MUBI seems to have a real interest in films that explore aspects of sexuality and the ‘erotic’. In the last couple of years they have streamed quite a range of different sorts of films dealing with sex and sexuality. Recently there was the art film melded with explicit porn in The Daughters of Fire (Argentina 2018) which addressed the male/female gaze question and is discussed on this blog by Nick. Over several months we were offered restored versions of American avant-garde/’independent’/’alternative’ soft porn ‘curated’ by Nicholas Winding Refn. I tried to watch one or two of these but gave up bewildered. Mostly MUBI offers us challenging festival films which query attitudes towards sexuality or more mainstream arthouse fare which features more overt depictions of sexual relationships than those in contemporary Hollywood films. But one of the recent offerings, Chloe from Atom Egoyan, seems to hark back to the cycle of erotic thrillers that were very successful in mainstream 1980s and 1990s Hollywood – films such as Fatal Attraction (1987) and Basic Instinct (1992), both featuring Michael Douglas and, not a thriller as such, but certainly a different kind of romance, Indecent Proposal (1993), like Fatal Attraction directed by Adrian Lyne. There were also a string of more explicit erotic thrillers, many of which went straight to video release. These had their own stars such as Shannon Tweed. The genre of the erotic thriller has received attention from film scholars, most notably Prof. Linda Ruth Williams with her 2005 book The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema.
I was attracted to Chloe, first because it is a film directed by Atom Egoyan, a director I feel that I have neglected and possibly avoided. I’m not sure why. I’m generally interested in Canadian filmmakers and Egoyan had a number of well-received arthouse films released in the 1990s but I saw only Exotica (1994) – and that because I was obliged to watch it after a student had written an essay about it. Chloe, like several of Egoyan’s films has an interesting cast featuring Julianne Moore, Liam Neeson and Amanda Seyfried. I didn’t realise until after I’d seen the film that Chloe is actually a remake of a French film, Nathalie . . .(2003), written and directed by Anne Fontaine, whose more recent work I’ve enjoyed very much. I wonder if I would have responded differently to the film if I’d known that when I started watching it?
Liam Neeson plays David Stewart, a university professor in an arts faculty – which is certainly an interesting change for an actor usually associated with action roles. In 2009 he was probably best known for the first Taken movie the year before in which he has to rescue his daughter kidnapped by bad guys, though he’d had a number of major roles in a wide range of films before that including as Oskar Schindler in Schindler’s List (1993). Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, an upmarket gynaecologist with an office in a fashionable district of Toronto. David makes a trip to New York as part of his professorial role, not realising that Catherine has organised a lavish surprise birthday party for him in their designer house with a large number of guests. When he phones from New York to tell her he has missed his flight she is devastated. We wonder if he has taken up an offer of ‘a couple of drinks’ from a young woman. The marriage has not been going well and Catherine also deals badly with the realisation that her son Michael, a talented music student, has his girlfriend staying over on the night of the party without mentioning anything to her. Perhaps the actions of the two men in her life prompt her to take retaliatory action. She visits an up-market hotel bar and eventually singles out a young woman, the ‘Chloe’ of the title (Amanda Seyfried), as a high-class call girl. Catherine hires Chloe to make a play for David and then to report back what happens. We all know this is a crazy thing to do and that it will end badly. Why does she do it?
This is the set-up and you can probably write your own script as to how it works out – complete with an explosive finale. I think the only reason I continued watching was because of the relationship between Catherine and Chloe. The two women are well-cast and Julianne Moore is a fine actor who has taken on a wide range of roles. I know less about Amanda Seyfried but she’s very good in this, presenting the kind of steely determination that sometimes transforms her into an almost automaton-like figure, a simulacrum, a sex toy with a sharp brain – but with a fierce determination to get what’s best for her out of every situation.
At times this feels like a Paul Verhoeven movie. There is an early dialogue exchange with a patient in which Catherine dismisses the female orgasm as just a muscle contraction. Yet something is propelling her forward into the arrangement she has started and perhaps it is the excitement of the subterfuge as well as a substitute for what is not happening in the marriage? But it’s also something Chloe can manipulate. Catherine asks her to give her details of everything that Chloe has done with David and she is clearly aroused by hearing the details. Chloe knows how to exploit that arousal. But what if she’s making it all up? Chloe is like a stalker Catherine has invited into her family and inevitably Chloe will make a play for Michael. In fact Chloe will go wherever she pleases and every new action will increase her hold over Catherine. Catherine will try to stop all of these actions, but what if she can’t?
Unlike The Daughters of Fire, Chloe offers the audience a good deal of female flesh but seemingly without the suggestion that it is about female desire rather than the male gaze. Amanda Seyfried is presented dressing in lingerie for her sex work under the titles at the start of the film. Later both she and Julianne Moore will strip for the camera gaze – but Liam Neeson will remain clothed for sex with Chloe (‘real’ or imagined). It doesn’t seem a fair swap. On the other hand, this is clearly a female-centred narrative in which David and Michael are only there to fuel the desire that links Catherine and Chloe. As I watched I felt concern for Catherine – how exposed and vulnerable she was prepared to make herself. I’m wondering about how the French original handled Catherine’s desire for sexual excitement and her need for self-esteem in her failing marriage (and mother-son relationship). I found myself admiring Chloe’s cunning, her bravery and her ‘professionalism’ while being repelled by her coldness.
As one IMDB user suggests, one of the film’s attractions is to see Toronto playing itself rather than as a stand-in for a US city. It’s an upmarket Toronto in the snow and at times I wanted to shout at Catherine who seems oblivious to the weather with bare legs and high heels in the snow and slush. Chloe is actually more sensibly dressed for the outdoors. I can’t come to a final decision about the film. Its plotting did keep me watching, though I do feel it could have done more with the basic idea. The script was adapted from Anne Fontaine’s original by Erin Cressida Wilson. I’m intrigued to see that she was a film and literature academic and that she was involved in two other high-profile adaptations, Secretary (US 2002) and The Girl on the Train (US 2016). The three films make an interesting trio, each focusing on a form of ‘transgressive’ behaviour of a central female character. I think now I’ll have to look for the Anne Fontaine original of Chloe. I do wonder how this film would have worked out directed by a woman.