Contains significant spoilers for My Zoe.
My Zoe is the seventh directorial effort from Julie Delpy – also the film’s lead. It tells the story of Isabelle (Delpy), a recently divorced mother of Zoe (Sophia Ally), girl for whom she shares custody with ex-husband James (Richard Armitage). With Isabelle having moved on, tentatively, to a new relationship, the finalising of custody arrangements is rancorous, subject to mediation, and laced with bitterness on both sides.
Isabelle is a geneticist, working in Berlin, where she had originally moved to support her then-husband’s career. The first act of the film establishes the discord over a painful split, the bitter debate over the details of who gets to be with Zoe and when, and the deep love both parents have for their only child; a love that is often expressed through mutual accusations of poor parenting, as neither of them can match the other’s aspirations for their daughter’s care.
Act two deals with their young daughter falling sick unexpectedly, from what appears to be an aneurism in the brain. While they sit at their daughter’s bedside, recriminations begin over what may have happened to cause the medical emergency, with Isabelle blaming James’ intransigence over access arrangements for the fact that she could not be with her daughter for much of the day she got sick.
The final act – and it really cannot be discussed without a spoiler – deals with Isabelle’s response to Zoe’s loss. With the film taking place in a near future – something only lightly hinted at with visuals of home, communication and car technology – the story is able to address ethical matters that may be on the horizon in years to come. Going to meet renowned fertility expert Thomas Fischer (Daniel Bruhl) in Moscow, Isabelle has taken a tissue sample from her late child, and will now beg the specialist to recreate that which she has lost.
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First, the good. My Zoe is a well-written, superbly acted and attractively shot film that captures, magnificently, the bitterness of dying love, as well as the low-level constant worry a parent has for their child (even before the shocking events of the story play out). Dialogue is natural in a way that evokes Delpy’s work in the Before trilogy – most specifically Before Midnight, where, similarly, we were afforded an intimate look at the issues and grudges that can arise in relationships as they begin to fail.
We are shown the love between parents and daughter, and the way that love effected a distancing between the married couple, rather than draw them together. Decisions – such as relocating for a partner’s job – that were taken in good heart at the time, fester as life and career fail to turn out as expected. The first hour of the film is a fine look at the dynamics of co-parenting, a family made up from differing backgrounds, and the persistent regret that permeates our consciousness as our mistakes accumulate over a lifetime. Every performer brings their A-game, and an absolute feeling of commitment to the material.
On the more negative note, this leaves a shade over 40 minutes to cover the moral and ethical questions that have been raised in the first two acts. This could have worked as a short-run Netflix series. In a 101-minute running time, however, there is simply not enough room to for the story to breathe, once Delpy has spent so long on the relationships dramas.
When Thomas’ wife Laura (a totally wasted use of Gemma Arterton) objects to her husband’s work with Isabelle, instead of a thorough look at the ethics involved – a look at the nature of motherhood or what makes a person that person – it is glossed over in one short scene. This is two films in one, and despite no serious tonal shift, those two films don’t quite fit together in such a short running time. We are left with a languid family drama, followed by a race through a superficial ethical dilemma with sci-fi overtones.
My Zoe is simply too raw in the playing, and too authentic in the writing (or at least for the first two-thirds of the running time) for it to be unworthy of a viewing. The issues noted, along with a slightly jarring time-jump to a denouement that feels overly convenient (and raises a very specific question about James’ relationship to his daughter) leaves this as a work that doesn’t really coalesce into one solid story. In its character work, however, this is a decent work from a fine filmmaker.
My Zoe is out now on Digital HD from Signature Entertainment.