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Thursday, April 1, 2010

Canadian Film Review: Chloe (2010)

* * *

Director: Atom Egoyan
Starring: Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson

Uh... the hell?

From its first moments Atom Egoyan’s Chloe foregrounds the theme of masquerade. In a voice over the title character, played with aplomb by Amanda Seyfried, informs us that she’s capable of becoming anyone, of becoming exactly the person that a given situation requires. In hindsight the end of the film is spelled out in the beginning, but I have to admit that while watching it, it threw me for a loop. I guess there’s a degree to which that’s to the film’s credit, even though I think the ending is ultimately the weakest part of this whole endeavour.

From Chloe the film then moves to Catherine (Julianne Moore), a Toronto gynaecologist experiencing midlife anxieties. When her husband, David (Liam Neeson), misses his flight home and she later finds a photograph that may be innocuous but may also be incriminating on his phone, she becomes convinced that he’s sleeping around. After a brief run-in with Chloe in a restaurant, Catherine pursues her, wanting to hire her to test David’s fidelity. All she wants, she insists, is to know what David would do if approached by Chloe, but when she meets with Chloe later to find out how it went, she decides that the situation needs further testing. And then further testing. And then...

Given the number of articles about the film I’ve read in the last couple of days in which the word “lesbian” is part of the headline, I suppose it’s no secret that Catherine herself becomes sexually involved with Chloe. The scene itself is rather explicit but in no way exploitative; the way that it comes about is natural to the psychosexual themes that Egoyan is exploring. The story is all about Catherine’s feelings of being disconnected from her own sexuality and Chloe – who tells us at the beginning that she’s more symbol than person – represents both her current feelings of being sexually obsolete and her memory of her own once powerful sensuality. Her relationship with Chloe is less about any kind of sexual attraction to Chloe specifically than to the feeling of revitalization she gets from living vicariously through her. The stories that Chloe tells her, which seem to give her a particularly strong charge, serve to illuminate a connection to David that she herself has lost sight of; when she initiates sex with Chloe, she does so by asking for a demonstration of how David touches her. To her this isn't her having sex with Chloe, but her playing the role of David having sex with Catherine, played by Chloe. The film’s treatment of these murky waters is fascinating and makes it worth seeing even if it does (and I honestly can’t emphasize this enough) fly totally off the rails in its final ten or fifteen minutes.

Whatever weaknesses Chloe might have, no blame can be laid on the actors. Moore renders an effectively contained performance as a woman who sees sex in purely clinical terms and only reluctantly (and perhaps never fully) opens herself up to the possibilities of sensuality. She's a very cold character in terms of how she deals with others and quite possibly the most brutal figure in the whole the story (I'm still undecided about how I feel about the final shot: is it a tribute inspired by guilt, or is it a callous expression of triumph?). It's interesting to watch her play this very closed off character opposite Seyfried, whose Chloe is open to the point that her entire personality is dependent on the person with whom she's interacting. Seyfried has a tough job in this movie because the closer the story gets to the end, the more unbelievable her character should become, yet she makes you believe in Chloe. In her first interactions with Catherine, she hints at the things to come but manages to pull back just enough that she's never overplaying her hand and giving everything away. By the end of the film you should probably hate Chloe, but I actually found her to be the most sympathetic character, which I think is a testament to what Seyfried is able to accomplish with the role.

Many of the themes explored in Chloe are familiar from Egoyan's previous films. He's a filmmaker preoccupied with the psychology of sexuality and here focuses on voyeurism and what I suppose you could term sexual surrogacy. Much of what he does with this film is very interesting, though it must be conceded that when it comes to visually expressing the story's themes, he sometimes uses a mallet when a hammer would be sufficient. Nevertheless, what works in Chloe works very well. What doesn't work may leave you a bit baffled and results in a film that is uneven at best, but still one that I would recommend, albeit by a narrow margin.


Anh Khoi Do said...

One way or another, Catherine was bound to be the most unsympathetic character. What makes her be that way is her use of Chloe as a disposable sexual object and also her obvious disregard for Chloe's feelings. Nevertheless, let's admit that Julianne Moore did an amazing job.

The true star of the film is definitely Amanda Seyfried. For me, Chloe becomes the most sympathetic character the moment we start seeing Seyfried portray her character's fragility. In fact, I was really impressed to see how she handled the scenes when Chloe leaves the café (because she sees David and Catherine together) or the clinic (with tears in her eyes). As for the ending, it was lousy and it came too quickly. Besides, I'm still undecided about how to interpret Chloe's surprising act at the end.

Norma Desmond said...

Agreed about Seyfried and, obviously, the film's ending. I still kind of can't believe that it really ended that way because it's just so... ugh.

M. Carter @ the Movies said...

I'm eager to see this, as I really like Amanda Seyfried, and I hope Julianne Moore does better in here than she did in "A Single Man" -- I thought she overacted terribly and had an equally bad British accent in that one.