“It is a protean film, and changes radically depending on how you approach it.”
There has been some surprise about Toronto-based art film auteur Atom Egoyan’s involvement in what most reviewers have regarded as a soft-core erotic thriller. This perception may have been compounded by the origin of the project in Hollywood-based producer Ivan Reitman, who got his start producing and directing Canadian sex-horror exploitation features such as his own Cannibal Girls (1973) and David Cronenberg’s controversial commercial debut, Shivers (1975). But in fact, Egoyan’s films have been centrally concerned with sex since the beginning of his career, and their sexual content has been integral to the marketing of his films since his commercial breakthrough, Exotica, in 1994. Even films in which sex was subordinated to the main subject, such as The Sweet Hereafter (1997), Felicia’s Journey (1999), and Ararat (2002), prominently featured naked couples in their publicity. To be sure, this ploy is self-evidently related to the commercial realities especially of DVD marketing. But it also testifies to Egoyan’s refusal as a filmmaker to sever sexuality from its fundamental presence in the familial relationships at the core of all of his films. And it testifies to his role as heir to the sexually complex and unrelentingly intimate filmmaking of the great European auteurs of the past, in particular Bergman and Fassbinder, whose films, lest we forget, also straddled a fine line between exploitation and art (think of the prurient appeal of Bergman’s landmark adulation of Harriet Anderson in Summer with Monika , immortalized by the heavy breathing of young critics Godard and Truffaut, and the X-rating originally tagged on The Silence , Persona , and Cries and Whispers ; or the sexual demimonde explored both on- and off-screen by Fassbinder and his circle of collaborators). So perhaps we should not be surprised that Egoyan, screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson, and producer Reitman have taken a run-of-the-mill French sex-talk drama and “reinvented” it (to use their language) as a contemporary take on the classic European art film. What should surprise us is that they have actually managed to do it as well as they have.
This is the third widely distributed film Egoyan has made with sex at its center, but the first to focus so clearly on the European tradition. The tortured lives and thwarted viewer expectations of Exotica were of a piece with the new Canadian cinema of the late eighties and early nineties, while the sexual games of Egoyan’s disastrous big-budget foray, Where the Truth Lies (2005), were a mainstream refraction of the steamy and sophisticated behind-the-scenes exposé of Tinseltown decadence. With the notable exception of a Grand Guignol denouement borrowed straight from Fatal Attraction, there is in fact nothing much Hollywood about Chloe. Its microscopic dissection of its female characters’ sexual psychology and the complex dynamics of a troubled marriage hearken straight back to late Bergman (down to the erotic monologue between women, originated by Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann in Persona), as does its extensive reliance on close-up reaction shots, especially of Julianne Moore’s extraordinarily expressive features.1 Like Egoyan’s early features, the sexually transgressive potential of the familial tensions and the pushing of characters far beyond their own comfort zone echo Fassbinder’s emotionally unresolved and psychologically ambiguous melodramas. What is most French about the film — its casual female nudity and the central role played by its urban location (Toronto, rather than Paris) — is for me more a reflection of Canadian cinema’s adaptation of those Gallic tropes to its own filmmaking since the late eighties than a direct sign of the film’s Parisian origin. That those tropes — especially the nudity — happen to be shared with American soft-core and the erotic thriller has long helped to guarantee both French and Canadian cinema strong ancillary markets stateside. The resemblance cannot be discounted, but neither should it constitute the only critical rubric for analyzing and evaluating the film.
Although Egoyan’s narratives have always stressed sexuality in their psychology, only in his two “Hollywood” films has that sex become explicit and matched to the straightforward expectations of the mainstream Hollywood sex scene. Both Where the Truth Lies and Chloe feature simulated sex between older major male stars and young starlets; and both feature sex between women. The latter scene in Chloe is fairly indistinguishable stylistically from the soft-core staple, down to the elliptical cut from partially dressed in-plot-sequence kissing to musically accompanied close-ups of entwined naked bodies. Why does it matter? Serious movies have sex and plenty of dreck does not. Since Exotica, Egoyan’s films have often explored the ambiguous representation of sexual young women: Christina’s (Mia Kirshner) schoolgirl act in that film has splintered out through Nicole’s (Sarah Polley) incest victim in The Sweet Hereafter, the series of runaways taken in and murdered by Bob Hoskins’ Hilditch in Felicia’s Journey, the rape victims in the lurid film-within-a-film of Ararat, the callow young journalist and her Alice-in-Wonderland lover in Where the Truth Lies. Chloe fits right into this auteurist trait, but the only way to distinguish it from its generic resemblance to the oft-mentioned Shannon Tweed is to suggest that the characters themselves are unable to separate their sexual tastes from the video tropes we see them acting out. Catherine’s ambivalent post-coital response to Chloe — that she won’t deny that she enjoyed it but doesn’t ever want to do it again — nicely reflects the generic confusion of the scene, but in no way helps to resolve the dilemma in the absence of the auteurist context provided by Egoyan’s screenwriting signature of a complex time scheme and plenty of narrative misdirection.
