Reviews

Atom Egoyan

Canada, 2009

Credits

Review by Mike D’Angelo

Posted on 27 September 2009

Source 35mm print

Categories The 2009 Toronto International Film Festival

One of Canada’s most steadfastly idiosyncratic filmmakers – and that’s saying a lot coming from the country that gave us Guy Maddin and David Cronenberg, among others – Atom Egoyan has had his ups (Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter) and downs (Ararat, Where the Truth Lies) over the years, but one thing he’s never remotely been is anybody’s hack for hire. So it’s enormously dispiriting to find him wasting his considerable gifts on a dopey “erotic thriller” like Chloe, huffing and puffing to lend a touch of mystery and elegance to patently ludicrous material. Fans of the French director Anne Fontaine (are there any?) will be doubly stupefied to realize that Chloe is in fact a radically revised remake of her 2003 film Nathalie…, itself not exactly the zenith of 21st-century art cinema. But whatever the original’s flaws, it didn’t look like something you’d find yourself guiltily watching on Cinemax at 3:30 a.m.

Not that I object to seeing plenty of Julianne Moore and Amanda Seyfried naked, mind you. The former plays Catherine, a conspicuously well-off Toronto doctor who begins to suspect that her husband, David, a college professor, may be cheating on her with one or more of his students. To find out, she hires a high-priced “escort,” Chloe, to seduce David and report back. As in the original, none of these heterosexual assignations is ever seen—instead, we hear about them as described by Chloe to Catherine, who takes in every steamy detail with a mixture of grief and lust. Gradually – and here we start to move well away from the original – the two women themselves develop palpable sexual chemistry, ultimately falling into bed. But when Catherine decides things have gone far enough, Chloe goes postal… and the easiest target may be neither husband nor wife, but the couple’s recently dumped, sexually frustrated teenage son.

Both Nathalie… and Chloe share the same big third-act twist, which I guessed within about five minutes when I saw the former. But Nathalie (who was played by Emmanuelle Béart), unlike Chloe, was a fundamentally benign character. What made the original film somewhat interesting – and right up Egoyan’s alley, actually, now that I think about it, which may explain why he took the gig – was the revelation that this purportedly tawdry situation was in fact a stealthy form of couples’ therapy, with lies and fantasies employed as a means of unsurfacing buried truths. Trouble is, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary) chucked that whole idea out the window, having apparently decided (or been instructed by someone with an eye toward broad popular appeal) that what this story really needed was for the escort to become a generic she-demon, blackmailing people with risqué photos and attacking them with dagger-shaped hairpins. Once she’s been punished, normality can be restored.

For a while, Egoyan, reveling in glossy, modernist production design, and his first-rate cast (which also includes Liam Neeson as David) manage to give Chloe a veneer of faintly dull respectability. Julianne Moore has always excelled at repressed eroticism, and her vacillation between disgust and horniness during Chloe’s monologues achieves a level of genuine complexity; you can practically see her hand drifting between her thighs, even though it’s only her facial muscles that actually move. Once the film goes off the rails, though, it doesn’t even qualify as especially juicy pulp—the third act looks only like a desperate, last-ditch attempt to make the movie at least a little bit mall-friendly. Under ordinary circumstances, this guff would merely be forgettable. With Egoyan’s name attached, it becomes actively depressing.

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