France/Belgium (2017) Dir. François Ozon
When a director’s reputation precedes them by a vast distance, reading the summary of their latest film fills you with either a cold dread or perverse excitement. And when that director is maverick auteur François Ozon and one early shot is an extreme close up of lady parts being held open with a speculum, all bets are off.
This intimate anatomy belongs to Chloé (Marine Vacth), a young woman suffering from severe stomach pains she is convinced is psychosomatic so begins therapy with a shrink, Dr. Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier). After a few sessions, they start to develop feelings for one another and soon enter into a relationship, but after moving in with Paul, Chloé finds evidence that suggests he might be living a double life.
Sounds a bit too straightforward for an Ozon film, right? Of course it is, so here comes the early twist – Chloé investigates what she thinks is Paul’s psychoanalyst alter ego, learning it is in fact his twin brother Louis (Renier again). Despite differences in their attitudes, Chloé begins a torrid affair with Louis awakening deep sexual desires that cloud her emotions. But Chloé is perplexed as to why Paul never mentioned he had a twin, opening a Pandora’s Box of secrets and further confusion.
In some countries, the idea of one twin being evil was an old superstition and a fertile concept for storytellers in others. With L’Amant Double (Double Lover in English) Ozon isn’t entirely to blame for perpetuating this myth as it is based on the 1987 novel Lives Of The Twins by American author Joyce Carol Oates.
But, what is shown onscreen is down to Ozon and true to form, no punches are pulled, illustrated by the opening shot mentioned earlier. Earning its 18 certificate are the very steamy and often kinky sex scenes, including Chloé sodomising Paul with a strap-on to celebrate Chloé’s birthday (as you do), which do have a purpose within the narrative beyond gratuitous titillation.
This is a tale of a woman suffering a psychotic breakdown but is unaware of this because she has become the plaything of the two brothers. Sort of. Louis is definitely all about the sex whilst Paul does have genuine feelings for Chloé, but one thing neither is willing to share with her is the truth. She has to effectively drag the admission out of Paul that he has a twin yet he won’t go into detail as to why he shut Louis out, while Louis is happy to dangle morsels of information for Chloé to look into.
Chloé’s first tactic when first meeting Louis is to pretend she is her own sister Eva and hiding her relationship with Paul, but Louis susses Chloé out almost immediately. Still believing Louis is Paul messing about, Chloé tries to seduce him to no avail but a spark is ignited and they move onto physical therapy, with Louis satisfying Chloé in a way Paul doesn’t.
Aside from the bonking, the theme of duality is explored in numerous guises, from the obvious visual leitmotif of mirrors creating two of everything, to the scientific musings about the relationship between twins, going as far back as the womb. Louis explains that in every instance, one twin is always more dominant than the other, and this is why Paul, as the younger twin, resents him, but as Louis becomes more possessive over Chloé, she wonders if Louis is the weak twin instead.
Ozon deliberately lays the ambiguity on with spades in ensuring the audience has no more idea than Chloé in determining which brother is telling the truth, since both provide a compelling argument. The issue is confused further as neither brother is seen together and somehow has evaded the knowledge of many colleagues in the same profession, creating the idea this is an illusion of Chloé’s own making.
Perhaps the most ambitious scene visually is Chloé hallucinating during sex with Paul, as Louis enters the room, the two brothers kiss (!) then both make love to Chloé, whose body then morphs into a conjoined twin so she can enjoy them both. It’s a wonderfully seamless piece of editing if a bit freaky to watch but it crystallises the dualism existing in Chloé‘s fragile psyche.
With so much mystery about the brothers remaining the third act returns to the straight drama of the beginning, with Chloé chases up a lead referring to an incident from their past. This introduces veteran British actress Jacqueline Bisset to the film, playing the mother of a girl the brothers once knew and, well I won’t spoil anything but if there is a spiral that doesn’t to go out of control, it does here.
Through clever camerawork, inventive editing, and use of psychedelic visual effects, Ozon creates a palpably disturbing nightmare world for Chloé to navigate. Cruelly framing her as both a victim and a culprit of her own fate, this might reek of misogyny given the lack of clarity about the brothers’ true feelings for her. The interpretation is Chloé is either suffering from her own psychosis or being exploited by the brothers because of it – that is if there is a point to this.
Jérémie Renier was nominated for awards in France for his portrayal of the bothers, and indeed, he successfully establishes their conflicting personalities whilst keeping an air of doubt about them. However, I’d proffer Marine Vacth has the tougher role, baring herself literally and figuratively in conveying the complexities and nuances of Chloé’s suffering, sexual awakening and emotional trauma, even during the comedy horror denouement.
Whatever Oates’ novel supposedly had to say, L’Amant Double doesn’t appear to follow, and therein lays the problem – is Ozon out to shock us just for the hell of it or is there a meaning present we’ve somehow missed? Like its protagonist, we are taken to the edge but of what, I’m not sure, leaving us with an admittedly riveting, subversive, albeit slightly daft, psychosexual thriller.