought was not at all the direction I would like to go. So, the conversation stopped there, and we were like, "Okay, so we stop there."

"My Zoe" opens in select theaters beginning Friday, Feb. 26.


Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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