You can’t replicate emotion. You can’t program heartbreak, anger, or grief; realist artifices aren’t enough. Set in a parallel-world near-future, “Zoe,” directed by Drake Doremus (“Like Crazy,” 2011) and starring Ewan McGregor (“Trainspotting,” 1996) and Léa Seydoux (“La Vie d’Adèle;” Eng.: “Blue is the Warmest Color,” 2013), mulls over the desperate urge to feel a connection to something—or someone. Like all of Doremus’s films, it’s primarily a love story. Its romance, however, is only a front to explore the depths of emotional intelligence and the ability and agency to feel anything.
In many ways, “Zoe” feels like a lost sibling to the director’s 2016 futuristic romance drama “Equals,” a love story in a world where possessing any emotional ability is illegal and a stigma of sorts. What makes this film stand out, however, is the questions it raises on who gets to feel and who doesn’t. Twisted though it may be, the concept isn’t revolutionary. Ridley Scott’s “Blade Runner” (1982)—Scott, interestingly, also executive produces “Zoe”—and Denis Villeneuve’s subsequent sequel may already have attempted to understand the ethical complexities of artificial intelligence “breaking program” and choosing to tap into their vulnerabilities and volatilities.
Doremus similarly touches on what living means to “synthetics” and how this affects humans around them, but it also attempts to predict the implications of replicating peculiar human emotional triggers. Cole (McGregor) is an AI engineer for a company responsible, in particular, for overseeing the successful completion of a unique drug (Benysol, if you were wondering, not that it’s real) that basically simulates the emotional excitement of first love. While this arc occurs mainly in the background, it pays off with incredible, heartbreaking intensity in the movie’s second half.
Playing the eponymous Zoe, Seydoux delivers a performance that may initially seem stilted compared to her previous works. Stick around, though, and you’ll find a lot of reasons why she’s incredible, not just as an actor, unsurprisingly, but as her character in particular. Playing off her strengths, Theo James (the “Divergent” series, 2014-2016) comes out a surprise winner, his body language delivering onscreen with impressive nuance. He’s what the movie’s inhabitants call a “synthetic,” and he’s perfect as someone on the precipice of replicating romantic love and nursing his own heartbreak.
Perhaps the film’s two most important—and arguably living and breathing—characters are the ambient electronic soundscapes of Dan Romer (“Beasts of No Nation,” 2015) and John Gulesarian’s (“Love, Simon,” 2018) glossy, hypnotic cinematography. Romer and Gulesarian turn Doremus’s vision into an audiovisual sensory experience. The end result might turn contemporary story structures on their heads, but like “Equals,” there’s a bizarre lyricality to its almost whimsical pacing—almost like a visual clash between chaos and order.
The result is a restrained, meditative, and almost poetic look at love, longing, and intimacy, which at this point is practically a long-running motif in the director’s romances. From “Like Crazy” to “Newness” (2017), Doremus has been persistent in his neverending exploration of emotional desolation, alienation, companionship, and acceptance. The conflicts he resolves might superficially look tame, but the intricacies of it all he focuses on making it all the more remarkably haunting. Is it a movie for everyone? No, but the only way to know is to try. And with a director who’s this committed to the exploration of romance, it’s worth it.
True to its uncompromising vision, Drake Doremus gives its viewers a melancholic look at love and emotional agency, if at the cost of limiting viewer accessibility. But that’s a weakness you wouldn’t mind having if you know yourself—and “Zoe” does. At the price of being forever misunderstood, the film comes off as a towering achievement with a singular voice you’ll either love or hate but can’t really ignore.