On the surface, Unsane is a potboiler, a routine stalker thriller. But it works because of how much there is going on within that familiar…
Nina Simone’s sultry voice croons on the stereo as Celine (Julie Delpy) playfully dances before Jesse (Ethan Hawke), the man she shared one magical day with nine years ago. Now that they’ve met again, it becomes gradually apparent that these two lovers have no intention of leaving one another ever again. “Baby, you are gonna miss that plane,” she says to Jesse, who quietly replies, “I know.” Fade out. My film teacher at Columbia College, Ron Falzone, insisted that this ending to Richard Linklater’s 2004 picture, “Before Sunset,” the second installment in his brilliant “Before” trilogy (which began with 1995’s “Before Sunrise”), was one of the most perfect endings ever put on film, and it’s hard to disagree with him.
That movie, along with its 2013 follow-up, “Before Midnight,” were co-written by Delpy, who received Oscar nominations for both screenplays. As a director, Delpy has proven equally adept at illuminating the complex dynamics and nuances of adult relationships, often through the portrayal of intimate conversations between couples. That may be why “Lolo,” her sixth feature as a writer/director/star, comes as such a surprise. At first, the film seems as if it will be about the budding attraction between a neurotic fashion exec, Violette (Delpy) and a charmingly provincial computer whiz, Jean-René (Dany Boon). Then Violette’s maddeningly possessive 19-year-old son, Lolo (Vincent Lacoste), is thrown into the mix. So hellbent is he on obliterating Jean-René’s chances at claiming his mom that he is willing to go to obscene lengths to ensure that his wish is granted. What begins as a sweet romance suddenly takes a sharp turn into something much darker, evoking elements of “Cyrus” and even “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
Delpy spoke candidly with me about her views regarding sex, relationships, motherhood and the importance of personal expression, while also reflecting on “the best present” that she ever received from her parents.
Considering how much success you’ve had with exploring relationships in your films, what inspired you to mine the comic potential in having an external force constantly disrupt the growing bond between your couple in “Lolo”?
I’ve always liked to explore relationships—what makes them work and not work, what brings people together or pulls them apart, whether it’s the environment or a moment of crisis. But I’ve never really explored how one specific entity can bring a relationship to the brink of falling apart. I thought it would be interesting to make the source of trouble be someone close to the characters, rather than a stranger. It happens to be the person living in their home, which seems to be true so often in life. When you first meet Jean-René and Violette, you think that their problem is going to be something else—the fact that they come from very different backgrounds, they have different interests or they don’t want the same things in life. But in the end, you realize that Lolo is the problem. Since it’s a comedy, I didn’t want to make it too scary—if it wasn’t a comedy, it would be a horror film like “The Bad Seed” or “Village of the Damned.” There’s a whole genre of demonic or destructive children, mostly in the 50s and 60s, and I enjoyed making fun of that notion of evil residing at home in “Lolo.” That’s why I included the clip from “Village of the Damned” in the movie, and that’s why there’s a sign on Lolo’s wall that reads, “Hell.” All those little details are what I love to play with.
How has your own experience with motherhood, as well as your observations about parenting, played a role in inspiring this story?
My own dynamic with my son is very different. My son is a sweet, little six-year-old boy, and I don’t think he’s going to turn into Lolo. In a way, Lolo’s like the kid in “The Bad Seed”—was he like this from birth, or did he become like this? I believe he was born with a manipulative personality, and it was enhanced by the fact that his mother probably never said “no” to him because she felt too guilty about being busy and single, so she ended up saying “yes” to everything. That wouldn’t necessarily prove disastrous for some kids, but it just so happens that Lolo has a darker mind. It’s far from my reality, that’s for sure. But when you raise children, you always question yourself. Am I doing things right or am I doing things completely wrong? Is it good to put your child on a pedestal?
When I was a child, my parents said very positive things to me, which helped build my confidence. At the same time, they had a tough life, so I can’t say that I had a perfect childhood, and thank God for that. The fact that it was tough made me a stronger person. The character of Lolo has basically been given everything he ever wanted. You see kids who grow up with everything, and you wonder how they become f—ed up. When I look around me and see 22-year-olds living at home with their mom, I think, “Are they better off this way?” I see many kids in Los Angeles and Paris who were raised without any problems, and I wonder how they’ll be able to deal with adulthood. It feels like it doesn’t matter what you do, you never know what’s going to come out of raising a child. It’s a very scary thing.
There’s a funny line in “Lolo” that references “The Intouchables,” a film that similarly blended screwball farce with grounded human drama. What is the key to crafting this sort of tonal brew?