Straightforward exposition has never been Egoyan’s forte, and some of Chloe‘s weakest moments can be blamed on its linear construction. The opening voiceover when Amanda Seyfried’s Chloe explains her “profession” to the audience is especially flat, as are the opening scenes she plays as a lacquered call girl. When Egoyan loosens her up once Julianne Moore’s gynecologist housewife Catherine appears, I briefly wondered if he was playing with expectations in his time-honored fashion: look at how much like a mechanical doll she seemed plying her trade with anonymous predatory rich men; look at how beautiful she gets once she is with someone she wants (Catherine). And, to be honest, Seyfried’s acting chops eventually persuaded me this was the case — she almost held her own with Moore’s spectacularly nuanced face and easily matched Neeson’s thankless cardboard figure. There’s the core of a decent drama buried here, the innovatively gender-bending portrait of a mid-life crisis of a successful doctor whose hazy realization of a loss of desire for her spouse and loss of self-confidence in herself leads her into an intense affair. And Moore has the capacity to make us believe it as few actors could. That core may not have made a great film, but it’s enough for a warmly human one. But there is so much here to get in its way. Why do the principals have to be wildly and incomprehensively successful career people — a jet-setting academic whose actual field is so difficult to identify that we can’t even question its lack of verisimilitude; and a gynecologist who seems to understand her specialty so poorly that her consulting room has been equipped with enormous plate glass windows whose curtains never close and a bedside manner that makes Cronenberg’s Mantle Twins look compassionate. This allows her to watch from her window as Chloe prostitutes herself in a neighboring upscale hotel, but doesn’t make a lot of professional sense. And what about the rebellious and gifted teenage son, inexplicably equally adept as concert pianist and star hockey player. (Is he in high school? College? Apparently we don’t need to care, although we do see a bunch of young people in school uniforms at what looks like a graduation party at the end of the film.)
Better is the Stewart family’s neo-modernist glass house, played by local architect Drew Mandel’s 2004 Ravine House with an expanded reproduction of the bedroom built on set. The setting, all rectilinear floor-to-ceiling glass panels allowing total observation from any point, is patently unsuited for the coldly isolated family and a mother obsessed with spying on her son and husband. This very unsuitability effortlessly conjures up the lost intimacy the couple regret later in the film, as we imagine the exhibitionistic utopianism and confident perfectionism that motivated the move into this space (Catherine’s waiting room prominently displays a framed blow-up of a decade-old newspaper feature about how the couple balance their careers). Moore brings Chloe into her street accidentally on purpose partly to show the house off to her, and Chloe later insinuates her way into it by seducing the son. But she exits (maybe it’s real, maybe it’s fantasy) by crashing out a plate-glass window into the wintery woods of the ravine behind, breaking through one of the many glass panels that have been associated with Catherine’s voyeuristic distance throughout the film.
Moore and Seyfried match the house’s cool elegance with quite a fashion show, especially their fashionably high heels (featured, for example, in the low shots beneath the bathroom stall partition where the two first meet), and Egoyan backs a number of shots with fashion billboards or hoardings, but it’s not clear what they mean, whether they’re commenting on the city replete with spectacle (the old 1980s reading of his early films) or simply showing us what Toronto looks like circa 2009, another aspect of its sleek bars and chic restaurants. The exhibitionism echoes through the son’s girlfriend breaking up with him via Skype (why isn’t he wearing a headset, as any privacy-obsessed twenty-first-century son would do? So that his mother can overhear). Later, in an equally implausible bid for privacy, he steps outside to have a cellphone conversation with his dad about his mom — naturally she sees and hears this one, too. Both mom and dad receive compromising text messages on their handhelds. It’s been a while since Egoyan showed any traces of the early fascination with the mediating effect of technology that so strongly marked his films through The Adjuster; the later films continued to be centrally concerned with compensatory rituals and sexually infused emotional traumas, but in the mostly face-to-face terms we see in Chloe. Last year’s Adoration was a reasonably successful gambit to reconnect the later version with the earlier, as the central character’s video-conferencing is the focal point of his performance of a complex terrorism scenario. The Skype episode recalls the split-screen talking heads of that film; it does have one effective moment, when the girlfriend’s face on the screen changes expression, her video image “seeing” through the son’s webcam the mother listening to the conversation through the door she has just opened. But if Egoyan’s thinking seriously here about how our conceptions of privacy have been changed by technology, it’s not clear to me how.
