‘My Zoe’ combines marital melodrama with sci-fi flick, to mixed results

Michael O’Sullivan

THE WASHINGTON POST – To watch the trailer for My Zoe, you’d expect a movie about a mother so wracked with grief over the death of her young daughter that she tuns to cloning to bring her back. And to be fair, the film – which tries to grapple with ethical questions of science, but without real commitment – does eventually get us there.

Written and directed by Julie Delpy, who also plays the mother, the film is set in a near future in which the possibility of human cloning is more than theoretical. Taking place in Berlin, the sci-fi-lite setting is suggested, almost so subtly that you might miss it, by flexible cellphones that wrap around your wrist and cars that hum instead of rumble.

It’s the future, but one that’s almost visible, if you squint, from where we are right now.

But for a disconcertingly large chunk of the story, My Zoe is a run-of-the mill domestic drama about a married couple undergoing an ugly separation. Delpy’s Isabelle, a geneticist who has taken up with a new man, Akil (Saleh Bakri), is estranged from her architect husband, James (Richard Armitage). Isabelle and James are two comfortably well-off professionals who bicker over their shared-custody agreement centering on their adorable daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally). They are clearly both good, loving parents.

The squabbling gets really nasty when Zoe is hospitalised with bleeding in the brain. Insinuations about who might be responsible for whatever has happened to the child – Isabelle, her new boyfriend, Zoe’s nanny (Tijan Marei) – turn into even more cruel and hurtful arguments about physical attractiveness and dysfunction. These arguments, which suggest long-standing, unresolved resentments, morph into new disagreements, when Zoe’s condition takes a turn for the worse.

Julie Delpy, Sophia Ally and Richard Armitage in ‘My Zoe’. PHOTO: BLUE FOX ENTERTAINMENT

This somewhat tiresome focus, while well portrayed and laid out, consumes more than half of the film before there is a resolution, leading to a decision by Isabelle to engage the services of a rogue fertility specialist, Dr Thomas Fischer (Daniel Brühl). Thomas, it is implied, has moved to Russia with his wife (Gemma Arterton) and two sons in search of a scientific environment with less oversight.

But there’s an imbalance between these two chapters of the story: The film’s frankly protracted setup seems designed mostly to indicate just how crazy (literally) with loss Isabelle is. In her dealings with James and Akil, she seems unhinged at times, and Delpy’s bravery in showing us this unappealing side of her character, without vanity, is commendable.

But so much time devoted to justifying Isabelle’s ultimate actions makes what follows feel like an epilogue, or, more accurately, the third act of an entirely different film.

Her intention to clone Zoe is initially rebuffed by Thomas, who points out – correctly – that it’s both illegal and unethical, roadblocks that Delpy’s screenplay barrels through with less nuance than she has displayed in her handling of the previous marital meltdown. My Zoe is well acted and well filmed, yes, but the storytelling, in which Delpy stitches together mismatched parts like a Dr Frankenstein, is its weak suit. Delpy also tips her narrative hand, hinting at the film’s ultimate denouement, annoyingly, in a shot that opens the film.

It’s always a pleasure to watch this actress at work, but one wishes that the screenwriter had found – or, rather, fashioned – better material for herself.