Hiring a prostitute to relate to you the nature of how your husband behaves is asking for, not proof of an affair, but an erotic retelling of a person you no longer have an intimacy with. Catherine wants that this surrogate will reimagine her husband in a way that she can no longer.
If you thought 15 minutes was a woefully short amount of screen time for Julianne Moore in A Single Man, then Atom Egoyan’s Chloe is the ultimate remedy. Moore appears in almost every frame, commanding our attention by creating a character who has lost her moral footing. She plays Catherine Stewart, a successful gynecologist, who is alienated both from her husband and their teenage son. What starts as a domestic melodrama rapidly veers into the territory of a psychological dissection thanks to Egoyan, the auteur behind The Sweet Hereafter (1997) and last year’s Adoration.
With this film, the celluloid character of Julianne Moore coalesces into a final statement on the ennui of an unhappy wife, and the subsequent dissolution of her self-possession. Over the years, it’s astonishing to look back at the variety of women she’s created who are confined within this role of domesticity; beginning with Todd Haynes’s Safe and Far From Heaven, moving through The Hours and Savage Grace, she has finally arrived here at Chloe. When Moore appears on television in promotional interviews, one is shocked to see how steady, grounded and poised she seems. To underscore the obvious, the women she portrays are none of these things.
In the following interview, Egoyan recounts his reasons for making a film that he did not write (a rarity within his exquisitely well-written oeuvre), and why his sympathies lie with the bewitching Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), rather than Catherine. He was candid about his process and influences, and able to clarify, while reasonably justifying, his directorial intentions.
The Rumpus: Before we talk about Nathalie, the French film that Chloe is based on, I’d like to talk about Pasolini’s Teorema, which felt like a more relevant predecessor. In Pasolini’s film, each member of a bourgeois family is seduced by the same outsider. This “other,” played by Terence Stamp, acts as a catalyst who threatens the stability of the nuclear family. Chloe is a similar figure in your film: she comes to represent the corruption of social norms, through adultery and homosexuality.
Atom Egoyan: Teorema is one of my favorite films. That film actually begins with an extraordinary scene where the workers have suddenly been given control of this factory, and they’re not quite sure what to do. There is a hastily-convened press conference and then suddenly an angel comes to this home and says that there will be a guest arriving, and it’s Terence Stamp. He is only there for the first half of the film, during which time he does sleep with every member of the family. The last half is chronicling their sense of absence, and how they fall apart. It’s very interesting that you should mention it. I had not thought of Teorema even though it’s a really important film. What’s interesting here, in relation to Chloe: each character has slept with her, even if only in an imaginary way, but still the act is consummated in someone’s thought of it. But in this case, the Terence Stamp figure is fully fleshed out and falls in love with someone. I think that Chloe actually falls for Catherine, which is quite different.
Rumpus: Did you approach the story with a sense that this middle-class family, or Catherine’s (the protagonist’s), moral center needed testing?
Egoyan: It’s not just middle class, this is upper middle class. Catherine can afford a prostitute, she can afford to assert that sort of control. And ultimately, this young woman, Chloe, has access to this very impressive, authorial presence, who is able to coax these stories out, and suddenly she finds herself being heard for the first time. So this has a very powerful effect.
Rumpus: But do you find something culpable about this upper middle class family?
Egoyan: Catherine is completely the villain. She’s a villain inasmuch as she’s incredibly calculating. She thinks that everything in her life can be completely ordered and controlled. And in fact, that has consequences. Consequences not only for her own sense of who she is, but certainly it alienates these two men in her life, completely. And then there’s this story that we had to extract, which is this game, this thing that she does with her son, which is really quite terrifying, in terms of the control she tries to exert over a relationship that he has.
Rumpus: This scene didn’t make it into the film?
Egoyan: No, it was too cumbersome. When his parents refer to the therapy the son is going through, this is a reference to Catherine’s having threatened this other woman who was involved with him. What’s really wonderful about Julianne Moore is that she can go to these quite unsympathetic places but there’s something about her presence as a star which still gives us access to it, and makes us feel as though that’s something we should be following. But it is deceptive.
Rumpus: After I watched A Single Man, I felt that, collectively, Julianne Moore’s characters, at their most affecting, have come to represent various forms of moral decay, urban ennui and decadence.
Egoyan: But in Todd Haynes’s films as well.
Rumpus: And Savage Grace. While she commands every frame of Chloe with an unforced and natural (dis-)ease, I did miss that moment of agony in Teorema, when Silvana Mangano cries out with pain and shame after her descent into promiscuity. In your film, there is a moment that comes close to this, in her office, a moment of controlled rage as she’s writing a check to Chloe. Suddenly, she snaps out of the passive, libidinal daydream from which she’s summoned Chloe. Could you talk about that scene?
