Throughout his career, Atom Egoyan has made a study of the way people’s lives and loves are mediated by technology—specifically, the video camera and, more recently, the computer. There’s a touch of that signature concern in his latest film (surfacing most pointedely in a breakup conducted via video chat), but mostly, Chloe, Egoyan’s first effort for which he didn’t contribute the screenplay, ditches the technology and focuses on the loves. The filmmaker said he was attracted to the script (written by Secretary penner Erin Cressida Wilson) because it examines the “process of storytelling and how people recount and narrate their own lives” and Chloe is intimately concerned with the power of words to shape fantasies and fuel jealousies and fears. This concept of narration as a medium for reimagining reality builds directly out of Egoyan’s last effort, 2008’s Adoration, but whereas that film felt overstuffed with densely wrought thematics, Chloe instead feels too hollow, a sexy but largely unilluminating narrative that finally devolves into a fairly conventional thriller.
At least for the film’s first half, Egoyan shows a flair for efficient storytelling, starting with the opening scene which quickly establishes both the movie’s central theme and its overriding air of sexual desire and fantasy. As the titular woman—a high-class prostitute played by Amanda Seyfried—posed with her back to the camera, seductively attaches her bra in front of a mirror, she intones on the soundtrack, “I guess I’ve always been pretty good with words.” As she continues to dress, Chloe goes on to explain that in her line of work words are every bit as important as physical gestures, and we soon see her wisdom in action. Befriending an upper-class gynecologist, Catherine (Julianne Moore), who suspects her professor husband (Liam Neeson) of cheating, she’s quickly hired by that woman to attempt a seduction of the spouse and to report on his response.
As they meet over several days at a local café, Chloe narrates the stages of seduction which lead from casual flirting to eventual sex, while Egoyan literalizes the actions in a series of scenes of indeterminate viewpoint that, at least initially, can be taken either as objective reality or as representing Catherine’s imaginings. Either way, it soon becomes clear that, for Chloe, this is narrative as seduction. As the café gives way to the hotel room and the details of the prostitute’s story become more intimate, she asks Catherine, “Does this turn you on?”—and it must because Egoyan pans down Moore’s lower half as she rubs her legs together in apparent excitement. Several scenes later, Moore and Seyfried are going at it in a sequence charged with undeniable erotic force, but which plays out more as a male’s lesbian fantasy than an occasion for female actualization.
Whether, as Catherine later claims, her encounter with Chloe was born of a desire to feel closer to her husband, or whether it resulted in a genuine same-sex attraction is an open question, but either way, Catherine soon calls off the affair. However ridiculous the film’s initial premise (why did Catherine go to all that elaborate trouble without first questioning her husband?) it at least yields some positive cinematic results—a provocative, if limited, exploration of sexual and personal identity, jealousy’s irrational operation, and narrative’s deceptive propensities. After Catherine spurns her lover, however (and after a surprise plot twist), the movie becomes little more than a rather ordinary spurned lover story, with an increasingly unhinged Chloe, whose character starts to devolve into a stock crazy, getting back at Catherine by seducing her teenage son. There’s some attempt to make the final act about something more than its creaky plot mechanics (Chloe offers a speech critiquing those who equate love with possession and commodity), but by the time of the film’s conclusion and the somewhat ironic restoration of the nuclear family, Egoyan’s latest has gone too far off the rails to return to the same neat order as Catherine’s surface-perfect household.