Julie Delpy’s newest film My Zoe finds the actress, writer, and director in a different, albeit much darker place. Starring as a mother with a young daughter who falls ill, Delpy leads a small, but stellar cast featuring Richard Armitage, Gemma Arterton, and Daniel Brühl in telling a sci-fi adjacent family drama focused on grief and loss. Her simple yet convincing direction combined with solid, tender writing results in a film with a conclusion that feels earned, despite its ambiguity.
Though My Zoe initially premiered back at the Toronto International Film Festival nearly two years ago, Delpy’s film resonates on first and second viewings, posing intriguing moral questions that will spur much discussion. The Film Stage chatted with Delpy about writing a film about motherhood, the constant questions about the Before trilogy, and the darkness explored in her most recent project.
The Film Stage: My Zoe premiered way back in 2019 at TIFF. How has it been waiting so long for the wider release?
Julie Delpy: But the world stopped? The film was bought, and then the world stopped. So what was I supposed to do? We all went on hold. It’s hard, I’m sad that I wasn’t able to release the film sooner, and I’m happy it’s coming out now. But it’s a crazy time. So it’s a complicated thing, but I still love the film, and I still would love to fight for it. And express what really is the meaning of the film to me. And if people are interested to see it, even better, but it’s a crazy and complicated time to release a film, obviously, especially since this is not a people-flying-around-in-sexy-costumes kind of film.
It definitely isn’t. Do you read reviews? Are you mentioning something specific?
I do read reviews, I do read reviews. I’ve had a few reviews that were obviously visceral reactions to the subject matter of the film more than actual reviews, which is interesting. Because you realize this film can trigger a certain anger at me, or at this woman, to the fact that I dare to explore something and not go into a territory of women that should mourn and accept the loss and grief. And this is the role that women have always played in society, because women used to give birth and children would die at birth. There’s this beautiful interview of Noam Chomsky, where he explains that women invented heaven for their little babies that died, and then that’s why there’s all those little angels, being babies, flying around. Women invented that to cope with the pain, right? So it’s an interesting concept that women invented heaven,
But the concept is kind of beautiful. Also at the same time, what if a woman doesn’t accept the passing and she goes beyond. It’s one of the most unacceptable things of society for a mother to not behave like what a mother should be. But if you think of misogyny, and I don’t want to make it political, but if you think of misogyny, it’s really not about men hating women––it’s men hating women that don’t fit in their idea of what a woman should be. And Isabel is the extreme version of that. Not only does she fight back, speak up, get rid of the man that is making her life hell, she’s also taking full power over being this parent.
Though much of the film is dealing with grief and loss bubbling below the surface, it doesn’t harp on these feelings too much. You just keep the story moving with a different, unfamiliar path. Why structure it in this way?
I wanted the film to be three acts, because it was very important to me. I wanted the reality of the separation, of the nagging and bickering shit. And then the drama part to be the central kind of entity. And then you have the third act, which is this journey, which is completely new. And which is quite controversial, because not only scientifically but emotionally to decide to do this, as this parent has. And also it tackles the question of what defines us as human beings. Are we just cells that have grown into becoming a human being? And what defines our mind and our soul? What are we? It was an interesting question to tackle without going too deep into it, because I didn’t want to make it a sci-fi film, either.
Do you have an answer to that question of what or who we are?
Hm, I don’t have an answer. I’m sorry. But I love to ask the question. Like everybody else, I’m wondering what defines us as individuals and what makes us who we are. And what’s always fascinated me, is how unique each individual is. There’s not one single human being that is alike and that’s what makes humanity so complex. We can be a mass following each other, but deep inside, we are completely different, and we might not want different things in life, but our train of thoughts and our way to take in the world is completely different. I’m sure you don’t smell a flower the way I smell a flower. It triggers completely different feelings to you than it does to me. It’s almost like each molecule in our body defines who we are.
How was it making and starring in this film as a parent yourself? To continually go through a story in which something severe happens to a child. How difficult was that?
It was very scary. And I did it almost as a way to exercise this fear. But in the end, it gave me almost more fear. Because then it became almost a small reality within the realm of filmmaking, at least, and it hasn’t taken it away from me. If anything, it has enhanced it, and why did I go through that journey? I’m not sure. It’s not masochism, because I don’t like suffering. But it’s definitely trying to understand this very deep existential fear of losing a child, you know, and refusing what happened, refusing that reality, saying no to it. I’m a bit like that, I don’t want to be in reality, I hate reality. Sometimes, I want to escape to a fantasy world and I don’t do drugs, so writing is my only way. I don’t do drugs because I have systematic bad trips. To escape reality I do creative stuff. So I don’t know why I did it, but I felt I needed to that’s for sure.
Can you speak to that deep existential fear you just mentioned? I’ve heard parents speak about it in the past, and even heard my own mom mention it, but can you tell me a bit more about how that feels?
It’s interesting, when I had my son, my mother passed away four weeks later. And before she passed away, she was at the hospital and two days before she died, she called to make sure I was safe home from the hospital. Till the day she died, she was worried about me, right? As a parent, she was a parent till the day she died. No matter how sick she was, she was still a parent worrying for a child. And I was just becoming a mother, like four weeks before. And I was just discovering what she’d been through all her life. So it was a very existential moment for me because I was losing my mother, now finally realizing the suffering that I made her go through by being this wild creature traveling the world by myself. Luckily, nothing ever happened to me but she must have been terrified. I don’t know how I’m gonna deal. Right now, I’m in full control of my kid. But what’s gonna happen at 14/15? I don’t know.
I know that eventually he’ll have to go and I’ll be mortified. But I’m trying to raise a child that will have a very good relationship with his mother, a happy, healthy child that won’t have five years of rebellion, because I disagree with who he is. My parents, I was always friends with them, even though I was traveling, I was still calling them making sure they knew I was okay. And I was not a rebellious child that ignored their needs.