Egoyan: You’re talking about when she brings Chloe into the hotel room and rips open the blouse, right? And she’s so determined. It’s a very strange thing to do. “How does he touch you?” And then she stops, then she goes to the bed. She initiates the kind of erotic contact with Chloe. She brings her to the room. She takes her away from her other client, brings her to the room, and literally rips open the blouse, and looks at the breast, you could say in a clinical way, perhaps. She’s demanding to know how her husband touches Chloe. That’s quite an aggressive action too, I would say. I only say that because it was a very difficult thing to choreograph for Julianne because it was so aggressive, more aggressive than the check.
Rumpus: I was thinking verbally.
Egoyan: Yes, verbally, sure. In that hotel room scene, she still wants to engage with Chloe. And with the check, it’s more like she’s signing off, and in a way it’s more hurtful. But if you look at Chloe in that scene, where she’s ripping the dress, she looks stunned.
Rumpus: There are significant changes that were made to the script of Nathalie, in terms of structure and genre. What plays as standard melodrama in France crosses the Atlantic and becomes a suspense thriller. Did you receive the script before seeing Nathalie?
Egoyan: I received the script, but I had seen Nathalie. I had no desire to remake it. It never even occurred to me. This was a project that was initiated by a producer, Ivan Reitman, who saw Nathalie and thought there was another way of approaching it. And then went to Erin Cressida Wilson, who wrote Secretary. And they formulated a script which they came to me with. And I read the script and I thought it was very promising. Then we did some more work on it. It came to me with… Well, a couple of things made it very different from the French film. The French film, we’re not quite sure what Fanny Ardant’s attitude is toward her husband. It’s quite clear that he’s having affairs. And she doesn’t seem particularly perturbed by this.
Rumpus: I think that depends on how you read her acting style. A huge difference in the French version is that the husband’s affairs give her permission to go on the journey she does. It is Catherine’s own unconscious, libidinal daydream that frees her to pursue Chloe. In this way, the audience can find her even more culpable.
Egoyan: What’s culpable is that she’s taking a very strange decision. If you need to prove that someone is having an affair, there are other ways to go about it than hiring a prostitute. Hiring a prostitute to relate to you the nature of how your husband behaves is asking for something different. She wants to have an erotic retelling of a person she no longer has an intimacy with. She wants that this surrogate will reimagine her husband in a way that she can no longer. I don’t know if she’d be able to articulate it that way. But It’s a very specific and controlling action. It’s a tall order. And when Chloe comes back and actually has taken that on, she finds it quite enthralling, and she wants to go further. What she doesn’t understand is, what she is really seeing in Chloe is an opportunity to tell stories about her day-to-day life that she would never be able to express otherwise. This creates an extraordinary alchemical reaction between the two women, where they are in competing fantasies over what the other represents.
Rumpus: This question does emerge by the end of the film: How much of the story is a created fantasy? Due in part to the way you aestheticize Chloe’s death, as a fallen angel, in which she becomes something more than just an ordinary girl. And again, it seemed to me, akin to the Terence Stamp character in Teorema.
Egoyan: I’m so familiar with what you’re talking about because I loved Teorema. But I would have to say it’s completely subconscious. It’s possible I was reading it that way, but it wasn’t intentional. I mean that film has had a huge influence. I’ve written essays about that piece. I know it really intimately, but I wasn’t doing it as a conscious homage. But it’s possible. My films are open to interpretation. So this one is more linear, and more rigid in its ability to withstand conflicting interpretations, but it’s valid what you’re saying. I do think there’s something heightened about the fall, certainly, and about the decision she makes to let go. And also about Catherine’s decision not to help her. I mean all of these things are heightened. The last image in the film is very provocative, as to why this brooch is being worn. Is it a way of remembering Chloe? Or is it a way of ultimately asserting control? The ultimate control is that she’s able to keep the prop and aestheticize it. Those are open to interpretation.
Rumpus: One of the recurring motifs in your films is the idea of, who owns the narrative? Where did your fascination begin with storytelling?
Egoyan: It comes from arriving in a new country at a certain point, where you are part of an ethnic group. We came to Victoria, Canada from Egypt. I was very young. No one quite knew what we were. We were the only Armenian family there. We possessed a number of different personas. We could either be Arabs or Jews: we were other. When you’re a child, you realize that your personality and identity is a construction. Not all immigrant children have this experience but my sense of who I was, was constructed. I was aware of who I was and that I wanted to assimilate. I wanted to be like everyone else. And I was aware of the things I had to learn to do to be like everyone else.
