Most people know Julie Delpy best from her charismatic turns in Richard Linklater's 'Before' trilogy. But many wouldn't know just how much of a multi-faceted talent she is. Throughout her career, there has been no limit to the roles she's inhabited. She's functioned as a writer, producer, editor, and co-composer predominantly to the many films she has directed. But Delpy's latest, 'My Zoe', sees her helming arguably her most ambitious project yet. This time, the challenge lies thematically, as we find her attempting a unique hybrid of genres; part family drama, part science fiction.
Delpy portrays Isabelle, a single mother raising her young daughter in conjunction with her ex-husband, James (Richard Armitage, 'The Hobbit' trilogy). The toxicity of their marriage still runs rampant. James is often inflexible to Isabelle's requests. Moreover, their ongoing custody proceedings have been far from amicable. The only thing they share is an intense love for their daughter. But when illness befalls young Zoe, Isabelle is compelled to take matters into her own hands. Using her knowledge as a geneticist, she hatches a desperate plan to keep Zoe alive - but, in doing so, pushes the ethics of everyone she ropes in.
Despite its good intentions, 'My Zoe' can never comfortably consolidate its two differing genres. As the film progresses, one quickly becomes in conflict with the other. A vast majority of the film centres on Isabelle's fractured family, and this is where it often works best. Delpy forms a wrenching narrative that is intimate and patient, but above all, earnest. The interplay between her and Armitage as struggling co-parents is palpably tense, and where the film is most provocative.
This is because Delpy understands that the power doesn't always lie in a screaming match. She understands how someone's inflection can linger. She utilises the little micro-aggressions that we've all rather served or endured to make scenes feel exceedingly human when they could have quite easily played like drama class. She doesn't reinvent the wheel, but Delpy understands the nuances of human conversation. Therefore, even when an argument borders on melodrama, it never feels too far from the precipice of depth.
However, when the film shifts towards more science fiction tendencies, it quickly loses its way. Without spoiling what she does, Isabelle's plan to bring Zoe back is a baffling one considering what the film has been like up until that point. It's like watching something like 'Marriage Story' for the first hour, then 'Black Mirror' for the rest.
It becomes all the more frustrating when the film does not waver from its uncompromisingly bleak tone. 'My Zoe' plays a strange twist very straight. It doesn't lose a shred of sincerity even when introducing such a bizarre concept to the table. It hopes to raise some intriguing questions, but it's just too silly to perceive matter-of-factly. The level of seriousness applied to issues of marriage breakdown and sick children feels justified because those are sadly realistic concepts. But when it continues the same degree of solemnity to an element so fantastical, it just falls flat.
Isabelle's plan to bring Zoe back is a baffling one considering what the film has been like up until that point. It's like watching something like 'Marriage Story' for the first hour, then 'Black Mirror' for the rest.
Delpy imbues a talented supporting cast, including Daniel Brühl and Gemma Arterton, to lend some pathos, but it's to little effect. As skilled as these performers are, the change in material comes at the cost of genuine insight. As characters debate the ethics of a notably fictional scheme, it is hard to find a sense of gravity when it came so easily prior. To an extent, it weakens what came before as the whole affair diverges into a mawkish to-and-fro.
However, a major saving grace both behind and in front of camera is Julie Delpy. Her committed performance is graced with intelligence and sensitivity. The story unfolds through Isabelle's eyes, and Delpy's illuminating presence goes a long way when the screenplay veers into pallid territory. Behind the screen, Delpy applies a sure hand, often keeping things subdued and devoid of score to keep things as intimate as can be. Her restrained approach is mainly to the film's benefit, but in this instance, the merging of genres, while admirable, was just a leap too far.
'My Zoe' can never quite come together. At times, it can offer an astute perspective on the divergent nature of grief. Although when carried over to a more futuristic setup, that sense of profundity quickly begins to fade. Despite Julie Delpy's sterling command, 'My Zoe' can't escape how confused it is. For all the moral questions it asks of what could happen in the future, it is almost without a pulse when removed from the present.