A ‘re-invention’ of the 2003 film Nathalie, Atom Egoyan’s new film Chloe represents an interesting point in the career of the Canadian filmmaker. A writer-director who’s exercised an iron grip over his creative oeuvre, running from 1984’s Next Of Kin (not the Patrick Swayze one) to the recent Adoration, Egoyan’s twelfth feature marks the first time he’s worked from a screenplay not his own.
Supplied by Secretary and Fur scribe Erin Cressida Wilson, it also comes armed with a larger budget than anything he’s done before and a palpable sense that he’s dipping his toe into more commercial waters. He’s come close to the studios previously, flirting with a Warner Bros. thriller for a year in 1995 before returning to his native Toronto to make The Sweet Hereafter. But this time, as a Hollywood voice-over man might say, it’s serious.
The good news is that his first venture into the mainstream retains many of Egoyan’s fascinations – sexual desire, fantasy, voyeurism – and feels, for large parts, like one of his many delves into a dysfunctional family unit. Fans of the Canadian auteur will find plenty to enjoy here, and newcomers will be given a relatively easy ride compared to some of his non-linear, more challenging earlier works.
And the bad news? Well, like the film does, best to worry about that later. Because Chloe starts strong, balancing a conventional narrative with a simmering eroticism that is quite beguiling. Julianne Moore’s Catherine suspects her flirtatious husband (Liam Neeson) is having an affair, and so hires a prostitute (Amanda Seyfried) to test his fidelity and report back to her. From there, Egoyan and screenwriter Wilson have a great deal of fun, even if some of it is very heavy-handed.
Catherine, a doctor who seems to specialise in listening to people talk about how they want to achieve an orgasm and need her help to achieve this, is painted as a reflection of Chloe, a woman paid to ensure her clients are sexually satisfied. Yet, she’s played dead cold by Moore, a closed-off woman surrounded by sexually liberated individuals.
Her husband delights in lecturing about the amorous conquests of Don Giovanni, she has a teenage son who’s having more sex than she is, and a work colleague who talks frankly about his sexual escapades (just to make it clear, he’s called Frank). The film plays with perceptions of infidelity and desire to pleasing effect, and there’s a delicious irony as Catherine assumes the role of adulterer by her clandestine meetings with Chloe.
Egoyan is a supremely intelligent filmmaker. Even in a relatively mainstream vehicle such as this, he’s able to invest straightforward scenes with a depth they don’t always deserve, but are all the better for it. A scene set within the forest landscape of a vast greenhouse raises that Egoyan obsession of the battle between the id and the ego, our desire and our controlling nature.
As Catherine and Chloe’s meetings continue and become more explicit, the film’s temperature rises but it never becomes tawdry. Like The Sweet Hereafter or Where The Truth Lies, Chloe is a film that revolves around a sexual relationship that can’t (or shouldn’t) be, one that the director captures with his usual unflinching camera. It’s sure to attract those keen to see the hitherto wholesome Seyfried in an altogether different position than sunning it up on a Greek beach.
Neeson has the least showy role of the three stars and he does what he needs to, leaving the heavy lifting to his female co-stars. Moore proves once again how fearless an actress she is, stripping herself bare not just in the film’s steamier scenes but, more importantly, as the film’s emotional fulcrum. She’s also able to handle the film’s jarring shift from character study to mild thriller territory with consummate ease.
There’s able support from Seyfried, who’s good without ever being great. It’s a role a million miles away from Mamma Mia or even the rather sedate by comparison Jennifer’s Body, but the script doesn’t give her enough of a character to do anything more with than be shocking for the sake of it.
Which brings us to that bad news. For all the good work Egoyan and his actors do, Chloe is undermined by a script that limps towards an unsatisfactory climax. It ends up more Adrian Lyne than Atom Egoyan, and while that can’t undo all the enjoyment of what’s come before, it leaves the film ending on a hollow note after a promise of something much more.
The Egoyan touches are still there, all right, and Chloe is still undeniably the work of an auteur. It’s just a bit rough around the edges.