Egoyan skillfully balances a rote exercise in marital discord with a less-rote exercise in narrative suspense; but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the former exists only to distract from the shortcomings of the latter.
Is Catherine’s husband, David, cheating on her? It sure looks that way. He missed his flight home for his birthday party (perhaps intentionally) and there are incriminating photos on his cell phone. Worse, Catherine, a gynecologist, and David, a music professor, are one of those educated, affluent movie couples who cruise cleanly around their world, from black-tie function to board meeting to their ultra-modern home, dressed in expensive clothes and surrounded by chic decor, but spending very little time talking to — or even looking at — each other. Having seen enough movies to know this is a sure sign of upper-class marital dysfunction, Catherine is so worried about David’s infidelity that she hires an upscale call-girl, Chloe, to try and seduce him. This is the interesting, if not terribly plausible, premise of Chloe, Atom Egoyan’s nuanced and slightly sudsy remake of Anna Fontaine’s Nathalie (2004, France).
Chloe, a girlish bombshell who works out of a hotel near Catherine’s office, agrees to the plan (of course) and is ordered to report back after she introduces herself to David at the café where he lunches every day. He was flirtatious but not overt, Chloe reports. Catherine’s fears are assuaged but she sends her back for one more encounter at the café, just to be sure. From here, the film offers a few promising twists and beguiling themes that are eventually brought to so literal and deadening a conclusion that you might wish there had been some loose ends.
It all sounds intriguing, and it’s a wonderful set-up for a psychosexual thriller. But is this really a thriller? Yes and no. Plenty of scenes are meant to be sexually charged (whether or not you find them so depends more on your peccadilloes than Egoyan’s command), but other currents develop alongside the intrigue. Catherine — beautiful, successful — is fraught with insecurity and is closely attuned to the supposed implications of her own aging. Is David really unfaithful, or is she becoming so paranoid that she’s imagining it? For most of the movie, we’re left to wonder. The perfectly cast Julianne Moore (who is, astonishingly, almost 50) is costumed in clothes that are stylish but just the tiniest bit matronly, and she is allowed to show the lines in her pale, delicate complexion. And while it would be a challenge to ever make Moore unattractive, it’s easy to see why Catherine is feeling her age, when she’s put in the same frame with the creamy, voluptuous Amanda Seyfried. Egoyan spends a lot of time illustrating Catherine’s sense of loneliness and emotional estrangement, and at times, no matter how much mystery Egoyan manages to evoke by means of the plotting, Chloe feels very much like a domestic melodrama — and not a terribly original one, either.
The marital situation will be familiar to anyone, from any class, with children more than about a year old: In the beginning things were passionate and effortless; when the children arrived, passion and energy were harder to come by. (The couple has a teenage son, Michael, who skulks about the house, slamming doors and rolling his eyes.) And sex — that fundamental touch point for intimacy — became less frequent; careers got in the way; Catherine and David drifted apart, pulled in many directions. They didn’t make time for their marriage or for each other, and soon enough, they found themselves wandering amid some very attractive furniture, retaining little understanding of each other. Egoyan skillfully balances this rote exercise in marital discord with the other, less-rote exercise in narrative suspense, but it’s hard to shake the feeling that the former exists only to distract from the shortcomings of the latter.
But what of Chloe, who’s so central a character the movie is named after her? She is the most interesting, and problematic, part of the film. Seyfried is excellent in the role —cunning, mysterious, plainly manipulative and, of course, seductive. We know she’s up to something, and any attentive viewer can guess more or less what it is. What we don’t know is why she’s doing what she’s doing. Ultimately, Chloe serves as an effective introduction to questions of feminine identity, and the issue of how women are seen — by men, of course, but also by themselves and each other (if there were an Academy Award for the symbolic use of mirrors, Chloe would be a shoo-in).
As Catherine and David broker a trite resolution to their trite marital problems, Chloe’s character is allowed to take over the film, and not for the better. The fault is not Seyfried’s — she manages to make more of the material than anyone has any right to expect. But because she serves so important a part to the symbolic goings-on — she’s ultimately the embodiment of the fear and insecurity with which Catherine must grapple, ho-hum — she must be dealt with if Egoyan is going to bring the themes to a neat conclusion. Exactly how he chooses to do this lost me completely.
With Chloe, Egoyan remains a great filmmaker who has never made a great film. He has undeniable command of his actors, and most scenes are subtle and full of texture and promise. In the end, however, they often add up to less than they should. Watching Chloe, it’s hard not to think of both the pleasures and disappointments of his past work. His best-known film, The Sweet Hereafter, is a haunting mood piece and a deeply troubling exploration of the ways in which adults do — and don’t — protect their children, but ultimately it tips over into a heavy-handed bluntness that lessens its effectiveness; Exotica, perhaps his best film, is a brilliant puzzle-box of a story, but ultimately Egoyan lands on the wrong side of the line that separates tantalizingly opaque characters from characters that are simply dull. An interesting Egoyan failure is always a more rewarding experience than the unmitigated successes of less daring filmmakers, but nevertheless, it’s hard not to be frustrated by thoughts of what some of his films might have been. Chloe is no exception.