My Zoe

 

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A real mixed bag of a film combining much that is great with elements that fail to work.

 
My Zoe

Julie Delpy and Sophia Ally as Zoe

 

Julie Delpy's latest venture, one in which she is the lead actress, writer and director, is the kind of work which creates a challenge for any critic who feels duty-bound not to reveal plot developments that ought to be allowed to take viewers by surprise. In My Zoe that situation arises not once but twice, the first time about a quarter of the way through when an unexpected pivotal event occurs and then again an hour or so in when the character of the piece changes as it takes a brand new direction. The problem that faces me here is how to convey both what is brilliant about this film and where it goes astray without in either case spoiling the narrative surprise.

 

The easy part is to say that the first hour suggests that My Zoe could well be the achievement for which those who admire Julie Delpy have long been waiting. She may have been a well-established actress when she made Before Sunrise (1995) with Richard Linklater as her director but with that film and its two successors she added to her stature. When she became a writer/director of feature films with 2 Days in Paris (2007) that piece was overshadowed by the quality of her work with Linklater and later films that she created herself, not all seen in the UK, failed to build on what promise there had been in that first effort (its ill-judged sequel, 2012's 2 Days in New York was a particularly low point). But now with My Zoe she offers a film which initially seems to be on the same high level as that trilogy.

 

My Zoe is a portrait of a marriage on the rocks, a situation that results in a bitter battle for custody of Zoe (Sophia Ally). She is the young daughter of an Englishman, James (Richard Armitage), and a French woman, Isabelle. The latter is the role played by Delpy herself and her acting here is on a par with her very best previous performances. Isabelle is devoted to her work as a geneticist but the disputatious break-up makes her cherish Zoe even more as being the centre of her life - indeed she becomes ever more prone to anxieties about the child's well-being. We discover that Isabelle is the spouse who has taken a lover (Saleh Bakri) but, while both parents can be criticised, the film successfully invites us to side with Isabelle. The characterisations are wholly convincing, including the verbal lashings that erupt, and, since the surprise event that then occurs is no less persuasive, the first hour of My Zoe seems to promise an outstanding film and one that is easily Delpy's best as a writer/director. Despite the setting here being in Berlin the dialogue is in English but that never feels wrong and the film is really well made with quality work from editor Isabelle Devinck and photographer Stéphane Fontaine.

 

It is something of a shock when the story moves from portraying a situation with which anybody can identify to become a drama of a very unusual nature which takes Isabelle to Moscow and belatedly brings in roles for Daniel Brühl and Gemma Arterton (the latter getting little more than a cameo). The storyline developed here might have seemed less extraordinary if only Delpy had stressed earlier that her story is taking place in the near-future but, even if that had been done, it would still have left characters behaving in ways no longer persuasive while the ending is really unworthy. It is a great shame because at its best and for at least two thirds of its length My Zoe finds Julie Delpy at the top of her game as writer, director and star.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Cast: Julie Delpy, Richard Armitage, Daniel Brühl, Gemma Arterton, Saleh Bakri, Sophia Ally, Lindsay Duncan, Jördis Triebel, Nina Kunzendorf, Tijan Marei, Carolina Vera.

 

Dir Julie Delpy, Pro Dominique Boutonnat, Hubert Caillard, Malte Grunert, Andrew Levitas and Gabrielle Tana, Screenplay Julie Delpy, Ph Stéphane Fontaine, Pro Des Sebastian Soukup, Ed Isabelle Devinck, Costumes Nicole Fischnaller.

 

Metalwork Pictures/Warner Bros. Film Productions Germany/Amusement Park Films/Baby Cow Productions-Signature Entertainment.
102 mins. UK/Germany/France/USA. 2019. Rel: 5 October 2020. Available on Digital HD. Cert. 12.