François Ozon’s new thriller Double Lover is a tongue-in-cheek valentine to nihilistic love affairs. Based on Joyce Carol Oates' novel Lives of the Twins, it begins where mysteries seldom do — at a beauty salon.
The film opens as a hairdresser cuts Chloé’s (Marine Vacth) fringe of long, dark hair shorter. The camera moves in close to her wet bangs and follows the horizontal path the scissors are taking. Chloé says nothing throughout; her expression stays hidden. This haircut doesn’t suggest a trace of self-indulgent pampering. It’s an aggressive action on her part to change her identity by trimming off the past.
Ozon previously worked with Vacth in his 2013 coming-of-age drama Young & Beautiful. In it, she played Isabelle, a teenager who rebels against her bourgeois parents by becoming an after-school call girl to much older men. But the movie’s message was muddled.
Ozon must have found inspiration for the character in Catherine Deneuve’s performance in Luis Buñuel’s Belle de Jour (1967). But Deneuve was as accomplished 24-year-old actress; she could communicate a need to experiment with her sexuality. In Young & Beautiful, Vacth too young and passive to stand up to the camera, and Ozon didn’t provide her with any reason, sound or otherwise, to account for her character's behavior.
Young & Beautiful revealed Ozon’s biggest weakness as a filmmaker and scenarist — his penchant for style over substance. Casting a matured Vacth, this time as a disappointed former model, the French director overcompensates in Double Lover for their previous, more laconic collaboration. Here he provides her with a wide variety of psychological motivations that could fill two to three different movies: absent father, troubled mother, lack of intimate relationships, no professional direction. After that intense haircut in the film’s opening scene, Chloé walks straight into a psychiatrist’s office and tells him about her sense of isolation and fragility after a recent breakdown.
Dr. Paul Meyer’s (Jérémie Renier) office may be elegant and cold — the waiting room contains a single white orchid on a black marble table — but the good doctor is anything but. Meyer’s combed, blond locks offer as much color and sunshine for the forlorn Chloé as does his smile. And in just a few short sessions, as in every analysand’s fantasy, the doctor and his patient fall in love. It’s right after they move in together that Ozon makes the decision to abandon the narrative rules he’s spent the first half hour of the film establishing.
But you won’t notice this shift while it’s taking place. You’ll be distracted by the geometric staircases and impeccably designed sets. And by the arrival of Meyer’s twin, and possibly evil, brother. You’ll also witness Chloé’s newly found orgasm, shown not once but twice, filmed pruriently in the couple’s bedroom by the ultimate voyeur — a filmmaking technique not unlike laparoscopy.
In addition to his depiction of inanimate and animate interiors, Ozon borrows freely and greedily from suspense films that have defined or redefined the genre. Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, Brian De Palma’s Dressed to Kill and David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers serve as obvious source material, to name just a few.
Like Young & Beautiful, Ozon can’t figure out if he’s empowering or exploiting his heroine. He does turn her into a top by providing her with a strap-on dildo. But he also wraps her story up in multiple layers of unreliability. The French title of the movie is L’amant double, but Ozon misleads Chloé and the audience so many times that a more accurate translation might read Red Herring: Make that a Double!
'Double Lover' opens Feb. 14 at the Landmark Opera Plaza in San Francisco.