There are two films in Julie Delpy’s ambitious, sharply-made but unbalanced “My Zoe.” There’s the scabrous relationship melodrama, about bitter exes sharing custody of a beloved child, which contains the story’s most potent emotions. And there’s the sci-fi-inflected ethical-dilemma grief movie, which houses its most provocative ideas. Both have much to recommend them, not least Delpy’s lithe filmmaking, polished over her now seven features to a consummate, unobtrusive sheen. But the transition between the two halves or, more appropriately, the cloning of the second from a tissue sample of the first, plays awkwardly, and suggests that Delpy’s screenwriting, while studded with moments of shrewd insight, as yet lags some way behind her standards as director and actress.
Shot in bright, fresh tones by “Jackie” and “Captain Fantastic” DP Stéphane Fontaine, the film’s near-future setting is subtly indicated by tech only slightly advanced from our own: cars that whirr rather than roar; cellphones and monitors that are elegant sheets of transparent glass. Isabelle (Delpy) is a Berlin-based French scientist whose adored little daughter Zoe (Sophia Ally) lives with her only half the time due to a split custody agreement with her snarling ex, James (Richard Armitage). “It’s like I’m missing half her life!” she frets to her new lover Akil (Saleh Bakri), but since she was the instigator of the divorce, she apparently felt the need to be generous to James on its terms.
The intransigent James offers no such graciousness in return: He is inflexible when Isabelle requests a scheduling swap, and misses no chance to viciously undercut her suitability as a mother. Then on one of Isabelle’s nights, Zoe goes to sleep with mild cold symptoms but won’t wake up in the morning. Isabelle rushes her to hospital, where she and James and then Isabelle’s mother (Lindsay Duncan, whose resemblance to Delpy is borderline uncanny) hold vigil by her bedside.
There is already enough for one film here — possibly more than enough, given the overwrought scenes in which the ex-couple tear verbal shreds off each other in an oddly designed glass-box waiting area, while Zoe lies grievously ill down the hall. The abrupt pivots from moments of mutual concern to corrosive, acidic slanging matches smack of theatrical contrivance, or improvisational actors’ exercise rather than organic drama. But mostly Delpy succeeds in creating a believably broken family unit and if, in terms of screen time and sympathies, there is an unapologetic weighting toward Isabelle’s perspective — at one point she calls James “just an awful human being” and it’s hard to disagree — it is earned by Delpy’s forceful, intelligent performance.
But even that single-minded conviction cannot power us over the divide between wrenching sick-child drama and what-if thought experiment. When the worst-case scenario occurs, Isabelle surreptitiously takes a tissue sample and flies to Moscow. There, she tries to persuade pioneering fertility doctor Thomas (Daniel Brühl) to perform a cloning experiment. Motivated by scientific curiosity, ego, and compassion for Isabelle, Thomas discusses the project with his wife (a sorely underused Gemma Arterton) and eventually agrees.
There are several wordy discussions about the ethics of this highly illegal procedure, but the film does not actually contend with these issues in a meaningful way. Instead, impassioned statements like “I don’t want another child, I want my child!” — which Isabelle deploys when Thomas offers her fertility treatments instead — somehow glide over the real nub of the issue: that a genetic copy of a person is not the same person.
In writing Isabelle as a successful geneticist in her own right, Delpy wants to imply that Isabelle’s decision is logical, albeit extreme — an extension of her professional scientific expertise used to assuage her thwarted motherly instincts. But it’s hard to shake the feeling that anyone so intimately aware of the difference between the biological and the emotional would be less, not more, likely to pursue such a drastic course of action. And so her insistence on this procedure becomes a kind of derangement, even if it does not play out that way in an abrupt ending that avoids the potentially intricate implications in favor of an unsatisfyingly glib coda.
It is not the first time Delpy has interrogated motherhood in a provocatively idiosyncratic way. Her last film, “Lolo” dealt with a successful, sexy, middle-aged woman who’s blind to the fact that her doted-upon adult son is essentially a sociopath. There, too, Delpy made the chatty interpersonal relationship stuff look as easy as falling off a log (as she did in her “Two Days in Paris” and “Two Days in New York” comedies) but seemed impatient to push into wilder, weirder, and riskier territory. As evidenced further by “My Zoe,” her risk-taking is admirable, and given the excellent craft, never less than engaging to watch, but it does not always pay off.