By: Monika Bartyzel, reprinted from TIFF 9/7/09
The name of the cinematic game is believing what happens on the big screen, and suspending belief when necessary. It's a particular and difficult game -- one that is, of course, pulled off with varying degrees of success. One person's perfectly natural action is another person's highly irregular one, and there's no set line for what will be stomached, accepted, and believed. In the case of Atom Egoyan's erotic thriller Chloe, Amanda Seyfried, Julianne Moore, Max Thieriot, and Liam Neeson toe the line of believability as they sail through the sticky waters of romantic discontent and mistrust.
Seyfried is Chloe, a young prostitute well-versed in the finer points of subterfuge -- embodying everything her clients dream. And Moore is Catherine, a successful gynaecologist -- the established professional, mother, and aging woman desperately wishing for the lust-filled attentions that her husband David (Neeson) used to heap on her. After he avoids her on his birthday, "missing" a plane (and subsequently a surprise party), she becomes wary. And when he continues to flirt with every young woman he meets, Catherine becomes convinced that he is cheating.
When Catherine meets a mysteriously beautiful young woman in a restaurant bathroom (Chloe), Catherine's confusion takes a terribly irrational turn. She is drawn to Chloe, and she wants to know for sure that her husband is cheating, so she decides to hire the young woman and tempt him. Step by step, Chloe sets out for meetings with David, always returning with tales that have the most heart-stabbingly precise details. Soon, Catherine finds herself terribly intertwined with Chloe's life as the young woman also insinuates herself into Catherine's -- Chloe being the secret, beautiful henchwoman for Catherine, the youthful paramour for David, and even the mysterious temptress of their son, Michael (Thieriot). In typical erotic thriller fashion, things quickly barrel out of control with twists, insanity, and dysfunction.
Chloe is the North American embodiment of Anne Fontaine's French film Nathalie..., and adapted by Erin Cressida Wilson (the skilled pen behind Secretary), the triangle between wife, husband, and prostitute is given an extra layer of interpersonal horror. Ultimately, this means a whole new ending for the film -- one that manages to wrap up the plot while also leaving much teasingly ambiguous. For the most part, this works. To get to the end, one has to accept that Catherine would take this crazy path, and that Chloe would follow it as she does. (And, frankly, in a crazy world with crazy true stories everyday, this isn't THAT unbelievable.) Nevertheless, there is disconnected feel to the film.
Where Secretary made you relate and understand the troubled Lee in spite of the fact that she used unusual means to gain strength and happiness, Chloe is a circus of bad decision-making and rationale that sometimes works, and sometimes makes little sense. In a Q&A at the festival, Cressida talked about how the story became what it did, and how she felt about the characters. The more she spoke, the more I understood the characters and her aim, and the more I appreciated the film. Unfortunately, she can't come packaged to every screening.
Without the small nuggets from Cressida's mindset, the performances in Chloe seem fine, but removed. On one hand, it seems fitting -- the chemistry-free connections revealing the utter disconnect from life that these characters seem to live. But at the same time, this is an erotic thriller, and if you can't feel that attraction, that need, that at-all-odds desire, it won't unfold and grab you as it should.
What plays out perfectly, however, is the location. Wintry Toronto is captured by long-time Egoyan cinematographer Paul Sarossy, and quickly becomes a character itself, so many notable locations finally getting to be as they are, and not masked as a foreign city. The pristine world of Moore's Yorkville (pricey hotspot where the stars descend during TIFF) clashes with the youthful bohemian shades of Seyfried's Queen Street, and this visually exemplifies the void between these characters as they try to reach out for one another.
Ultimately, while Chloe might not connect on a personal level, it does trap you into these lurid lives that flirt with every notion of bad behavior. I just wish they were characters I could love or hate, or simply feel for. Then the experience would have been all the better.
For more on Chloe, check out our interview with Amanda Seyfried.