Canada is a funny place. The country has produced its fair share of edgy entertainers: David Cronenberg, Kids in the Hall, William Gibson, Neil Young, Tommy Chong. But even in their darkest moments, there’s a certain politeness to what they do. Canada does have an edge; it’s just clean and very well-maintained.
Take, for example, the works of Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan (Family Viewing, Speaking Parts, The Adjuster, Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter, Ararat, Where the Truth Lies). Look over his résumé and you’ll see a career-long study in obsession, dysfunction, guilt, anger, alienation and grief. And yet, no matter how sexual, how violent, how emotionally disturbed his works become, they still have a certain intellectual polish that makes them feel almost antiseptic. That’s not a criticism, mind you; just an observation. In fact, at their absolute best, Egoyan’s films seem all the more unseemly thanks to their sparkling, up-market settings.
Egoyan’s latest work is the psychosexual drama Chloe. Like many of his films, it’s set among the upper middle class. The Stewarts are a successful Toronto couple. Catherine (Julianne Moore) is an overworked gynecologist. David (Liam Neeson) is a college professor who divides his time between Toronto and New York. Like a lot of Egoyan’s other subjects, the Stewarts dwell in a tidy, modern house with lots of glass walls—and yet they still manage to hide a lot of nasty secrets.
Catherine, unhappily passing middle age, finds herself increasingly isolated from the men in her life. Her son is a sexually active teen who wants little to do with his parents. Her husband is becoming more and more immersed in his work, and she’s starting to suspect he’s having an affair with one of his students. Determined to confirm her worst fears, Catherine hires a high-class hooker named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried, Mamma Mia!) to “seduce” her husband and see if he takes the bait. He does. (Would you say no to those milk-saucer eyes?)
Instead of confronting David “Cheaters”-style (we’re at least one hair weave and a video camera short of that), Catherine continues to pay Chloe for her services—ostensibly to see just how far her husband is willing to go. Why exactly is Catherine orchestrating these ongoing sexual encounters? Is she getting off on them? Is she trying to regain some sort of control over her husband’s libido by scripting his sex life? Yes and yes may be the surprising answers.
While the film starts out as an erotic psychodrama, by about the halfway point it starts to morph into your basic erotic thriller—shocking twists, nicely lit sex scenes and all. Egoyan’s art house talents aren’t exactly suited to such standard-issue commercial cinema. Thankfully, he resists the urge to go completely Fatal Attraction on us. He’s still more interested in the murky interior worlds of these successful but unsatisfied characters, and the scenes that work best are the ones in which people are grappling with their inner demons. The script, written by Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary, Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus) and based on a 2003 French film called Nathalie..., mingles feminism and kinkiness and packs at least one dynamite, didn’t-see-that-coming twist. Still, with a cheesier cast and a lot more blood, the less-than-subtle ending could have come straight out of a late-night Cinemax movie.
Neeson’s wife, Natasha Richardson, died during the filming, and the actor was obliged to wrap things up rather quickly. As a result, the film is left largely in Moore’s hands. That’s as it should be. Moore and Neeson make for a fine, frission-filled couple, but it’s Ms. Moore’s film.
Moore has always been an actress who’s at her best when she’s naked—both physically and emotionally. She made her first big impression with that indelible pants-off tirade in Robert Altman’s Short Cuts and hasn’t let vanity or fame get in the way of bold choices since. Moore leaves a strong impression here as the conflicted wife who finds her sexual priorities somewhat confused.
Seyfried, the third of our little ménage à trois, makes for a winsome enigma. (Movie reality check: Hookers—even high-class ones—do not look like Amanda Seyfried.) Unfortunately, her titular plot catalyst is stuck with some confusing motivations, making Chloe a hard character to navigate into “fully believable” territory.
Chloe has its moments, and those moments are slam-bang powerful. But it’s a bit of a muddle at times. The mix of psychological and sexual, the pushing of social boundaries, and the question of personal identity are a perfect fit for a probing filmmaker like Egoyan. At the same time, the film’s pulpier, B-movie elements don’t always jibe with with Egoyan’s slow-burn art house atmosphere. But hey, regardless of whether or not the film winds up with some implausible elements, it’s a juicy ride through emotional, intellectual and (let’s not forget) sexual territory. ... Even if that territory is north of the border.