Friday, 15 June 2018


Francois Ozon has a playful fascination with ambiguity, something film allows, if not encourages, in its story-telling. L'Amant Double (Double Lover) revels in its ambiguities, which are multi-layered and expansive: the entire story may be one thing or may be another. Or bits of each.

Chloe (Marine Vacht) is a beautiful but insecure ex-model, suffering from intense abdominal pain from no apparent source. She's retreated into a job as a museum guard, and the film opens with her hair being cut, as if to remove her female allure, and render her sexuality ambiguous. She begins seeing a psychoanalyst, Paul (Jeremie Renier). She seems to be making progress, but Paul needs to drop her as a patient because he is falling in love with her, and they begin an affair. Paul is very much in thrall to Chloe's beauty, while allowing her vulnerability space to exert her control over him. It all seems to progress, until she discovers Paul uses his mother's name, and has an identical twin brother, who is also a psychoanalyst. So she begins seeing Louis, and almost immediately is drawn into another affair, one in which she is dominated.

There is nothing particularly challenging here: in fact it's very much phallo-centric in the sense that as Louis dominates Chloe, she is freed, as it were to dominate Paul, and phallo-literally as we shall see. Renier's good at making the two brothers recognisably different; his Louis is very much hard-bodied, contrasted with Paul's crunchy preppy BCBG self, softened by jumpers and moony gazes. But simply take off Paul's smart-guy Clark Kent glasses and he turns into Louis' sexual Superman. You can't help but think Ozon is amused by all this: Paul can't stand Chloe's cat Milo ('my baby' she says—remember the stomach pains); while Louis has a very rare breed of chat—'un chat unique' he says, which if you don't know French is a pun because le chat is French for what Donald Trump grabs. These tortiose-shell felines are usually female, but males with three colours are always twins, xxy as it were. You see the point?

That's droll, but the film's funniest moment may be when Paul proposes to Chloe in a restaurant. As they walk home, she looks in a shop window—ah, the audience thinks, the ring?--and goes into a sex shop for a dildo. That night she pegs Paul, who despite his protestations of innocence, seems remarkably comfortable with the whole business. L'Amant Double didn't win any prizes at Cannes, but if the Adult Video Awards in Vegas have a best foreign strap-on gong, Vacth will be in the frame.

The most obvious antecedent for L'Amant Double is David Cronenberg's Dead Ringers, with Jeremy Irons as the twin shrinks and Genevieve Bujold as the insecure patient. Ozon's nods include Cronenberg's fascination with biological function: after the opening a scene of Chloe's hair being cut we go immediately to an extreme close up of a vagina held open by a speculum. We are confronted with a mind/body dilemma, which obviously is what Chloe needs to sort out, and like Ozon's twins, we the audience will have to try to figure out what it is. You can see, especially in some of the design and use of colour, Brian de Palma's Body Double, and that same sense of the exploitation that begins with our gaze on Vacth's elusive beauty: another of Ozon's amusing scenes has Vacth, feeling liberated, walking across the museum floor with her most aggressively alluring power-swivel cat-walk walk. Remember 'le chat'?

And of course there is Hitchcock, and Vertigo. It seems to be trying hard enough that in some ways the best comparison for Ozon might be the Coen Brothers, whose work delves in genre remakes, hommages, and increasingly, commentary. This is intensified by the production design by Sylvie Olive, especially the dual sets of the twin shrink's flats. In fact another of the movie's funniest moments is realising the parallels between the consulting brothers: by now you can probably figure from the stills which is Paul and which Louis. Ozon's constant framing of double-images, mirrors, reflections in rainy windows and even characters, with Jacqueline Bissett playing both the mother of a girl with whom the twins were once involved and Chloe's own mother.

This is apparently based on a suspense novel by Joyce Carol Oates writing as Rosamond Smith, though very loosely indeed. But that question of genre is crucial here, even to the basic point of Oates using a second identity for her delve into thrillers. Ozon might have gone back and absorbed Truffaut's interviews with Hitchcock before making this movie, studied the approach to dealing with audience expectations in genres, and one wonders in the end if perhaps it is too knowing, too detached, or if he's simply playing with that idea. He even inserts the Chekovian pistol, as if to nod knowingly to the viewer. But even when she is the penetrator we wonder. Is Chloe their victim? Is she ours? Vacth's beauty is in a sense too perfect and cold; her vulnerability is never more convincing than her allure. Think of the detachment Vacth showed in Ozon's Young and Beautiful (2013), and wonder where the audience is supposed to take this. Bisset's presence suggests a more straightforward kind of anger, a Fatal Attraction kind of moment, which is another way this film teases it might be heading. In one sense Ozon asks questions he really has no intention of answering, and in the end the explanations are as ambiguous as the questions. But beyound cinematic reference, imagine the Coen Bros. if they were French strutcuralists. After all, as Foucault formulated it, 'saying yes to sex is not saying no to power'. Ozon's film is almost perfectly constructed around this paradox, as is Vacth, and that seems to be the point. It is a cinematic hall of mirrors, and at its centre is Marine Vacth, as if she were Ozon's Tippi Hedren for the supposedly sexually empowered 21st century.

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