This lack of depth to the film’s auteurist threads only emphasizes the mystery of Catherine’s motivation for hiring Chloe to seduce her husband or listening to the ensuing narratives of seduction without questioning their status as real. Whether she’s honestly concerned about her husband’s possible fidelity (probably) or gets off on the idea of Chloe having sex with her husband (appears so) or just has the hots for Chloe but can’t admit it (likely) is not a recipe for suspense or for any deep thematic resonance. Nor is the Fatal Attraction-style response of the smitten Chloe at all persuasive; she goes straight for the jugular, both figuratively (the son) and then literally. Nevertheless, there’s a powerful emotional kick from David and Catherine’s reconciliation, cannily framed inside a sidewalk restaurant terrace, shuttered up for the winter — the only truly private setting in the entire film, all the more effective because it normally would be public and exposed. Neeson and Moore play this extended scene in painfully realistic fashion, perfectly capturing its awkwardness and the difficulty they have in being honest with each other, the realism of the drifting apart of professional middle age. But the kick comes mostly from the actors and Egoyan’s wisdom in letting them loose and Moore’s extended close-ups, and not from much else. And then the plot kicks in again, and we have to watch Chloe’s heirloom hairpin drawing blood from Catherine’s exposed throat.
Given so many missteps, it was a bit of a surprise, then, to watch the French original, Nathalie, and to realize how much, for all their faults, Wilson’s screenplay and Egoyan’s film have improved on it. Egoyan’s actors inhabit their characters; Gérard Depardieu, Fanny Ardant, and Emmanuelle Béart play them. Chloe places the characters’ professions to the fore as professions — the first three scenes show Chloe “dressing” for work, Catherine with a patient, and David lecturing. Each of these scenes is risible in its own way, but each does provide a milieu for the character and establish a viable social context. Nathalie‘s characters exist in the never-never land of French movie stars, and its great “innovation” is to refuse us access to Depardieu’s character, forcing the viewer into the novel situation (for a French film, that is) of having to deal with a female character (Ardant) unmediated by her man. Unfortunately, that character’s crisis consists of her husband’s unapologetic philandering, a series of highly literary pornographic monologues voiced by Nathalie, a one-night stand with a young (male) waiter from a cocktail party, and a couple of girls’ nights out with Nathalie before returning, in peace, to her comfortably bourgeois life. Nathalie, meanwhile, is comfortable in her skin throughout the movie, from her introduction amidst a bevy of hot prostitutes in a glamorous brothel to several scenes establishing the forty-year-old Béart as plugged in and happy in the bohemian nightlife of Paris, a familiar repudiation of Anglo-American prudery. The director, Anne Fontaine, reported that she couldn’t even persuade the actors to go as far as being attracted to each other. So much for Anglo-American prudery. The French can do same-sex tension, social commentary, and slow-burn drama — see Sandrine Bonnaire and Isabelle Huppert in Chabrol’s La Cérémonie (1995) — but Chloe trumps Nathalie on all counts here.
There is a late-teenaged son in Nathalie, but he barely registers, except in one brief scene where Ardant sees him in bed with a girl through his open door and smiles tolerantly. She’s not sexually confused or troubled in any way, but just needs a little bit of fun to spice up her life. Wilson expands the role and ratchets up the tension straight into Egoyan territory, which, since Ararat, has featured intense, pretty young men who have serious issues with their mothers. Rather than a two-hander talk-fest between Ardant and Béart, we get a scenario closer to Pasolini’s sexual parable Teorema (1968), where a beautiful stranger enters an upper-class household, seduces every person in it, and disappears, leaving disequilibrium and disaster in his wake. However, Chloe‘s ending is far more ambiguous. Nathalie ended with the couple reunited and the prostitute going her happy way; for all its awkwardness Chloe’s genre-driven plot twist does have the great virtue, as Jonathan Rosenbaum pointed out in his defense of the film, of setting up the beautifully understated final scene.2 The elliptical cut from the aftermath of Chloe’s fatal fall to Michael’s graduation party clearly marks Chloe as a scapegoat in the classic sense, sacrificed by and ejected from the family circle in order to heal its rifts. The restored unity of the family is established by a simple sequence of eyeline matches across the crowded space of the house, its isolating and empty spaces for the first time filled with life and activity, echoing and mending the numerous failures and absences of the opening party scene. The ambiguity comes in the final turn to the private, a close-up of the back of Catherine’s head, where the infamous hairpin is prominently displayed, neatly balancing the early moment where, letting her hair down in the restaurant bathroom in a crisis of sexual self-confidence, she first encounters Chloe. Is it a gesture of memorial to a tragic death? a recognition of her guilt? a sign of enduring and unrealized passion? Is it a shared gesture or a private one? unconscious or defiant? However seriously we can take it after the generic lunacy that has just transpired, the gesture is a clear signal that the characters in this film are meant to have a life and a meaning beyond what we have seen on the screen, beyond the tropes and conventions of the erotic thriller. As with the enigmatic conclusions of many of his films, here too Egoyan wants to gesture at all that we may not yet have understood about these characters, and to gesture beyond the simple narrative closure we may have been expecting.
