'My Zoe': Film Review | TIFF 2019

Courtesy of TIFF
A well-crafted but familiar-feeling downer.

Julie Delpy writes, directs and stars in a sci-fi-inflected drama about a woman who goes to extremes when tragedy strikes her family.

After earning some stateside directorial clout for her warm, ticklishly funny 2007 culture-clash rom-com 2 Days in Paris (and, to a lesser extent, its sequel 2 Days in New York), Julie Delpy veers into much chillier territory with her new film, My Zoe.

She comes bearing an attention-grabber of a premise: A scientist in the near future loses her beloved grade-school-age daughter to a brain injury, and then tries to have her cloned. Contrary to what one might expect, though, Delpy doesn’t milk the story for sci-fi creepiness or dystopian thrills; rather, she aims for emotional realism — something that, thanks to her intense lead performance and sleek yet subdued direction, she mostly achieves.

But without the distance and diversion that a more genre-driven approach might have afforded, My Zoe becomes an unremitting downer, and a fairly familiar-feeling one. Despite the provocative questions it poses — often too deliberately — about science and ethics, the movie is, at heart, a portrait of a harrowing medical crisis and subsequent maternal grief. In other words, with its scenes of doctors delivering dire news and parents keeping bedside vigil, then grappling with devastating loss, most of My Zoe is nothing particularly new.

What interests Delpy, and so many filmmakers before her, is the terrifying vulnerability inherent in a mother’s attachment to her child; if you love someone so deeply, so purely, wouldn’t that person’s death be impossible to endure? My Zoe literalizes this dilemma by presenting a protagonist who indeed refuses to endure it. But while the film is effective on its own narrow terms, it lacks the spark of urgency, suppleness of tone and freshness of insight that would make it truly compelling. Viewers may emerge admiring Delpy’s sincerity and commitment; they may also miss her flair for neurotic, mid-career-Woody-Allen-esque comedy.

The writer-director plays Isabelle, a French-American geneticist in Berlin who shares custody of her daughter, Zoe (Sophia Ally), with British ex-husband James (Richard Armitage of the Hobbit movies, looking like a leaner, meaner Hugh Jackman). You immediately sense what an adoring, attentive mom Isabelle is from an early glimpse of her watching Zoe eat breakfast. ("I haven’t finished my pomegranate!" the kid exclaims when Isabelle ushers her out the door, a first-world-problems line if ever there was one.)

Isabelle has a handsome new beau, Akil (Saleh Bakri), but can usually be found bickering with James. The scenes in which the two butt heads are written and performed with a kind of bitter verve, nailing the way exes with a lot of history sometimes engage — the hostility simmering just beneath a surface of weary cordiality. That said, the fights between Isabelle and James take up a disproportionate chunk of the film’s 90-minute running time; no matter the genre she’s working in, the charged interplay between lovers, or former lovers, seems to be Delpy’s comfort zone.

Maintaining a mood of cool detachment while gently ratcheting up the tension, the filmmaker lets you know something tragic this way comes (Zoe’s suspiciously frequent sneezing is a red flag, as is Isabelle’s palpable nervousness every time her daughter is out of her sight). After complaining of a headache one day, Zoe goes to sleep — and then doesn’t wake up. She’s rushed to the hospital, where doctors diagnose a brain hemorrhage and perform emergency surgery.

Seated in the waiting room, Isabelle and James go at it once again, scratching open the scabs of their marriage in a series of exchanges that make the spats in Noah Baumbach’s searing Marriage Story look like banter. Between their ill-timed sniping and the steady stream of medical staff bearing bad news, you’d be forgiven for eyeing the exits. This section of the movie is at once unpleasant and admirably uncompromising, which is basically My Zoe in a nutshell. There’s no Von Trier-ish or Haneke-ian sadism in Delpy’s storytelling or sensibility, but there’s a relentlessness, a single-mindedness that can be exhausting.

When Zoe's condition doesn't improve and doctors start broaching the topic of organ donation, Isabelle slips into her room and takes a tissue sample. Then it’s off to Moscow to try to convince a controversial fertility doctor named Thomas (a fine Daniel Bruhl) to clone Zoe’s cells and transfer the resulting embryo into Isabelle.  

Even as the film takes this drastic turn, it stubbornly sticks to a register of downbeat drama, never varying its rhythms or the scope of its imagery (a few shots of cheerfully pregnant elderly women at Thomas’ clinic are as weird as things get). HBO’s recent miniseries Years and Years used brisk pacing and generous helpings of humor to make the transition into a nightmarish future feel eerily normal, and to carry viewers along — to soften the blow of all the bleakness. My Zoe, by contrast, deprives us of anything that could air the film out a bit, or offer a buffer from Isabelle’s misery.

That misery stacks the deck in favor of the protagonist, both in her efforts to recruit Thomas and in the film’s larger moral vision. Thomas may be armed with arguments against doing what Isabelle asks him to do — both express their views in bursts of clunkily didactic dialogue — but Isabelle has real, human pain; even Thomas' wife (Gemma Arterton), initially repulsed by Isabelle’s request, starts to sympathize with her.

If you understand why, it’s thanks to Delpy, as usual a luminous, electrically intelligent screen presence. Resisting what might have been the more intuitive, and cinematic, choice of playing Isabelle for madness, she makes the character’s radical decisions feel like the (almost, mostly, sort of) logical result of a mother’s love.

Technically the film is smooth, with fluid camerawork, tight editing and a sharp attention to detail (in one scene, a conversation between a shell-shocked Isabelle and Akil is punctuated by the screech of the Berlin metro outside, providing piercing notes of horror). Meanwhile, the complete lack of music — no score, no soundtrack — is emblematic of this dour movie’s refusal to pander, or to entertain.

Venue: Toronto International Film Festival (Platform)
Production companies: Amusement Park Film, Warner Bros. Film Productions Germany, Electrick Films, Tempete Sous Un Crane, UGC
Writer-director: Julie Delpy
Cast: Julie Delpy, Richard Armitage, Daniel Bruhl, Gemma Arterton, Saleh Bakri, Lindsay Duncan, Sophia Ally
Producers: Malte Grunert, Gabrielle Tana, Andrew Levitas, Julie Delpy, Hubert Caillard, Dominique Boutonnat
Executive producers: Dave Bishop, Vanessa Saal, Steve Coogan, Carolyn Marks Blackwood, Marco Mehlitz, Alexander Schoeller, Harriet Von Ladiges, Daniel Bruhl
Director of photography: Stephane Fontaine
Editor: Isabelle Devinck

Production designer: Sebastian Soukup
Costume designer: Nicole Fischnaller
Casting: Anja Dihrberg, Theo Park

93 minutes