My Zoe is a strange, unclassifiable movie. It doesn’t fit any genre but contains elements of domestic realism, medical thriller, and sci-fi. It takes place in a speculative future, but the futuristic setting isn’t immediately obvious. Small details in costuming and prop design let us know we’re in a world with slightly advanced technology. And when the movie takes its final twist, it’s clear that we’re in uncharted territory. Even though Delpy’s drama is absorbing and suspenseful, and grounded in real-life details, there was something theoretical about it that made it hard for me to find my footing, emotionally. I felt like I was watching a parental nightmare made real and then righted with dreamlike logic.
The story centers on Isabelle (Julie Delpy), a mother and immunologist who is in the midst of a custody battle with her ex-husband, James (Richard Armitrage). Isabelle and James have a contentious relationship, and are still sniping over what went wrong in their marriage as they negotiate which days they will care for their school-aged daughter, Zoe. The movie takes its time establishing the sour dynamic between these two, maybe too much time. Isabel and James have differing backgrounds, with James originally from London and Isabelle with an American mother and French father — yet they live in Berlin. I wasn’t sure of the meaning of this, other than it made their custody arrangements slightly more complicated. Perhaps it was to account for the fact that the characters spoke to each other in English. There was also the possibility of a new job for Isabelle, which helped to set up a conflict, but ended up feeling like a loose end. In the first half, especially, the dialogue was often overwritten, bearing the weight of the story. The final third, which takes a big imaginative leap, moved much more fluidly.
(I’m heading into spoiler territory now, so stop reading if you’d prefer to watch it blind — and, if it’s not clear, I think this is a movie worth watching, especially if you like Delpy as a performer.)
All these little details of Isabelle’s and James’s daily life become meaningless when Zoe falls into a coma after a minor playground accident. Zoe was under Isabelle’s care when she fell sick, and James’s first response is to blame Isabelle. One of the strongest scenes in the movie is an extended argument between Isabelle and James in the OR waiting area. It’s before they fully understand the gravity of Zoe’s injury and still have the energy to fight. When it becomes clear that Zoe will not recover, the two go into a numbed state of cooperation. James believes that he and Isabelle will come together in their grief, but Isabelle has other plans: she wants to try to clone Zoe using a risky, experimental treatment involving IVF.
Delpy tries to make the cloning portion of the story as believable as possible, both by attending to the logistics of the treatment and by showing Isabelle’s desperation to get some version of her daughter back. There’s a kind of madness to Isabelle’s desire to reunite with Zoe, and I had the sense that it wasn’t just about recovering Zoe, but also getting the hours back that she had lost to James, when he spent time with Zoe without her. In the early scenes, a few throwaway lines show that Isabelle feels that there is something fundamentally unfair about the custody agreement, and that she is cheated of time with Zoe that she rightly deserves, as her mother. In the movie’s final scenes, Isabelle has apparently gotten her wish for a cloned Zoe, but she has done it on her own, without James. It’s a dark fantasy of sole custody, as well as a grieving parent’s wish fulfillment. While there is some lip service given to the ethical questions of cloning, I was left wondering what on earth Isabelle would tell Zoe #2 about her father, and the Zoe that came before her. The mixture of realism and fantasy left me with an uneasy feeling, which may be exactly what Delpy intended.