Finally, then, for all of the director’s protestations of being a hired gun exercising “other muscles” beyond those of the acclaimed auteur, there is still a lot of “Egoyan” here. He’s got the same talented crew as always, including Paul Sarossy’s cinematography, Mychael Danna’s score, Eve Egoyan’s musical supervision, Susan Shipton’s editing, Phillip Barker’s production design. But the core of actors, for the first time, is not there even in token form. Most strikingly, his wife and longtime collaborator Arsinée Khanjian is absent for the first time ever. And in a film about the floundering and final endurance of a long-term professional relationship, that feels a weighted choice. Just how it’s weighted, of course, is their concern. Both Egoyan and Moore have been quite forthcoming about the resonance of the film with their own experiences in long-term relationships, but Khanjian’s name was notably absent from interviews and publicity for the film. Similarly, there are none of the quirky individual character actors that gave such weight to Adoration, or the signifying cameos that punctuated Where the Truth Lies. Egoyan has said in an interview, “One of the things I promised myself I would do with this film was eradicate anything that referred to anything I had done before.”3 And, to be honest, this is the very first Egoyan film I’ve seen that doesn’t obviously feel like an Egoyan film.
Nevertheless, it does look like an Egoyan film, and while he may finally have severed his last link with self-referentiality in his use of actors and characters, he has certainly developed and refined a longtime interest in representing Toronto. Asked if he has recently been having a “love affair” with the city, Egoyan responded:
I always have. My first feature Next of Kin was shot in Kensington Market. It was totally Toronto. I think Exotica‘s Toronto, The Adjuster‘s Toronto. Ararat‘s Toronto. These are different areas of Toronto and different sorts of feelings of Toronto. . . . But these last two are taking a broader view of the city and are trying to imbue it with a sense of romance. I mean Adoration is sort of a desolate and kind of grungier sort of feeling of the city. And this one is certainly more glamorous.4
Wilson’s screenplay had moved Nathalie‘s location stateside to her own San Francisco; Egoyan successfully argued that it would work better for him in Toronto. He had done something similar by shifting Russell Banks’s New England-set The Sweet Hereafter to the Okinagan Valley and had tried in vain to persuade William Trevor to allow the Irish and Midlands settings of Felicia’s Journey to be removed to Victoria, BC, in both cases allowing his nativist knowledge of the locale to influence and deepen the film (and the latter one certainly suffered from his inability to do so). There is a lot of Toronto in Chloe, and Egoyan makes sure we know it, as if by setting it so blatantly in Toronto he can somehow will it into being a little local indie piece and not the multiplex fodder as which it has been distributed by Reitman and Sony. We get lingering close-ups on street signs of Bloor, Yonge, and Dundas; significant footage in the Allan Gardens Conservatory (including an initial set-up echoing some famously found footage in the Anglo-Canadian classic Goin’ down the Road); innumerable location-shot scenes in local cafes and trendy new restaurants and hotels; quite a few passing streetcars; and plenty of wintery scenes with genuinely dirty snow and see-your-breath cold. We get an extended shout-out to London, Ontario, indie band Raised by Swans as seduction ploy between Chloe and Michael. We admire recent architectural landmarks like Frank Gehry’s reinvention of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Will Alsop’s extension of the Ontario College of Art and Design, and Daniel Libeskind’s Crystal extension to the Royal Ontario Museum.
