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With 2011’s Like Crazy, writer-director Drake Doremus announced himself as a skilled observer of the heart-swelling highs and soul-crushing lows of being in a relationship. Specifically in that film, the minute intricacies of being in a long-distance relationship played out by Felicity Jones and Anton Yelchin. It picked up the grand jury prize at Sundance and while the buzz didn’t translate at the box office, it led to Doremus landing a string of starry follow-ups.
While Breathe In, which paired Jones with Guy Pearce, was a moderate critical success, with each ensuing film, Doremus’s star started to fade. Despite a splashy premiere at the Venice film festival and a cast headed up by Kristen Stewart, Equals was a misfire and the following year saw a muted reaction at Sundance to Nicholas Hoult in Newness, later dumped with little fanfare on Netflix.
In his latest, premiering at the Tribeca film festival, Doremus returns to themes that he has now become synonymous with. Like his previous projects, it’s an examination of modern romance and like 2015’s Equals, there’s an added sci-fi bent. In the near future, synthetic humans have become commonplace additions to society. While most inhabit service roles, making drinks and cutting grass, one company has mastered a higher class of robot, virtually indistinguishable from the humans around them. Zoe (Léa Seydoux) works in this lab alongside designer Cole (Ewan McGregor) and the two share a light workplace flirtation.
But underneath the surface lies a secret, something that prevents Zoe and Cole from progressing any further. When Zoe takes a compatibility test at work to check who would make a match for her, Cole is forced to tell her the truth: Zoe isn’t human. With Zoe now aware of who and what she is, so comes a re-examination of the world around her and her place within it. While initially Cole tries to fight his attraction to her, he soon relents and the pair forge ahead into uncharted territory.
There’s an ever-expanding subgenre of films that imagine a future where dating and relationships have been irrevocably affected by technology. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Marjorie Prime, Her, The Lobster and Black Mirror’s Hang the DJ all existed in this heightened territory and all managed to find identifiable truths wrapped up in fantastical packaging. The world created within Zoe exists alongside these, not too dissimilar to the one we’re in now but with a clear, profound difference. Given the rise of AI and, more specifically, the rise of AI aimed at decreasing loneliness, there’s a timeliness to the events that take place in Zoe.
The company at the center of the story creates a range of products that feel a mere modification away from many that are being developed at the moment. There’s a pleasingly casual nature to the way that tech is embedded within the story. While some exposition is a bit clumsy, the world feels mostly well-constructed and easy to believe. It’s not hard to see the appeal of an aesthetically pleasing partner who, as the employees keep reminding us, will never break your heart or leave you. The characters here are weathered by heartbreak, tired of disappointment and looking for something or someone to believe in.
Doremus, and screenwriter Richard Greenberg, have packed their film with intriguing questions. How much of tech is biased by its creator? Is compatibility able to be predicted through an algorithm? How much perfection does one really want in a partner? But while the script’s early observations are delivered with subtlety, as the film progresses others are given a more heavy-handed touch. One of the products in the film is a pill that mimics the sensation of falling in love so couples either take it to briefly recapture their early romance or strangers take it for a more intense sexual high. As with Doremus’s last film Newness, this world of easily accessible casual sex becomes emotionally destructive but the script doesn’t get much further than that hardly earth-shattering conclusion. Although it does allow us to see a robo-brothel with a strange, underwhelming cameo from Christina Aguilera as an android of the night.
One of the bigger problems here is how easy it becomes to compare Zoe with better, richer films of its ilk. The social commentary feels somewhat shallow compared to the perceptive nature of Her or Eternal Sunshine or even a number of episodes of Black Mirror. It’s so stylishly made that one wishes the world on screen could have housed a more emotionally complex story to match.
At its core, there’s a strong, haunted performance from McGregor playing a man wearing his heart and his emotional baggage on full display and at times, he has a naturalistic flirtatious rapport with a striking Seydoux. Yet the film demands so much investment in their relationship that when events lurch into rockier territory, the shift is so sudden that it’s difficult to really feel what is required. There’s also an underused Rashida Jones as McGregor’s understanding ex, a somewhat meaningless role for Theo James as a curious experiment and a campy turn from Miranda Otto as a madam.
Zoe is an attractively made yet dour and often shallow look at love that muddles along when it should be searing a hole. It’s an impressive shell that needs a bigger heart.
Source: The Guardian
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