My Zoe

M, 102 minutes

4 Stars

Review by © Jane Freebury

The actor and filmmaker, Julie Delpy, has a habit of weaving details of her personal life into her work. It’s a seductive practice. My Zoe may or may not reflect this but what the writer-director often achieves is, in my book, a strong sense of authentic lived experience.

Delpy likes to write her own material even while performing in other people’s films. She had a hand in developing the screenplay for the Before (Sunrise/Sunset/Midnight) trilogy when she wrote, or re-wrote, the dialogue for her character, Celine.

The French-American actor’s own mother and father have appeared alongside her in films too, reflecting aspects of their family relationships from real life.

In My Zoe, written and directed by Delpy, the filmmaker directs herself in the central role of Isabelle, ardent mother and professional woman. It was, she says, a screenplay that took a long time to develop.

Richard Armitage is persuasive and authentic in a difficult role

Isabelle is a geneticist both committed to her work and devoted to her six-year-old daughter, Zoe (Sophia Ally). They have been living together in Berlin as a family with Zoe’s dad, but Isabelle is now pursuing a divorce from her husband James, played by Richard Armitage.

The British actor, so good in Berlin Station on TV, is similarly persuasive in the difficult role of an unsympathetic and bitter husband. As the couple say cruel things to each other, it is possible to discern their respective side of things.

The marriage has become toxic. They are awaiting a custody agreement while heading for divorce, the mediation process ongoing as they co-parent.

James is not entirely disengaged from the possibility of a reconciliation, but Isabelle is adamant the marriage is over. She instigated the split and has a lover, Akil (Saleh Bakri).

Even though they cannot agree on anything, let alone choice of childminder, Isabelle and James make every effort to let their daughter know that she is adored. They may bare their teeth at each other when she isn’t looking, but Zoe remains the light of their lives.

Then one morning, a catastrophe occurs. Zoe doesn’t wake up. She is breathing but unconscious, and an ambulance is called to take her to hospital.

Wasn’t Zoe at the water park the day before? Did she have an accident then? Neither parent seems able to trust the minder to provide a full account of what happened.

Isabelle believes that James never trusted her as a mother. When James is aware that Akil was visiting while Zoe slipped into a coma, it adds yet more fuel to the fire.

the light-hearted, playful Julie Delpy persona is nowhere to be seen in this courageous performance 

To restore Zoe to her arms, Isabelle makes a trip to Moscow to see a renowned fertility physician, Thomas Fischer (a surprisingly hesitant Daniel Bruhl). The doctor is practising in Russia with, one imagines, a fair amount of license, but even he cannot contemplate what Isabelle is proposing.

It just so happens that his wife, Laura (Gemma Arterton), is also opposed to such an idea, though why her view needs be known, is a mystery. Anyway, Isabelle is a very determined woman.

Julie Delpy and Sophia Ally in My Zoe

At this difficult juncture, as Delpy proposes a futuristic solution to the loss of Zoe, the film is on shaky ground. There’s a bold move in a new direction, risky because the science is not yet there to underpin the drama. Not yet, at least.

How far would a mother go, and in what direction, if she lost her child? It is brave of Delpy to explore the unthinkable.

The talented filmmaker is now in her fifties and with one child, a son. The thought of losing a child is devastating, but this writer-director is prepared to explore the heart-breaking proposition.

The light-hearted, playful Delpy persona is nowhere in evidence here and the actor has been courageous in allowing allow herself to be filmed in unflattering ways. As she says, authenticity is what she seeks, finding truthfulness in performance.

On board with her, Delpy has some great actors, even in minor roles. Though Lindsay Duncan as Isabelle’s mother, Kathy, is especially underused.

Cinematographer Stephane Fontaine, whose prize-winning credits include terrific films like A Prophet and The Beat That My Heart Skipped, does fine work here.

In My Zoe, Delpy is exploring, and sharing, a mother’s worst fears. It is a risky project with a futuristic twist, but a bold, intimate human drama.

First published in the Canberra Times on 19 June 2021. Jane’s reviews also appear on Rotten Tomatoes