Laden with ambiguities and stylistic flourishes reminiscent of David Cronenberg or Brian De Palma at his bonkers best, this latest offering from Francois Ozon (Swimming Pool, In the House) is a convoluted psychological thriller that is both unsettling and perversely funny with lashings of vigorous sex thrown in as Chloe – the protagonist of the piece – finds herself caught in a frenzy of psychological despair. Resplendent with striking visuals, this tale of deception is artsy, seductive and perhaps a little bit ridiculous, but it is strangely moving with an ending that serves as vindication for Chloe, whose persistent stomach pains have been dismissed as psychosomatic, a diagnosis which results in her visiting psychologist Paul Meyer (Jeremie Renier). The relationship between Chloe and Paul quickly moves beyond the professional and soon enough the loved-up couple are moving into an apartment together. Whilst there is nothing particularly new in the premise of a vulnerable young woman falling under the spell of a charming older man, it is where Ozon takes the story from this point that makes it more interesting.
Ozon sets out to unsettle from the get-go, with our introduction to Chloe (Marine Vacht) courtesy of an opening scene that is devoid of dialogue and comprises nothing more than her getting a haircut. In the following scene though it is much more difficult to grasp what we are seeing until the camera zooms out to reveal it is, in fact, Chloe’s vagina spread open by a speculum as she undergoes a gynaecological examination. From here Ozon executes a remarkably effective match cut to Chloe’s eye, a solitary tear escaping in reaction to the disappointment that the doctor can find nothing to explain her pain. It is a scene that that few would have the chutzpah to even attempt, but to Ozon’s considerable credit, he has been able to execute the moment without eliciting the guffaws that might have ensued in the hands of a less capable filmmaker. Having first come to our attention when cast by Ozon in 2013’s Young & Beautiful, Vacht and is on the record as declaring that “nudity is a costume too,” an attitude that reflects a greater (more reasonable) tolerance of depictions of sex and sexuality from European filmmakers and audiences than their American counterparts (the decidedly dire Red Sparrow is the most recent example of Hollywood trying, and failing, to deliver something sexy).
Beyond the fact that he hates her pussy, a grey moggy named Milo who is handed off to a nutty neighbour in the interests of keeping the peace, Chloe senses something is amiss with Paul, a suspicion that is substantiated when she meets Louis, a psychoanalyst who works across town and happens to be Paul’s twin brother, a sibling about whom Paul has made no mention. Louis (also played by Renier) loves cats, of course, but also claims he can cure Chloe of her complaint, implementing a treatment regime that comprises a lot of vigorous sex and not much else. Amid recurring motifs of mirrors, spiral staircases and hallucinatory dream-like sequences, Chloe finds herself descending into a maelstrom of confusion and distrust as she sets out to discover the circumstances that drove the two men apart, each of whom offer a different spin on the course of events. It gets silly at times, but the two performers remain committed to the cause and prevent it from descending into farce.
Whilst there is so little discernible difference in the physical appearance of the two men beyond the way they part their hair that even Chloe is at times unable to distinguish between them, their personalities are polar opposites, but Renier handles the dual responsibilities very well. Vacht, who, like her character, is a former model, more than holds her own in a part that rides a rollercoaster of emotional upheavals, while the legendary Jacqueline Bissett also takes on a dual role. Whilst not Ozon’s best work, he has somehow managed to make Double Lover a far more palatable and credible film than it might have been in the hands of a less accomplished filmmaker.