Chloe‘s Toronto is fascinating on a number of counts. It is, almost, exclusively, a city of wealth and power, counterpart to the sleek and sexy locations that grace so many Manhattan-set erotic thrillers and high-powered romances, advertising the city’s world-class stature. But doing this to Toronto had a special thrill, as Sarossy remarks in the production notes on the film’s web page, because Toronto is famous above all as the anonymous stand-in for other cities. Moreover, when playing itself in Canadian cinema, including many of Egoyan’s early films, it was predominantly used as a locus of modernist alienation, not as a site for rediscovering one’s identity.
Strangely, Chloe‘s characters are not especially alienated; or, better, it is not their alienation that interests the filmmaker. As opposed to the similar characters she played in Safe, Far from Heaven, and The Hours, Moore’s Catherine is not in fact trapped and disempowered by her social situation. It determines the trappings of her life — the showy office and showy house — but in fact the crisis comes from the loss of past happiness rather than the realization that her life had always been empty and false. We are never led to question the solidity of her relationship with David or its past happiness; indeed, the crucial moment of the film allows the couple to break through their estrangement and reestablish an intimacy signaled by the film as genuine and enduring. Left unsaid but strongly implied is that Catherine’s current crisis has been prompted by the recent loss of a similar intimacy with her son, breaking free from what appears also to have been a nurturing and happy childhood. In contrast to prior, and far more troubled, Egoyan youths, Michael is well adjusted, confident, and productive (it is strongly hinted that he has been somehow troubled, but beyond his estrangement from his mother, the film gives no further indication of these troubles). To be sure, Egoyan strongly hints at a less functional class milieu surrounding the Stewart family. We never know quite what to make of Catherine and David’s best friend Frank, apparently serially attracted to twenty-year-old trophy lovers (perhaps not coincidentally, his character is also the most direct carryover from Nathalie), nor the two bitter harpies Catherine lunches with one day, nor, of course, the various men we glimpse availing themselves in a more conventional manner of Chloe’s services. But these characters barely impact on our awareness, as the film is about the central quartet, and them only.
Still, it is significant that Egoyan and Wilson refuse to provide Chloe with any backstory or milieu, or to draw any contrasting spaces to those in which the Stewart family moves. Egoyan has repeatedly stated in interviews that he intended his portrait of Toronto to draw out the class dynamics and divisions of the city; however, he has chosen to do so in typically elliptical fashion rather than creating a low Toronto to contrast with the high that we see. We know from the contrast of Chloe’s awkward and stargazing entrance into the Ravine House with the easy presence of Michael’s girlfriend there at the start of the film that Chloe is a class outsider. But the refusal to contextualize could just as easily lead us to conclude that the film takes the unreal wealth and status of its characters as much for granted as they appear to do so. This was the assumption of the many reviewers who complained of its lack of credibility. The minority that discerned a critical distance from its class assumptions saw an attempt at Sirkian irony through mise-en-scene. But I don’t think even the film’s lack of coherence is consistent enough for the Sirkian template (or a Fassbinder-ish one, either, à la The Marriage of Maria Braun). Egoyan has never made a perfect film — he is always trying to do too many different things at once. What is different about Chloe is that its fragmentation comes more structurally, from its mix of genres and influences, than formally, from an overabundance of thematic threads. It is a protean film, and changes radically depending on how way you approach it. As an erotic thriller, it’s pretty mediocre exploitation; as art-film scenes from a marriage, it can be profoundly moving; as perhaps Toronto’s first true city-film, it’s an insider’s pleasure. It establishes Egoyan as a consummate actor’s director. But I hope Ivan Reitman hasn’t convinced the man he’s a genre director, because Egoyan is an auteur through and through.
- See Egoyan’s discussion of the close up as the quintessential feature of the big-screen experience in interview with Roger Ebert (one of Chloe‘s biggest supporters), at http://blogs.suntimes.com/ebert/a-conversation-with-atom-egoya.html. Andrew Sarris noted Persona as one of the rare antecedents of Nathalie in his review of the film in The New York Observer 30 April 2006: http://www.observer.com/node/38756 (6 July 2010). [↩]
- Jonathan Rosenbaum, “An Unidentified Subject (Egoyan’s Chloe),” Notes 29 March 2010: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=20199 (3 July 2010). [↩]
- Lee Shoquist, “Interview: Atom Egoyan,” n: zone 28 March 2010: http://www.atnzone.com/nz/2010/03/28/interview-atom-egoyan-chloe/ (3 July 2010). [↩]
- Peter Howell, “Toronto the . . . sexy? In Chloe, Egoyan turns our hometown into a hotbed of romance,” Toronto Star E02: 15 Sept. 2009. [↩]