Julie Delpy is one of those rare talents who sparks internal debates about whether she’s a better actor or a better writer/director. I’m guessing most people would say actor, but it’s a tougher decision if you’ve actually seen all or most of the seven feature films she’s helmed over the years between working on the Before trilogy with Richard Linklater, as well as Three Colors: White, Killing Zoe, Voyager, Broken Flowers, Waking Life, and The Air I Breathe. Some of her most compelling and unexpected acting work has been in her own films. Take a look at the companion works 2 Days in Paris and 2 Days in New York, made five years apart, in which Delpy plays a woman who seems created to run counter to her highly personable character in the Before films. Having seen all of the films Delpy directed, nothing quite prepared me for her latest, My Zoe, a seemingly traditional domestic drama that takes a sharp left turn in its latter half, transforming it into something that feels almost like science fiction, but isn’t.
Delpy plays Isabelle, a recently divorced geneticist living in Paris who is still dealing with the residual mess of her broken marriage to James (Richard Armitage), who is a stickler when it comes to his time as a co-parent of their young daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally). The bitterness between the former couple is intense, and we see them struggling to keep the peace for their daughter’s sake, though sometimes James lets out his vitriol in truly cruel words. Isabelle is already dating someone new, Akil (Saleh Bakri), but James believes the new boyfriend is only in it for the green card.
Just when it appears My Zoe is going to be Delpy’s version of Scenes from a Marriage, Zoe has trouble waking up one morning; she’s rushed to the hospital and the doctors discover she has a brain hemorrhage brought on by unknown causes. It might have been a bump to the head; it may have just generated there on its own. Not surprisingly, her parents immediately begin to blame each other for not looking out for her the day before, but all of the fighting is masking the very deep pain they are both experiencing because it’s likely Zoe will not recover. And it’s in these hospital sequences, which toss us from intimate grief to the kind of fighting that only two people who were once in love can experience, that Delpy’s sharp writing and deeply felt performance come together to create something exceptional.
While Zoe is on life support, Isabelle begins to contemplate how she could keep her daughter alive—anything to keep from further fracturing this once substantial family. She flies to meet a colleague (Daniel Brühl) to propose something that has simply never been done (though not necessarily because it can’t be), and the film shifts into a morality play, asking us to contemplate not whether this strange experiment can be done, but should it be done, ever. Eventually her colleague agrees to consider her proposal, even running the idea by his wife (Gemma Arterton), who is mildly appalled at the prospect.
With a coda that made me catch my breath and using deeply felt emotions to propel science and test technology’s limits, My Zoe is a bold, brave work that I’m guessing some viewers may find disturbing on a purely intellectual level. I think even the filmmaker would agree that her film is not for everyone, but in her audacious vision and belief, unpredictability is a key component to strong storytelling. That makes Delpy one of my favorite filmmakers making stories about difficult and damaged people who are still capable of remarkable feelings of love, however misguided those feelings may be.
The film is now playing in select theaters and will be available via VOD beginning May 25.
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