Rumpus: Were your parents similarly aware of those things?
Egoyan: My parents were assimilationists. The reason they moved to Victoria was that they didn’t want to be within the community. They wanted to strike out on their own. They were artists as well. But I made a very clear decision. I think that’s part of it, certainly. There are lots of other formative experiences. This will explain a lot of my movies, perhaps. This woman, young woman, girl I was obsessed with from the ages of 13 to 18. There was a distance that she always had from me. I realized that while I was having in my imagination this fantasy of her, she was being abused by her father. And she never really addressed this, until later on. He was a very powerful figure in the community. I knew that there was something happening but I couldn’t understand what it was. And no one really talked about it. So narratives had to be created in order to justify, to explain things. And some of them were done out of convenience, and some of them were done out of fear. And some out of various types of need. I’ve come to realize that’s been an important part of my formation as well. I’ve come to realize those two things: both my issues as an Armenian, and then, of course, there’s all this political baggage, and with the denial of genocide. There are a number of things that filter in your life in a certain way. They become indelible.
Rumpus: You made that girl’s story indelible in The Sweet Hereafter, with Sarah Polley’s remarkable performance.
Egoyan: I think I caught something there which is very unusual. I was a witness to this: the way an abused victim sometimes has to create a justification for why a parent is behaving this way. And it’s not always about a violent abuse. In the original novel, she was angry with the father from the beginning, and she knew that there was something terribly wrong. From what I observed, she actually felt it was an extension of the father’s love. And so that was a much more insidious mind control.
Rumpus: I wanted to ask you about your use of sound design, and the reduction of ambient noise in the city streets, and other public spaces. The control over sound, in conjunction with the tight close-up of actors, forces us closer, inside the character’s states of mind. I left the theatre with the sense of almost being able to “read” the characters’ thoughts. And your use of light is reminiscent of painters, like Rembrandt or Vermeer. You create the effect of a nimbus, surrounding Julianne.
Egoyan: I have a certain way of painting a frame, which I use in my own films because the narratives are so distancing in some ways, the ways in which the stories are structured. So I have to make the frame seductive in a specific way so the viewer will be drawn into these narratives which would otherwise be quite alienating. I’m using, as you would say, the painting of the frame, but also the sound design, and the music, in a specific way to lure, and to create a sense of seduction. This film probably didn’t need that. In a more conventional script like this, it doesn’t need that level of attention. But it’s now the way I make frames anyhow. Whether or not, I don’t think it distracts from the story. But it amplifies it in a way which is not necessary for a more traditional melodrama. This could have been shot, lit more conventionally, and I think it would have been able to hold its own. While my own dramas need that type of light. So the relationship I have with my director of photography, my sound designer, my composer, my editor, all of whom worked on this film as well as the others. There’s an inherited approach that we take, which we didn’t accommodate because this was a more linear script. I think you would see a visual similarity in the frames through the other films. The one thing that’s different in this film, there’s more use of conventional close-up, many more close-ups than you would normally have. And actually, at the beginning, maybe even distractingly so. The language is almost distractingly conventional. Because I didn’t want to imprint a style on it as I would my other films, with very long tracking shots. My way of choreographing the camera is connected to the way I write scripts. So the two things are folded into each other. I didn’t want to impose that type of camera gesture on someone else’s script. It wasn’t written to have that interpretation, so I didn’t want to impose something on it.
Rumpus: Going back to Nathalie, the actresses Ardant and Emmanuelle Beart are much closer in age than Moore and Amanda Seyfried. Why did you make this change?
Egoyan: I was compelled by this mother/daughter thing, I suppose. I really wanted to have that age separation. To me, that was really important, and is very different from Nathalie as well. She’s someone who has a clientele specifically because of her age. It was a very conscious choice. We saw a lot of actresses who had that more hardened persona, which I think you get with the original film, with Beart as well. But I wanted to work against that. I wanted to play something else.
Rumpus: In closing, I have a question about the actress Rachel Blanchard. You’ve used her twice (in Where the Truth Lies and Adoration) as your own Laura Palmer figure. Why have you cast her in this role?
Egoyan: There’s something kind of ethereal about her. It’s hard to explain. She’s so pristinely beautiful that it’s kind of surreal somehow. I can’t say anything more than that. She surprised me in Where the Truth Lies. She exceeded what I was expecting. There’s something about her, which is why that role was inspired by a feeling that she gave me. There’s something not natural about it, and yet natural.