Chloe (2009)

Chloe first published by Sight & Sound, March 2010

Review: Atom Egoyan is not only one of Canada’s most consistently engaging directors, but also a very talented writer, responsible for the screenplays (whether original or adapted) of all his features from Next of Kin (1984) through to Adoration (2008). So when the eponymous sex worker (Amanda Seyfried) of Chloe is heard declaring in voice-over at the film’s beginning, “I guess I’ve always been pretty good with words”, one might naturally suppose that this is also Egoyan setting out his stall, were it not for the fact that these very words are in no way his own. For this is the first time that he has availed himself of a screenplay written by someone else (Erin Cressida Wilson, Secretary, Fur: An Imaginary Portait of Diane Arbus), not to mention the first time that he has remade someone else’s film, namely Anne Fontaine’s Nathalie… (2003), or worked with Ivan Reitman and Tom Pollock, whom Egoyan himself describes (in the production notes) as “quintessential Hollywood producers”. 

In other words, Chloe both is and is not recognisable as an Egoyan film, as perhaps befits a story so concerned with surrogacy and masquerade. It is easy enough to discern here the director’s typical preoccupations with mystery, identity and eroticism – but then, Chloe ends up being somewhat closer to the prurient trashiness of a bog-standard erotic thriller than to the twisted equivocations of, say Egoyan’s own Exotica (1994) or Where the Truth Lies (2005). Part of the problem rests in the film’s hybrid nature. Wilson largely follows the template of Fontaine’s original film, but then awkwardly grafts on an altogether more sensational ending that undoes much of the preceding subtlety, transforming Chloe herself from mildly enigmatic cipher into full-blown ‘bunny boiler’ without the conviction of plausibility.

Despite its title, Egoyan’s film is less about Chloe than about Catherine (Julianne Moore), a middle-aged gynaecologist whose profession may grant her special knowledge of the inner workings of women, but still leaves her perplexed by her own shifting status as wife, mother and lover. Increasingly estranged from husband David (Liam Neeson) and suspecting that he is philandering, she hires the much younger Chloe in effect to do with David what she feels that she cannot do herself, and to report back in detail on what happens. Quick to grasp whose fantasies are really being serviced here and whose needs fulfilled, Chloe spins a seductive tale – and as Catherine is led up the garden path by Chloe’s expertly modulated narrative of desire, she is at last able to rediscover herself. 

Except that at a certain point Chloe commits its own act of infidelity against the film that inspired it, and the result is an adulterous imbroglio, as Catherine loves and leaves her own alternate, turning Chloe into a woman scorned, unhinged and ‘duly’ defenestrated. This third act is titillating stuff, to be sure, but it is also disappointingly generic and, like the ending to Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction (which was famously altered in response to negative test screenings), appears to have been custom-fit with a crowbar to bring an ‘Atom Egoyan film’ into the mainstream. Chloe may, in her opening monologue, suggest that if she does her job properly, she “can actually disappear” – but her permanent erasure in the film’s climactic scene is a conjuring trick too far, literalising a metaphor in such a way that what started off being suggestive and ludic (in a film where both main female characters feel invisible) ends up becoming merely ludicrous. 

At least Egoyan’s direction and some fine performances ensure that Chloe is a slick package. The snowy backgrounds of Toronto are used well to reflect Catherine’s own sense of frigidity – while Mychael Danna’s Hermannesque score might well have some viewers trying to lie back, close their eyes and think of Hitchcock. 

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Synopsis: In wintry Toronto, middle-aged gynaecologist Catherine is losing her sense of herself. Her adolescent son Michael is drifting away from her as he becomes sexually active, while she no longer feels attractive to her husband David, a flirtatious professor of music. Suspecting that David is cheating on her, Catherine employs young sex worker Chloe to test her husband’s fidelity. As Chloe reports back with tales of her escalating erotic encounters with David, Catherine finds herself both confused and aroused – but spurns Chloe’s attempt to kiss her in a hotel room still strewn with the detritus from Chloe’s latest assignation with David.  

That evening, after seeing David chat with a female student at Michael’s piano recital, Catherine flees to Chloe’s embrace, and spends the night with her. The following morning, Catherine awkwardly calls the affair off and returns home, where she starts exchanging bitter recriminations with David until they are interrupted by Michael. Later at work, confronted with compromising photos of herself and Chloe together, Catherine tries to pay Chloe off, but Chloe insists that she wants their relationship to go on. Realising that Chloe has also approached Michael, Catherine invites Chloe to meet in a café and settle things once and for all – but when Chloe arrives, it becomes clear that that David has in fact never so much as set eyes on the young woman. Catherine confesses all to David and, her marriage restored, heads for home – only to find Chloe in bed with Michael there. In the ensuing tussle, an unhinged Chloe is pushed out the window, and falls to her death. Catherine now wears Chloe’s hair clasp as a keepsake.       

© Anton Bitel