Sublimated Rage, Sex and the History of Cinema: An Interview with Chloe Director Atom Egoyan

Toronto-based Egoyan fuses Melodrama with the Psychological Thriller and meticulously constructs a classic star vehicle for one of the finest working American actresses, Julianne Moore.


Director: Atom Egoyan
Cast: Julianne Moore, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson
Rated: R
Studio: Sony Pictures Classics
Year: 2010
US date: 2010-03-26

Catherine (played by Julianne Moore) is a successful, beautiful doctor living in a ritzy neighborhood with her professor husband David (Liam Neeson) and beautiful teenage son Michael (Max Thieriot). This is a family that from the outside appears to have everything. Michael excels at sports and is a concert pianist. Catherine manages a successful career while also appearing to be the perfect wife and mother (effortlessly and in heels, nonetheless). David is a reknowned lecturer whose work frequently takes him out of town. From New York, he calls Catherine as she readies a surprise birthday party at their immaculate, expansive home to let her know that he has missed the only flight back to Toronto. Deflated, Catherine's suspicions become aroused and it is at precisely this point where Canadian director Atom Egoyan is able to draw spectators into the tangled web of miscommunication, deceit and intrigue hook, line and sinker. Add in the slightly sinister, ghostly appearance of a young call girl named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried, playing bravely against type) and the lines that Egoyan sketches become the perfect outline for a bold deconstruction of the old trope of "the perfect family".

As Chloe centers on the kind of multi-faceted female protagonist that is rarely glimpsed in contemporary English-language filmmaking, it is no surprise to see Moore cast in the part. The actress has become one of the most inventive actresses working today, again challenging conventional, conservative attitudes about sex. Creating indelible characters with, shall we say, unique erotic lives in trailblazing, original films such as Boogie Nights, The End of the Affair and Savage Grace and working alongside auteurs such as Robert Altman (Cookie's Fortune and Short Cuts), Todd Haynes (Far from Heaven, I'm Not There and Safe) and Louis Malle (Vanya on 42nd Street), has earned Moore a reputation for being the go-to actress when it comes to the depiction of complicated maternal struggle, challenging female sexuality and intense emotional intricacy.

I asked the self-effacing performer about the significance of choosing such thorny, often incendiary material on a recent trip to New York. "That's hard!" said Moore with a deep belly laugh. "I don't particularly choose material based on that tenent. I basically just choose stuff based on story, really. And if the story is compelling... I like behavior, I like relationships. You know? At a certain point in my career I realized my movies were about relationships because I do think that at the end of the day, I think that is all that really matters. Who we know, who we love, who we spend time with. Zadie Smith said something really interesting in her new book, she said, talking about acting, that there was an actor who was dismissed as being a "family" film actor, as if it was nothing, as if "family" wasn't the major narrative of our lives. I thought, "wow, that's fantastic" because that's how I feel too. Your family, the people you marry, your friends. That's the story. I'm always drawn to material that is about these relationships..."

Familial relationships are a recurring theme in Egoyan's filmography as well, with such stand outs as Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter (which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Director), and Felicia's Journey dissecting the often dangerous, bruised tissues that bind families -- both biological and chosen -- together, particularly in delicate or unusual situations. With Chloe, the director's reverence for classic Hollywood -- particularly for the melodrama of Douglas Sirk and the thrilling psychological twistiness of Alfred Hitchcock -- informs screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson's raw look into the psyche of a woman confronting age, infidelity, empty nest syndrome and new carnal desires. The result is a slick, composed meditation on marriage, success, deception and family ties that provides Moore with a welcome chance to shine in a lead role, which she knocks out of the park as is her usual custom. I spoke with Egoyan in New York about working with Moore and Cressida Wilson to create such a dynamiccharacter, the wildly-shifting entity known as film criticism and why there is more to film history than just Star Wars.

* * *

Strong, surprising female characters have been a tradition in your films. Why is this important to you?

When I read this particular script, it seemed like an amazing story, because any other tale I had ever encountered about someone testing the fideilty their spouse, it is usually a man testing the fidelity of the wife. That goes from Cymbeline and Shakespeare to Cosi fan tutte to even Cervantes and Don Quixote. It's a common thread, but it is usually the men testing the fidelity of their lovers. In this case, to have a woman testing the fidelity of her husband seemed unusual. It really was unusual have the film center around these two strong, complex women with competing fanatasies of who the other might be. Then to have the husband play the traditional "wife" role in the film, that was, to me, somehow very different.

What do you think are the biggest mistakes that a director can make when depicting sex for the screen?

To forget that it's first and foremost of the mind. That it's basically two people who have all sorts of histories racing throught their minds. Its an essential part of our make-up. Its not something to compartmentalize outside of our day to day lives, it is something that is with us all the time. It's part of our sense of who we are. People have been asking about these scenes in the film and they are treated as dramatic scenes. There's a continuity between all the other material and those scenes and so the actors feel that connection, I think as we all need to be connected to our sexual selves. It's not outside of who we ever are.

What's the most surprising thing about working with an actor like Julianne Moore?

That she's capable of detailing the most obscure or mysterious nuance you could think of. Her face is both iconographic yet open to surprise. She's able to seem at once completely accessible yet hidden and that's an incredible alchemy. She's playing a character that starts off by saying "an orgasm is a series of muscle contractions, there's nothing mysterious or complicated about it," and you still kind of feel like you're with her, which is just kind of odd. But she can pull that off. It's funny, from the moment I saw her in Vanya on 42nd Street way back when, I just thought "this is an extraordinary instrument". You know? If I can be that cold. That's what actors have and she has this really amazing presence -- at once accessible and complex, and full of ambiguity.