I’ve noticed that, in interviews, you can’t seem to get away from questions about the Before trilogy, especially with people asking about a fourth film. Do you ever get sick of talking about them, or fielding questions in which you’ve already given the answer dozens of times before?
In the U.S., this is the thing that I’m known for. But in France, for example, the 2 Days movies have resonated with people more. So it’s more of an American thing. So I’m not completely sick of it. Because in other countries, it’s not the main thing that people think of me. They think of my directing career and the 2 Days films and even other films that no one has seen in America, or even enjoyed in America, because no one cares. So even Skylab and little films I did in France that people really love over there. I’m very proud of these films. I mean, I co-wrote them. It’s not just a job for hire as an actress. I put everything into them. The first film is half of my journal when I was a teenager about love and relationships. All the dialogue I say is from my journals, so it’s very, very personal. But it’s nice also to be doing other things, as a creative person, writer, and actress. I understand the impact of it, because what Ethan [Hawke] and Richard [Linklater] and I wrote about romantic feelings in the first one was very, very beautiful. And I think we reached something true for many people about love, and that’s not a small achievement, and I’m not going to shit on that. I’m proud of it.
I definitely didn’t expect you to shit on it.
I love these films. I adore these films. And I adore those two guys. And we did great work, and we had so much fun writing it and shooting it. Not just the result, but the actual process was a tremendous amount of fun.
From the 2 Days films to other projects you’ve directed, how was this film different? What has changed in your writing and directorial style in the last decade?
This film is a darker part of me, and I don’t always express this part of me, but it is there. I go more towards comedy most of the time, but as all people know, people that write comedy, don’t they kill themselves eventually? No, but really, you’re funny, and then you have this darker side, that’s probably darker than most people. That’s the paradox of being a funny person, or telling a bright story. There’s always a darkness to come to balance. This is the darker side of me even though I think the film has touches of humor, like when she’s in the waiting room with all the ladies in Russia. All those 70-year-old pregnant women, which I think is kind of a crazy futuristic idea, which is not that futuristic, actually. You know what was the most beautiful thing about that day of shoot? We had all those women in their 60s and 70s having a fake belly, pretending to be pregnant. And at the end of the day, they all came up to me and said, “This was the best day I’ve had in years, really.” And I realized just the fact it almost moved me because they actually felt pregnant again. Interesting, isn’t it?
Why did you decide to have the film be in English? And not French or German?
Because I wanted this multicultural kind of story. Sometimes I feel there’s a side of me that’s more connected to people that are coming from all over the place. I felt like, if it was in French, in France, we’d have a support system in France, like families help each other. You always have the grandmother helping the father, everyone’s involved. It’s a very Mediterranean kind of culture, and you have help everywhere. And when you’re all alone, in a foreign country, your parents are not there, you’re just alone taking care of your kid. And you have to give this kid to strangers, which is what’s happening, and what happened in my life for my son. I had to hire a stranger to take care of my kid when I was working, and it’s such an odd feeling, because I was raised by my grandmothers. I was thrown to my grandmothers at two months old. I loved it. They were the sweetest, toughest. Tough as hell, but it was awesome. It was just so they’re a little bit disconnected from the world. They’re in Berlin, they speak English. She’s French, he’s English. Everyone’s kind of disconnected from their roots, and I like that.
The time of the film is also ambiguous. The audience is unsure what year it’s set in, only knowing that it’s in the future. Why did you set it in the near-future?
I talked to a few people, and they were telling me, we don’t know what the future is going to be. And years from now, we don’t know. But all we know is that in the past 20 years, there’s been huge progress in medical science. But that we don’t see everyday because we are not always sick. For example, I have a tendency to have macular degeneration. And 10 years ago, when I first saw a specialist, a retina specialist, he told me that one day, I’ll be blind. Now, he told me the other day, well, we have a way to take care of it. That in 10 years? I went from you’ll be blind at 72 to now you’ll be okay. It’s a huge deal. But basically, there’s progress all the time. But for me, the only thing different from 10-20 years ago is my computer, my phone. I’m still wearing the same glasses that I would be wearing 20 years ago. I’m still drinking tea in this [mug]. Actually had it for 20 years. We are still the same human beings so I just changed very small things [for the film]. Very, very small things. I didn’t want to have flying cars like Back to the Future.
Do you have one moment or story that happened while filming the movie that represents the experience? One thing possibly on set?
I like to remember the good moments. It was a very hard film, emotionally, physically, technically, and I worked a lot with the DP on how to film it and the scenes of fights. All those things were really planned and thought-out and the hallways and the colors and the lights and everything, even though it seems very naturalistic. It’s not simplistic. It’s complex to make it feel real, yet give it this tone. But I remember one day we really wanted to do this scene. I had to do the scene when I walked alone and I imagined holding the hand of the little girl, right? And we were losing the light. And the DP told me, “You have the choice between shooting the part where you are alone in the light, or where she’s alone in the light.” So we filmed the bit where she’s with me in the light, or holding my hand in the light. And I decided to really be in the darkness. And I just remember it, knowing that it was a very important thing that the little girl was in the sunlight. It’s a detail. It’s tiny. It’s nothing. But I think it’s what makes the scene, that I’m in the dark. And she’s in the light. And I remember being really moved by this idea, of imagining holding someone’s hand when they’re not there anymore. I think it’s simple things like that that make you really feel the power of simple images. To me, that’s what filmmaking is about, and I don’t have a chance to do it that often. But because of this DP, because I was able to do it in this film a couple of times, I’m very grateful for having been able to do that. That’s what filmmaking is about. Magical moments.
My Zoe opens in theaters on February 26 and on demand on May 25.