Montreal-shot film Zoe, a sci-fi romance starring Léa Seydoux and Ewan McGregor, is full of portentous ideas but rather devoid of follow-through.
The film: Zoe (2018)
Does Montreal play itself? It’s never explicitly stated one way or another. I suppose the vague Frenchness of the title character could point to it being set here, but this is also such a stretch that I think the overall sweatiness of Zoe is rubbing off on me.
Most egregious local landmarks: Weirdly, I find locations in movies shot in the last couple of years more difficult to pinpoint than in movies from 10 years ago. Some of it has to do with the fact that movies from the previous two decades adhered to a pretty strict geographical area (south of Ste-Catherine, west of St-Denis, east of Guy) and some of it has to do with the fact that movie shoots are now taking advantage of rapid construction in some areas. Case in point: I’m fairly certain that the building that serves as the central office in the film is somewhere in Griffintown. But if that is really the case, that area already looks massively different from what it looked like three years ago.
In any case, a few of the usual suspects make it in here: the McGill Quad, of course, but also the Ville-Marie Tunnel, the banks of the Lachine Canal (next to the bridge on Charlevoix) and Casa del Popolo. There are lots of shots that are identifiable as being in Montreal without really being identifiable per se. Director Drake Doremus is a big fan of showing his characters rounding a corner with no identifiable landmarks in focus.
Notable local talent: There are lots of names I recognize in the cast list for Zoe, though I’d be lying if I said that I actually spotted them in the film for more than a millisecond. The one person I definitely spotted was Patrick Abéllard (one of the leads of the last Denys Arcand movie) as an android handing out flyers during a convention. Also featured in a rather cursory manner is Arlen Aguayo-Stewart (the lead in Katherine Jerkovic’s Roads in February) as one of many people on a tour of a lab. I cannot say that I noticed local comedian Walter J. Lyng, who is nevertheless credited as “Quiz Master” in the film.
The method by which I determine which movies to cover in Made in MTL is highly unscientific: usually it means trawling through IMDB credits for local actors / casting directors / below-the-line technicians to find titles I’m unfamiliar with, confirming they were shot here and not, say, in Ottawa, and then attempting to find a copy of said movie. Movies that no one cares about like Ivana Trump’s For Love Alone are pretty easy to track down on the lower levels of Amazon DVD bulk resellers; movies that have attained some sort of popularity can usually be found on the usual channels. But I’ll admit there’s one research method that I very, very rarely utilize: stumbling upon a shoot in everyday life. (This, of course, now sounds like absolute science-fiction horseshit in the post-apocalyptic days of April 2020 — but it used to happen!)
Drake Doremus’s Zoe is one of those exceptions. I came across the shoot in 2017; the trucks were lined up outside of what may or may not be called Club Lambi these days. I made note of it, looked it up and concluded that this was likely to be Doremus’s “big break.” Doremus was, prior to making Zoe, an indie darling whose messy-relationship drama Like Crazy won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 2011. Despite relatively stacked casts, his films rarely, if ever, found much recognition outside of festivals. Nevertheless, I imagined a sci-fi drama with Ewan McGregor, Léa Seydoux, Rashida Jones and Christina Aguilera (!) might break Doremus out of the festival circuit a little — until I promptly completely forgot about the Montreal-made film forever.
When his next film, Beginnings, Endings premiered at TIFF last fall, I came to the conclusion that Zoe might well be his film maudit — the one that disappears through a confluence of decisions that are not always agreed upon by every party. Much to my surprise, however, Zoe was very much available to me — buried somewhere deep inside Amazon Prime Video, unpromoted and unloved. It has to be said that the strategy of releasing features directly onto streaming platforms has come a long way in the last couple of years. The platforms have become more aware of what they have and how people come to their films, and they’ve fine-tuned their approach to marketing those films. So you might think that Zoe was simply a victim of bad timing, but having now seen Zoe, I think it’s more likely that it came and went because it’s just no good.
Cole (Ewan McGregor) is a scientist working in cutting-edge robotics. In this near-future, androids have already become a part of daily life, though their appeal is mainly functional. (They do maintenance, medical care and other tasks that we now know are essential, but things change fast in a couple of years.) Cole is particularly interested in pushing the boundaries of what a robot (in this world, they’re called “synthetics”) can be to humans; first, by designing a complex algorithm that can determine the compatibility of any two humans, and secondly by designing synthetics that can be programmed to be perfect bespoke lovers. (They’re designed more as partners than sex robots, though those exist, too — in a red-lit brothel run by Miranda Otto.)
Zoe (Léa Seydoux), an employee of Cole’s company, seems somewhat less enthused by some of the developments, including a beefcake hunk synthetic (Theo James) that seems to have been programmed to fall in love with her. Zoe, you see, has eyes only for Cole, whose heart is a barren wasteland ever since he developed an algorithm that concluded he and his ex-wife (Rashida Jones) weren’t a good match. One evening, Zoe punches her info in alongside Cole’s to determine the match — and comes up with a shocking 0% match, which goes against all of her feelings. As it turns out (and this probably constitutes a spoiler, but Zoe is one of those movies that you cannot possibly begin to discuss without getting into spoilers), Zoe is a synthetic herself, and whatever feelings she may be feeling were programmed. But that doesn’t stop her and Cole from falling in love — with potentially disastrous consequences.
If that seems like a lot, consider that Zoe also dedicates a good portion of its running time to a new drug that lets people feel like they’re falling in love for the first time… over and over again, which gets a good portion of the population addicted to love (apologies to Robert Palmer). Zoe starts on a fairly simple premise that promises to explore the very idea of love as technology morphs around us, but it’s not content to stop there; it keeps piling on more and more outlandish sci-fi concepts straight out of Black Mirror until pretty much all of humanity is squeezed out of every would-be human element. Zoe is reminiscent of many high-minded sci-fi looks at romance (Her and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind come to mind), but it can’t weave together its portentous sci-fi ideals with the (admittedly surface-level) humanity it’s trying to explore.
Part of the problem is that, for a film that is obsessed with the minutiae of artificial intelligence and robotics and how all of that is juxtaposed with our supposed humanity, it does a very poor job of sketching out its title character. Zoe exists as a cypher for whatever fuckboi “please baby please baby please” ideals of romantic love Doremus wants to explore. It’s kind of an interesting move to first depict her like the clichéd lovelorn employee pining after her high-status but emotionally unavailable boss, only to reveal that she’s been programmed that way, but then nothing is really done with that. The stakes and particularities of Zoe being a synthetic are highly variable from scene to scene. It soon starts to feel like the character of Zoe is a blank canvas on which Doremus, in tried-and-true guy-who-wears-a-scarf-indoors fashion, can work out variations on “what if my relationships didn’t work out because we’re all robots, man.”
Part of what elevates Zoe slightly above the status of humourless slog (a quality severely underlined by the film’s musical choices, which are wall-to-wall autotuned trip-hop dirges) is the central performance. Seydoux imbues her character with a spark and a humanity that is completely absent from the rest of the film’s plastic conception of love. But even that is kind of a problem — should the synthetic character really be the most human one in the whole thing? And if that, indeed, is the point, shouldn’t the rest of the movie reflect that instead of veering off in every direction to make portentous declarations on what love means? For all of its so-called heady ideas, Zoe sure feels like the work of a dude who can only process his break-ups through TED Talks. ■
Montreal-shot film Zoe on IMDb
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