You just have to bring up issues that people are facing in the real world. Many women in their 40s wonder how they can rebuild their lives and find a decent, nice man who doesn’t want to be with a 25-year-old. Violette works in an industry where men are constantly surrounded by beautiful women. The truth is, I’m probably in her situation. I’m 45, and I’m wondering if it’s possible to find happiness at this age. For many women, your life as a mother is basically done by 45. Your kids are grown and you don’t have much of a family anymore. It’s much harder for women to start a new life, which is an issue that I believe is true around the world. I wanted to raise that issue with this film, but still make it funny by making the situation funny—by raising real sociological issues while at the same time balancing them with humor. They’re kind of bourgeois issues too. Many children never leave home because it’s too convenient, especially if the parents have enough money to support their kids. Violette’s not struggling financially, but she has other kinds of problems, which are equally real.
Lolo certainly takes for granted how Violette’s financial support enables him to continue his ambitious career as an artist.
Yeah, I think that he’s a bit of a sociopath. He has no problem with using people, but she’s also been indulging that side of him. She arrives home when he’s in her bed, and she’s not even mad at him. She’s like, “Oh, I hope you’re okay.” She’s an over-caring mother. It’s funny, when I had my kid, I was on top of him every second, panicking about everything. My French pediatrician said, “The best present a mother can give her child is to let him go.” My son was four days old at the time. [laughs] Toward the end of the film, when Lolo says, “I’m going to kill myself,” it’s like blackmail and Violette doesn’t go for it. The best thing that she can do for him is to not go for his emotional bulls—t. It’s really hard to resist it, especially if you’re a sensitive person.
People get stuck in horrible relationships because they’re too kind. They don’t want to hurt the other person and are incapable of expressing their true feelings. Violette is incapable of saying no, until a certain point. She loves her son and thinks that she’s doing the right thing for him, but she’s not. The right thing would be to let him be, and let him deal with his own s—t. I always say to my parents, “Thank you for letting me go.” By 18, I had to figure out all my s—t by myself, and it’s the best present my parents gave me. It made me a full person. I had to grow up. The truth is that my son is 6 years old and I’m probably not going to let him go even after he turns 18. [laughs] I’m being unfair because I will have the hardest time letting go, and maybe that’s one of my fears as a mother. I wish I could be with my son until I’m 100 years old, but for him, that wouldn’t be good.
There has been a newfound frankness in American culture, where women such as Amy Schumer, Lena Dunham and Marielle Heller have explored female sexuality onscreen to great acclaim. Has this era of openness extended to the French industry?
That’s a good question to ask. Weirdly enough, in real life, French people—both men and women—are very open about discussing their sexuality, but it still isn’t being shown very much yet in films. A lot of journalists in France were very keen on discussing the scene in “Lolo” where the two women talk about sex, and they talk about it with humor. I wanted to portray that sort of conversation in the film because I feel that it’s true to my generation of liberated, open-minded women. It doesn’t mean that we’re having sex more than other people [laughs], the amount of sex is probably the same. It’s very liberating for me to be able to write female characters who are devoid of filters, and talk how I would talk with my friends. Simply talking about sex—being creepy and doing dirty things in a closet—doesn’t interest me. What interests me is writing women who are completely open about what they like, what they don’t like, what they want sexually.
Especially in a world where so many women have no choice in regards to their sex life—they are married by the age of 13 and are miserable—I want to make a point of showing people who are allowed to express themselves. I feel this idea that women are less sexual than men is untrue, obviously in light of the other women you mentioned. Women are as sexual as men and have as many complex sexual thoughts and fantasies, if not more than men, in a way. Every time I talk to my guy friends who are in a good relationship, they say they’re happy. When I talk to my girlfriends who are in a good relationship, they say that they’ve been dreaming of other things too. Their fantasies aren’t necessarily sexual, they’re more about romance and the idea of falling in love again. Female sexuality is a lot more complex to satisfy.
You have been so gifted at writing pitch-perfect endings for your movies, and “Lolo” is no exception.
Thank you! I have a tendency to be a romantic, deep inside, and I love this sort of open happy ending. I was going for something quite different in “Lolo.” I wanted the ending to be similar to “Carrie,” where the hand comes out of the ground. It seems like the characters’ hell is never-ending, and that they’ll never be at peace together. There’s always going to be s—t in the way. I wanted it to be ironic.
What projects are up next for you? Could there possibly be another “Sunrise” on the horizon?
I don’t know where we would go with it. For now, I know that my next step will be directing a drama. I also have another comedy that I will be directing next year, but I might direct the drama first, if I can get it together on time. I’m excited about this project because it’s so dark and it will be very daunting. As for making another “Before” movie, we haven’t decided anything yet. The last two films came about because we missed each other and wanted to work together again. Right now, we’re doing our own things and aren’t quite at that stage. It’s only been three years since we shot “Before Midnight,” so it wasn’t that long ago. You and I should wait seven years and then talk again.
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