The first images from writer-director François Ozon’s ribald new thriller, Double Lover, see a young woman getting her hair cut, the long black tendrils, wet and slick, giving way to a choppier, shorter style. Her eyes burn from behind the serrated line of her bangs. Ozon then cuts to the inside of a vagina, what Erica Jong called those “collapsing caves of flesh”—soft and pink, like a child’s plush throw pillow, the bundle of erogenous nerves quivering as a gynecological tool is slowly removed and the camera pulls back. We hear the faint grinding of the metallic tool retracting, and the squishy convulsions of the muscle, before the image dissolves to an eye, unblinking and open.
Chloé (Marine Vacth), a 25-year-old former model, has had several lovers in her life, none serious, and as a result, she thinks that she may be incapable of true love. She’s been suffering from mysterious stomach pains, the cause of which, a doctor surmises, must be psychological. So she’s sent to see a therapist. Ozon’s compositions, often favoring symmetrical shots and loyal adherence to the “rule of thirds,” often suggest modern paintings, clean yet equivocal, detailed yet lacking depth. The filmmaker likes smooth surfaces and young faces. Chloé is later hired as a watch woman at a museum, which furthers the film’s ideas of voyeurism, an almost insalubrious peeping quality (the vagina dissolving to an eye makes this comically pronounced; later, a cat watches Chloé have sex), as well as a world that feels more like an art piece than reality. Indeed, the spiral staircase that she ascends toward the therapist’s office is the kind of decadent architecture one only finds in art exhibitions and European thrillers about beautiful people.
It takes all of 12 minutes for Chloé to fall in love with her therapist, Paul (Jérémie Renier). Using a bevy of effects—double exposure, split-screen, various shifts in focus, and so on—Ozon makes the two appear impossibly close, almost overlapping, Bergman-style. They move in together, and it isn’t long before Chloé starts to grow distrusting. She finds his passport amid the miscellany of items packed away in boxes and discovers that he used to go by a different name. Paranoia sets in as she begins to see Paul in strange places, talking to strange women, appearing miles away from where he’s supposed to be. At one point, their cat gets locked in a closet without explanation. He has to work late more frequently. What is he up to? Is she losing her mind?
Though Double Lover has a slight oneiric quality from the start, it grows increasingly delirious, the plot threads knotting in convoluted patterns and the overall mood more and more ridiculous. Chloé is sent to another therapist, who looks exactly like Paul and claims to be his brother, though Paul maintains he has no brother. Nothing is as it seems, yet everything is so obvious. Ozon loves to zoom toward characters’ faces as they stare off into the ether, flummoxed or contemplative. The score is all trepid strings making typical thriller sounds, and in calmer moments daydreamy synths hum.
Double Lover brings to mind Brian De Palma’s Passion with its narrative modesty, its obsession with duality, and the emotional mendacity of a relationship founded on lies. The whole film is filtered through Chloé’s perspective, and it exudes an intimate, unhinged feeling. Ozon directs with his usual flair, finding ways to suggest, if often conspicuously, the theme of duality, the great motif of psychological thrillers—catching Chloé’s face glinting off of the nameplate emblazoning a psychologist’s office door, traffic lights gleaming against windows transecting her. All those symmetrical shots with Chloé situated evenly between paintings, between benches and window frames, give a sense of suffocating entrapment. If Ozon jettisons any sort of profundities in Double Lover, instead focusing on genre mechanics, he at least manages to keep the film entertaining throughout its 130 minutes.
It can be difficult finding the thematic and aesthetic threads that hold together Ozon’s films, and this is partially what makes him such a fascinating and infuriating filmmaker. Here, in this amusing ode to Hitchcock (though at times the silliness recalls De Palma more), he eschews some of the portentous affectations that weighed down last year’s Frantz, a Lubitsch pastiche. Laced with Ozon’s tongue-in-cheek turpitude, Double Lover harkens back to the halcyon days of his transgressive films, the psycho-sexual deliberation of Swimming Pool and Under the Sand. Double Lover doesn’t have the salacious restraint of those films, both of which are more in the classical “art-house” vein, and there’s much less percolating beneath its lustrous modern surfaces, but it’s difficult to malign a thriller that seeks to simply amuse, and does just that. Everything that happens feels in service of the film’s genre rather than any metaphorical or observational importance or ontological musings. Ozon has a palpable reverence for this kind of sleazy escapism, and that’s what makes Double Lover worthwhile.