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After a foray into relatively restrained period filmmaking in the recent, World War I-set Frantz, Francois Ozon is back to his old tricks — and really, who’s complaining? Premiering in competition at Cannes, the French auteur’s L’amant double certainly won’t win any prizes for taste, coherence or originality. But it’s got style, sex appeal and a delicious streak of batshit crazy that this year’s sleepy main slate sorely needed — think endoscopic vaginal shots, “twincest” fantasies, voyeuristic cats both live and stuffed, a creepy, perennially cake-bearing neighbor and Jacqueline Bisset in a dual role. (And I didn’t even mention the strap-on.)
“Loosely based” on the Joyce Carol Oates novel Lives of the Twins (written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith), this gloriously trashy, shamelessly derivative mashup of David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers, Brian De Palma’s Sisters and Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby should have no problem finding an audience in European and North American art houses. Its reception in France’s psychoanalytic and psychiatric circles may be less assured; the film is like a feature-length PSA against Gallic shrinks.
The story opens with Chloe (Marine Vacth of Ozon’s Young & Beautiful), a quintessential Parisian beauty of 25, whom we see glowering into the camera as she gets her hair cut; the resulting pixie ‘do recalls Mia Farrow’s Rosemary, just the first in Ozon’s giddy parade of cinephilic winks and nods. We then find Chloe in a gynecologist’s examining room, where the doctor tells her that the abdominal pains she’s been suffering from are surely anxiety- or depression-related. Chloe asks for a psych referral: “I think I’m ready,” she says rather gravely.
Cue her first appointment with Dr. Paul Meyer (Dardenne brothers regular Jeremie Renier), a blond, boyishly handsome therapist whose sweater-and-spectacles look is as reassuring as his professional manner. Chloe immediately takes to their sessions, certain moments of which Ozon presents via split-screen placing the two characters in an intimate face-to-face formation. “When I see you, I feel like I exist,” Chloe confides at one appointment, noting that her melancholy and ennui — as well as her stomach symptoms — have lifted.
And not a moment too soon, as Paul explains, for he has fallen in love with her and is ethically obligated to discontinue their therapy. Luckily (or dysfunctionally, depending on how you look at it), the feelings are mutual. Doctor and patient kiss, and before long Chloe and her beloved feline companion Milo are moving into Paul’s apartment.
While unpacking, Chloe opens a box of Paul’s personal belongings, picks up his passport and notices there’s a different last name on it: Delord. Perturbed, she gently pleads with him, “Promise to tell me everything and hide nothing.” Good luck with that, girlfriend.
Soon after, from her seat on the bus, Chloe spots Paul talking to a woman in front of a building. When she inquires about it that night, Paul insists it wasn’t him. It doesn’t take long for Chloe (whose job as a museum attendant seems to leave her a lot of free time) to track down the man she saw: Dr. Louis Delord, a psychoanalyst who happens to be Paul’s estranged identical twin (also played by Renier).
Chloe makes an appointment, and quickly learns that Louis is quite the opposite of Paul — as foreshadowed by the fake plant in his waiting room (unlike Paul’s real one) and the chilly modern décor of his office, all sharp edges and sleek surfaces. With his slicked-up hair, smart suits and superior semi-sneer, Louis is a Lacanian nutjob whose methods include insulting Chloe, abruptly ending their sessions after a few minutes and, most unconventionally, “applied techniques,” which amount to seducing his new patient into sexual submission.
The encounters between Chloe and Louis are giggle-inducing; Ozon isn’t going for subtlety here, as indicated by a shot that closes in on the O of Chloe’s mouth as she climaxes then segues into a glimpse of the inner workings of the female anatomy during orgasm. But in addition to their cheekiness, the erotic scenes in L’amant double carry a genuine charge of weirdness and wildness — never more so than when Chloe fantasizes that she’s having a threesome with the brothers, first as herself and then as a pair of Siamese twins (which, I suppose, would be a foursome). Making onscreen sex play like something we haven’t seen a million times already is always risky (just ask Abdellatif Kechiche, the maestro behind the spank-heavy bouts of coitus in 2013 Palme d’Or winner Blue Is the Warmest Color). So: Kudos, Ozon.
Chloe keeps her affair with Louis — and her knowledge of his very existence — a secret from Paul, though she tries to provoke the latter into coming clean with such leading questions as: “Have you ever wished you had a twin brother?” To reveal more about how the relationships between Chloe, Paul and Louis unfold would be to spoil the funhouse of motifs (mirrors, duh!), references and thriller tropes that Ozon has assembled with great flair and an infectious sense of mischief.
L’amant double may be one of the filmmaker’s sillier works (and for the director of 8 Women and Potiche, that’s saying something). But its tale of doubles, deception and desire allows Ozon to fool around with some of his favorite themes — the turbulent inner lives of complex women, the distance between appearance and reality, the essential unknowability of even our most intimate loved ones, the necessity of imagination in enduring everyday life.
Meanwhile, the director’s supreme control is fully evident in the cool elegance of his compositions (DP Manu Dacosse does terrific work) and the tonal confidence that’s sustained from start to finish. He also gets the most out of his cast: Often shot in lush close-up, Vacth conveys a captivating fragility spiked with a dash of deviousness, and she’s nicely matched by Renier, who, as Louis, plays enjoyably against good-boy type. The ever-regal Bisset has fun as two different mothers, and Myriam Boyer almost walks off with the whole movie, going full camp as a kooky neighbor vying for the title of Worst Catsitter Ever.
By turns gently emotional and aggressively nerve-jangling, Philippe Rombi’s score swerves and shifts almost as much as the storyline. It’s the perfect accompaniment for a film that’s made with serious craftsmanship but never takes itself seriously.
Production company: Mandarin Films
Cast: Marine Vacth, Jeremie Renier, Jacqueline Bisset, Myriam Boyer, Dominique Reymond
Director-writer: Francois Ozon (loosely based on the novel Lives of the Twins by Joyce Carol Oates)
Producers: Eric and Nicolas Altmayer
Director of photography: Manu Dacosse
Production designer: Sylvie Olive
Editor: Laure Gardette
Costume designer: Pascaline Chavanne
Music: Philippe Rombi
Casting: Sarah Teper, Leila Fournier, Anais Duran
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Competition)
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