Drake Doremus’s Zoe may surprise you: once with a standard, “pull the rug out” twist, and a few more times with contradictory shifts in tone and emphasis. The surprises are a mixed bag, but they’re a relief after a smug, technophobic opening sequence, in which we’re introduced to Cole (Ewan McGregor) and Zoe (Léa Seydoux), who appear to be the two principal employees at Relationist, a near-future company specializing in technological solutions to romantic anxiety, like an algorithm that determines compatibility for couples after a series of probing questions. We see Cole and Zoe return to their apartments alone after work, and brace to be hit upside the head with irony and righteous outrage for the next 90 minutes. The people who make dating apps are lonelier than their users! Technology is destroying romance!
Thankfully, Zoe isn’t that sardonic. Relationist also makes synthetics, lifelike robots that are designed to be the ultimate romantic partner, and when Cole and one of his creations fall for each other, the film avoids lecturing us about the dangers of artificial intelligence. This particular synthetic is a hybrid of man and machine, implanted with real memories and feelings that raise questions about the ethics of giving robots the desire to be human and the awareness that they’re not. Zoe doesn’t explore these questions with the empathetic grace of Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her, but it engages with a tricky premise, rather than taking an easier, more condescending route.
Cole may think the future of love lies in engineering, but he’s a little squeamish about starting a relationship with a machine he assembled. You may read their romance as somewhat stilted, the result of an uncanny valley that a lifelike replica of a human being can’t quite bridge. And you may read Doremus’s visual style as a deliberate attempt to represent that divide. The film’s world is colored in muted tones, and its characters and their sparse apartments seem to be dressed from a single catalogue inspired by IKEA and H&M. The future feels as if it were designed by algorithm, and so do the close framings and gentle but persistent tremors of Doremus’s camera. His compositions seem to be motivated by the idea that there’s no more profound image than sunlight reflecting off one-half of a character’s face.
Against this backdrop, Cole’s relationship looks more like a performance of love than the real thing. Cole and his partner can smile and stare longingly at each other all they want, but it’s telling that many of their most affectionate moments are captured in montage. You see the honeymoon phase but not the emotional intimacy that makes a relationship last. You can also read Zoe as a straightforward Hollywood romance, in which the difference between love and excitement is indistinguishable. This perspective gains traction in the third act, which shifts the film’s focus toward Benysol, a drug that can make its users fall in love for a short interval. The pills are smashed and poured into water that turns a radioactive blue. It looks like trouble and, obviously, it is; scenes involving a strange hookup culture that begins with glances between park benches create a foil against which Cole can arrive at a somewhat reductive conclusion about his discomfort with dating a robot.
At this point, you may wonder if the questions the film has asked about how closely we want artificial intelligence to resemble human consciousness are simply window dressing for a naïve vision of love that considers failed relationships as unsolved equations missing a single variable. You may wonder if Doremus’s visual decisions aren’t as perceptive as they seem, and fear that when Cole asks for his laptop in an attempt to revive his former partner during the technological version of a medical emergency, he doesn’t realize that he sounds a little ridiculous.