My Zoe Julie Delpy

My Zoe is a sci-fi-tinged drama about gender inequalities in parenting

We spoke to writer, director and star Julie Delpy.

Julie Delpy wrote, directed and stars in My Zoe, a sci-fi-tinged drama that sees her playing Isabelle, a geneticist living in Berlin after the dissolution of her marriage to toxic blowhard James (Richard Armitage). The divorce has left her with shared custody of her preteen daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally), on whom she dotes to an almost worrisome degree. Everything Isabelle does or says to Zoe is greeted with mistrust and anger by her ex-husband, which only seems to drive Isabelle closer to her daughter. When tragedy strikes, however, Isabelle is convinced that advances in science and technology could reverse the irreversible, so she seeks out a controversial fertility doctor (Daniel Bruhl) in order to find a solution.

My initial reading of My Zoe, minutes after watching the film, was that it was essentially a domestic drama with shades of science-fiction. It takes place in a world close to ours, but also one within which science has progressed slightly beyond current possibilities. Speaking to Delpy about it, however, it dawned on me that the film is in fact an exploration of parental roles and of the sexism and power imbalances of motherhood. My Zoe does indeed explore the moral and ethical quandaries of cloning and its proximity to both motherhood and fertility treatments by focusing on technologies that no longer exist — but Delpy doesn’t quite see it as sci-fi.

“I think it’s best not to know much about this movie, because if you even make mention of the science-fiction elements, then people expect that,” she explains. “It’s more dramatic than anything else. I don’t love how the film is presented, but there’s nothing I can do about it; people like to reveal the core of a project, which isn’t necessarily to our advantage. (…) It’s not a relationship drama — it goes in a different direction, and someone expecting that might wind up feeling like they’ve been misled. It’s really more of an allegory than it is a sci-fi movie. It’s about how this woman goes to the end of possibilities. It questions our morals and our ethics, rather than depict a real world.

“That having been said, my approach is very realistic,” she continues. “I wanted it to be a realistic film to make sure that the subject and the moral and ethical quandary at the centre of it would feel real. I wanted it to ask real questions — because a science-fiction movie with clones running around everywhere makes it difficult to ask ethical questions. If you approach it from a realistic perspective, it’s easier to ask those questions. In that sense, the film is a bit ahead of its time in that what’s depicted in the film isn’t possible yet, but I have a feeling it’ll be very soon.”

For Delpy, these sci-fi elements are an allegory for ideas of child custody and the way a custody battle might impact a child — something very personal to her. (When Delpy picked up the phone for our interview, she was, in fact, on the way back from driving her son to school.)

“There’s often something diabolical about clones in cinema,” says Delpy. “They wind up killing everyone or being some sort of monstrous figure, which is not at all the case here. I think that’s why a few people were shocked by this movie and why some people sort of had it out for me. They took it very personally. I think the film bothers them because it’s not a fantasy of cloning; it presents a clone as a different person that’s genetically the same as the person before. But there’s also an allegorical dimension to the film that revolves around the way the parents want to ‘share’ or ‘separate’ the child. To me, it comes down to the story of King Salomon who wanted to cut a child in two — can you keep a child alive if they are split in two?

“It’s a question I’ve really asked myself as a parent sharing custody of a child,” she continues. “Are we not obliged to metaphorically kill this child that existed when we were raising it together, and recreate a new child? I see it clearly with my son; he is a different person now than he was when he was being raised by both parents together. He’s very different with his father than he is with me, but he’s also a different child. That original child has disappeared. It’s interesting to see that it affects a personality this much. We didn’t do it on purpose, of course; our child is not an experiment! (laughs) But human nature dictates that a child raised by two separate parents becomes something else.”

As our conversation continues, I begin to understand that I — as a childless man whose parents are still together — do not have the same interpretation of the film as others do.

“In our current mentality, what she does in the film is wrong,” continues Delpy. “But as a mother, would I not be ready to do absolutely anything in order to save my child? I don’t know about cloning, but here, she recreates her child — she cannot save it. The fact that a woman is creating the child is an even bigger taboo, because she’s a woman. She’s at an age where she can’t have a child anymore. We very rarely talk about the fact that men can have children and families even when they’re 100 years old — if they want to. It’s not a great idea, but they do it. They do it all the time. There’s the father of one of my friends who just had a kid with a 26-year-old woman at age 76. Everyone thinks it’s horrible, but it’s still possible. He still did it. It’s accepted by society. For a woman, it’s practically impossible after 45 — and if it is, it’s because of science. People could criticize in vitro babies and all that stuff because a woman wants to make a child using science.”

“But that’s what the movie is ultimately about, about the inequality between women and men,” she continues. “There’s an inequality between sexes that’s obvious here. Her ex-husband can have a kid with another woman — she can’t. Not without science, at least. Even if she wasn’t using this technology I invented, she would need science to do it. She would also need another woman to be a surrogate or to donate her eggs. There’s a biological reality that dictates that women can’t have another child without science. It’s the tragedy of the film, really, but it’s a tragedy for women on a professional level. I knew, personally, that I would not be able to direct my first film if I already had a child. There are people who aren’t in this situation. At the time, 15 years ago, it wasn’t easy. I knew that if I had a kid, I’d be done. Women are penalized professionally when they have children, whereas men are not.”

My Zoe, written, directed by and starring Julie Delpy

My Zoe opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Oct. 22.

For more film and TV coverage, please visit the Film & TV section.