Hollywood is obsessed with love, hell its the one universal language that binds almost every film together. It’s the concept that connects us all even without the movies and literature that propagate the notion of it. Give someone a blank page and ask them to write about what love is and what it should be and every bodies answer will be different. Zoe finds itself attempting to answer the question of what makes someones love real? However what the film really seems to ask, almost accidentally, is if connection is more important than love, if striving to be less lonely is the bigger battle we all face on a daily basis?
Zoe tells the story of a young woman called Zoe (Léa Seydoux) surprisingly. She works at a robotics company that is leading the way in the manufacture of synthetic companions. When she begins a casual flirtation with the lead programmer Cole (Ewan McGregor) she is forced to come to terms with a fact she had not yet come to grips with, she isn’t real, or at least she isn’t other peoples conventional idea of real. Despite this disconnect her relationship with Cole develops but whether or not it can survive and thrive remains to be seen.
The influx of films like Zoe and Her, films that revolve around introverts finding love with or through technology might be a sign of the times but each and every one seems to struggle to find a complete message. Her, Spike Jonze’s tale of a man pushing away humanity in favour of an AI failed to connect because the central character failed to at least acknowledge the fact that what he was doing was unusual at the very least. This turned the central romance into one with unintentionally creepy overtones.
Zoe tries to subvert these dilemmas by accepting she is synthetic from the very beginning. However this brings about its own problems as it distorts the central relationship into one with a kind of student/teacher element which brings about a different kind of inappropriate suggestion. The central relationship struggles to find its footing thanks to this but thanks to some enthralling performances by Seydoux and McGregor its not hard to find yourself believing that beneath the surface there is more going on.
Seydoux in particular is an untapped well of emotion as she not only struggles to come to terms with her reality but also begins to realise that everything she is experiencing, despite the false memories she has been give, she is experiencing for the first time. Director Drake Doremus (Like Crazy, Breathe In) spends much of his time concentrating on what isn’t being said in a scene and by using plenty of extreme close ups on his actors faces he catches moments other directors would miss.
If one had to highlight a flaw it would be that the film is too ambitious, it explores other themes without ever really committing. For example a mysterious drug that helps humans experience falling in love for the first time again hits the market and Doremus uses this as a way of pointing out that even without Cole having fallen for a synthetic, love is hard, its supposed to be. The irony is that in telling a story about commitment, Doremus fails to fully commit and the ending doesn’t feel earned because of it. Zoe doesn’t fear taking the plunge into the dark recesses that love brings but Doremus and Cole do and that’s a true shame.
Much like his previous work, Breathe In, Zoe is messy, disjointed and most of all beautiful. It’s delicately shot, vivid in its use of colour and while things are going well everything seems that much brighter for it. When that changes so does Doremus’ direction and so does the world he has created. The film shows Cole’s perspective sure but this is really Zoe’s show and despite everyone elses idea about what a robot does and doesn’t feel, this film is full of life and feeling.
This is grand storytelling in the most intimate way and for that it stands out. All it needed to really resonate was Doremus to take his characters out of the protective bubble his film seems to keep them in and let them experience everything, the good, the bad and all the mundanity that comes with loving someone. That would have really brought out the humanity of Zoe