With its embrace of genre and slick production values, “Chloe” represents director Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter”) and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson’s (“Secretary” and “Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus”) most mainstream efforts to date. Cue the “not there’s anything wrong with that.” In fact, in many ways this chilly romantic thriller does provide a welcome break from Wilson’s standard envelope-pushing head-scratchers. The problem is that her queasy sexual politics remain front and center.
“Chloe” is based upon the 2003 French film “Nathalie…,” and its premise is pretty much the stuff of which French films are made. When music professor David Stewart (Liam Neeson) misses the surprise birthday thrown by his wife, gynecologist Catherine (Julianne Moore), she hires Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a hotel prostitute, to test his fidelity. Naturally, she finds out more than she really wants to know, and develops a mutual obsession with Chloe that escalates into a dynamic that disrupts the entire veneer of her life, including her already-fragile relationship with her teenage son (Max Thieriot).
And what a veneer it is. The entire look of this film issues from Moore’s pale luminosity, punctuated by bold shots of color and impossible to resist. The Stewarts’ life has been crystallized into forms that allow for no flesh and blood. They literally inhabit a house of glass that shines on every surface: Even their computers seem to gleam more than most people’s. They eat in high-ceilinged restaurants staffed by beautiful young women who meet men’s eyes for a little too long, their sheets boast a kazillion thread count, and Catherine’s office is miraculously glamorous for a business where stirrups are the name of the game. But no one seems to like or even listen to each other, a fact that viscerally descends upon Catherine with the revelation that her husband is mostly likely stepping out.
It’s in that revelation that you’re most grateful Moore hasn’t succumbed to the botox blues gripping most of her peers. She’s always been a compelling actress to watch, but in her 40s has ripened into a woman who both looks her age, and looks wonderful — a far more common phenomenon among French actresses than American, appropriately enough. Hers is a beauty borne of experience, which means that, as Catherine, her grief hollows out the moons of her cheeks and thins her sensual mouth, carving a great divide between herself and young Chloe’s soft, wide features.
Neeson may turn in the innocent perpetrator that has been his M.O. since “Husbands and Wives” (does he just get hired because he’s tall with a posh accent?) but it is Seyfried, gentle and forceful at once, who rises nearly as far above the material as Moore does. For a while Chloe and Catherine’s scenes together supply enough subtle surprises that their tension overrides the clunky formula. But once the film’s bluff is called and they embark upon a love affair, it devolves into a lesbo-as-psycho shtick that is even duller than it is offensive.
Despite some intriguing elements, by its end, “Chloe”‘s been so far reeled in that you may as well be watching a Lifetime TV movie sponsored by the American Teabag Party. Are meaty female roles so hard to come by in the US these days that even actresses as formidable as Moore choose such compromises?
I’m starting to think that even mediocre contemporary French films, with their myriad question marks, outstrip most American fare — and Catherine Breillat’s “Bluebeard” is hardly mediocre, though it is modest in scale. Shuttling between the1950s and medieval France, it tells the story of two young sisters reading the tale of Marie-Catherine (Lola Creton), the child bride to Bluebeard (Dominique Thomas), the wealthy aristocrat whose reputation was as ugly as his countenance.
The fable itself is a mere three pages though it’s spawned countless variations, and the film packs a similar, swift punch. Too many movies set in the Middle Ages try to prove their mettle with a squalid harshness, but Breillat treats her subject as if it were a moving still life painted in rich oils. In her version, life is so brutal that a whimsy matter-of-factly emerges amongst the fatality that abounds everywhere.
In the opening scene, convent students Marie-Catherine and her older sister Anne (Daphne Baiwir) stand before their Mother Superior. In one breath, she criticizes their bad manners, announces their father has been killed, and expels them as “their circumstances have changed.” As the sisters ride off into the sunset, they careen between gales of laughter and tears — but of course neither response changes a thing, which is the point. The girls now have no future to speak of unless one marries, and the only possible suitor seems to be good old Bluebeard, whose bizarre facial hair poses the least of his love objects’ problems. His wives have a mysterious, unexamined habit of disappearing without a trace.
It is tiny Marie-Catherine, tired of her sister’s shadow, who wraps her fingers around his massive paws and gazes upon him with an interest that is as disarmingly sweet as it is appraising. He responds like the wounded lion he fancies himself to be, and for a time creates a bubble of love that, quiet and droll, protects them from his worst instincts and us from the repulsion such a coupling would normally trigger. Indirectly, it is the sisters’ love that bursts it, but Breillat saves her unhappy ending for her more modern pair of sisters. The balance of light and dark — of avarice and pure love — has never truly changed, she suggests, and she presents a convincing case.