Though it’s only arriving in Palm Beach County on Friday, it’s no coincidence that Francois Ozon’s Double Lover opened in limited U.S. release on Feb. 14, less than a week after Fifty Shades Freed tied up a few thousand screens. Though its debt is more to David Cronenberg and Brian De Palma than to E.L. James’ risible mom porn, the movies share more space on a Venn diagram that Ozon would probably prefer.
Double Lover, despite being adapted from a Joyce Carol Oates novel, layers art-house lacquer on Hollywood erotica, dark and titillating but lacking in the conviction to pursue its schizoid narrative to its purest climax.
It’s also yet another bad-therapist movie, to follow up on my Aardvark review two weeks ago. Marine Vacth, the model-turned-actress who starred in Ozon’s Young and Beautiful, returns here as Chloe, herself a onetime model whose inexplicable stomach pains are diagnosed as most likely psychosomatic. She’s recommended a therapist, Paul Meyer (Jeremie Renier), the sort of laconic, poker-faced counselor who lets his clients reach their own conclusions. For Chloe, the approach works: She unpacks childhood baggage, her pains dissipate, and Paul falls in love, but at least he has the professional ethics to end their therapeutic relationship before commencing a personal one.
Chloe and Paul move in together, but it isn’t long before she realizes that although Paul knows more about her than she does, she possesses little knowledge about his backstory. Rooting through his mementos, she discovers a secret: Paul’s twin brother, Louis, also played by Renier, and also a psychologist. She books a clandestine appointment, under a pseudonym, only to find that Louis’ psychotherapeutic m.o. is a tad different than his twin’s, and can only be described as sexual gestalt therapy.
The brothers, it seems, haven’t been on speaking terms for decades, and Paul denies his sibling’s existence. But for Chloe, the twins function as necessary halves of a single whole. Both are needed for her personal and sexual fulfillment, which involves submission, borderline rape and, soon enough, a dildo for a bit of transgressive power reversal.
Ozon, a director at ease with the paradigms of erotic cinema, immerses the story in delirious atmosphere that’s apparent from the opening scene: a shocking, Almodovar-approved gynecological close-up of the inside of a vagina, which slowly zooms out, tilts and fades into a shot of Chloe’s similarly shaped eye, blinking under medical fluorescence. You want to rewind the movie and watch it again, for the sheer gonzo audacity.
Themes of sexual reproduction percolate through the movie’s visuals, as when Chloe takes a job as a museum watchwoman, and the photography exhibition on display is one of squishy anatomical interiors and amniotic fluids. Ozon also underlines themes of mirroring and doubling that are central to the source material and his adaptation of it.
When she first visits Louis’ business, she enters through a mirrored lobby that creates six of her. She ascends to his office on a spiral staircase identical to the circular pathway to Paul’s office, and finds much of the same accouterments — a single orchid, the chairs positioned just so. In the therapy sessions with each brother, Ozon’s bold mise-en-scene creates sexual tension, then disorientation — collapsing the space between Paul and Chloe so that their faces appear inches apart, and splintering the frame between Louis and Chloe so that one of them appears only in a reflection. It’s as if they’re separated by a plane of consciousness.
This visual grammar is a “tell” that slowly reveals itself as characters blur into each other, and Chloe’s encounters seem increasingly nightmarish, as if she’s become stuck in a suffocating Polanski thriller, losing her tether to reality while something unbabylike grows inside her.
I wish Ozon had the gumption to deviate from the Oates original, to fully embrace the madness he had been cultivating for the previous 90 minutes, and deliver a nasty, psychologically inexplicable expression of body horror. Instead, Double Lover’s twist ending is a banal cheat — literary to a fault, Shyamalanian in execution. It feels like a betrayal of everything he’d been working toward. Though artless, the Fifty Shades film franchise is perhaps more honest about what it is.
DOUBLE LOVER. Director: François Ozon; Cast: Marine Vacth, Jeremie Renier, Myriam Boyer, Jacqueline Bisset; Distributor: Cohen Media; in French with English subtitles; not rated; Opens: Friday at Lake Worth Playhouse