You've taught at the University of Toronto and even established a scholarship for cinema studies students? ...

Yes, it was a very specific course, called "Transgressions" and it was basically trying to find links between the parameters of different art forms like visual arts, music, drama, cinema. It was a course geared towards really selected graduate students who were interested in making those links. I am a huge opera buff and I direct opera. It was really concentrating on how opera is a form that connects all of these different arts. It was fun. Its a tough thing to pull off when you're trying to keep a career. I was teaching at the University of Toronto, which is my alma matter and it was so great to be back. They were setting up a graduate school of cinema, so I set up a scholarship for graduate students.

What's the importance of a continuing education in cinema studies, do you think?

Well, it goes without saying: it is the major art form of our time. It alarms me sometimes that so much film history in people's imaginations begins with Star Wars or perhaps now even later than that. For the next generation it will probably be Lord of the Rings. There's a very rich history of cinema that people don't understand or have access to and it is important to keep a level of scholarship which is able to keep the language of those earlier films alive and present. As the industry goes through these major revolutions we have to understand the importance of silent cinema, the importance of the early experiements in sound, we have to understand all of these different phases that cinema has gone through as an art form and keep it as rigorous a study as we apply to music or painting or any other art form.

In Chloe, Amanda says "I hate the internet". I was wondering what your thoughts are on film criticism now that the internet has changed it so much?

It's an amazing, amazing opportunity to allow people to spend as much time as they need to discuss a film and to present the point of view of a film without any restriction in terms of word count. The problem is that we've lost the sense of a central kind of authority. Maybe that's good, but it's also sad because we don't have a defining person that we wait to interpret the film for us, it's kind of becoming more and more a group or sort of overall consensus. While that's great for the democratization process, it makes it more difficult for challenging marginal work to find its audience if no one is going to particularly shepard it through to the public. It's funny, I was just reading a book about early Hollywood and the role of certain critics like James Agee or Manny Farber. These are people who were really able to present these films in a way that the whole nation would kind of learn to read. Or Pauline Kael. I think we are kind of losing that time, and it is sad.

What are the top films every cinephile should see?

Vertigo is right up there. The Godfather is right up there. 8 1/2 by Fellini for me is up there. Some of the other ones for me are a bit more obscure. I do think Citizen Kane deserves it's reputation.

Continuing with the thread of classic Hollywood, perhaps it was the presence of Julianne Moore -- who recalls Far from Heaven -- but the house that you use in Chloe felt like a modern sort of Douglas Sirk interior...

This is a melodrama and it is different from my other movies in that way. Melodrama is about unfiltered access to emotion and to make melodrama work, it has to be really well performed. Obviously, I am a huge fan of Todd Haynes' work and we're not doing that sort of a film, but it just seems to me that we had three performers who could pull off what is becoming really difficult, which is a classic melodrama. I happened to win the Douglas Sirk award last year from the Hamburg Film Festival, so it was an interesting moment, when I had this trophy, I thought "ok, this gives now me license to do the most Sirkian movie I have done yet..."[laughs]

And now a nerdy filmmaking technique question: I enjoyed the point of view you chose when Catherine gets the pivotal call from David in the beginning that sets up the story. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about that scene and maybe about why you chose this particular angle?

Well, again, one of the attractions of this house was that it afforded these angles where characters watched one another through glass and they're aware of being observed. As someone who has designed this house as a weird sort of observation deck on which to observe her family, its funny that suddenly it turns against Catherine in that scene and everyone at the party is suddenly watching her. So, I think it kind of createsthis compression of all the things she is feeling in terms of her life slipping away.

I found Catherine's speech on aging in Chloe to be really poignant. How important is age to the story?

Really important. It's about a woman who is feeling like she is disappearing who once felt that she was more attractive to her husband. She even says that she does not feel like she is there. That's terrifying. Similarly, because of this image she has of her husband as becoming more and more attractive [as he ages] and being surrounded by all of these fawning young students, she kind of presupposes that he doesn't need to hear from her that he is attractive. That's also really important.

I was really interested in the ideas on trust that you present in Chloe. Not even really so much about trust, but about grand deceptions. How do you think one can explore mystery in a long term relationship without resorting to being secretive?

Oh God! If I had the answer to that... [laughs] I just think that sometimes relationships are kind of reinvented at moments when you least expect them to. No one knows. It is just the most mysterious thing. At a certain point in a long term relationship you have to address that you have changed from the person you were when you met. Your sexual needs have changed. Your emotional needs have changed. The relative position you have with each other has been fundamentally altered by experiences that life throws at you, so you can't just let that go. I think a lot of couples do let that go. Then the question becomes "what do you do?" And people have all different solutions and I think anything goes in a marriage, you know gay, straight, whatever. Whatever it takes, people have all sorts of solutions and as long as neither party is getting hurt, I think that that is legitimate. I think when you start moralizing and kind of going "oh, well that's wrong, it might be wrong for you but it might be exactly right for what those people need in their marriage and their relationship. So there's no easy answer to that except that you have to be vigilant, you have to sort of read the signs and know when things are not as good as they can be.

Chloe opens March 26 in select theaters.

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