Writer-director Atom Egoyan addresses sexuality so directly and so seriously, so free of sex-comedy snickering or mainstream prudery, that even his less successful efforts offer the pleasures of adults working out relationships, in and out of the bedroom, clothes on or off. Even his hang-ups begin to seem healthy.
In his new film Chloe, Catherine (Julianne Moore) suspects her husband David (Liam Neeson) of adultery, perhaps with one of the students who fawn over him in his university music classes. In a decision equally reminiscent of classic thrillers and Penthouse letters columns, she hires an attractive call girl, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), to come on to him and report back about his behavior. The thriller-meets-Penthouse solution also shapes Catherine’s reaction to Chloe’s reports, which is somewhere between agitated and aroused.
To be fair, Catherine seems pretty agitated from the start. She and David both show low-key irritation with each other, shorthand for the claustrophobia of a comfortable but routine marriage. Catherine and David stare at each other through an endless array of windows, including those in their contemporary glass palace in suburban Toronto. The home seems to have been built with symbolic isolation and domestic voyeurism in mind, and while the architecture verges on overwrought, shots infused with shadows and filtered light, so the many reflections and frames also convey a kind of icy melancholy.
These compositions are often striking, but, like Catherine and David, they’re victims of the plot’s narrow scope. Chloe is the first movie Egoyan has directed from someone else’s screenplay but, although Erin Cressida Wilson previously adapted the sexy, off-kilter Secretary from a short story, her re-jiggering of the French film Nathalie has the stilted, uneasy quality of lesser Egoyan screenplays like Where the Truth Lies.
Wilson’s script plainly ponders Catherine’s sexual repression: she worries that her age makes her undesirable, and regards her teenage son Michael’s (Max Thierot) sexuality with a kind of disappointed hostility. But it is most interesting when it marginalizes its men entirely, leaving Catherine and Chloe alone for passages representing genuine mystery. It’s during their peculiar courtship, and when Chloe eyes Michael, that the movie’s uneasiness actually simmers a little, thanks largely to Seyfried’s performance.
The 20something actress has so far followed the Hollywood convention that young actors must spend at least twice as much time in high school as actual high schoolers — though she’s done her time with more variation than most (her characters in Mean Girls and Jennifer’s Body, Veronica Mars and Big Love, wouldn’t run in the same cliques). Here she straddles willfully naïve youth and disillusioned adulthood. Though Moore and Neeson both bring a compelling gravitas to their parts, it’s Seyfried’s wide-eyed gaze that is most provocative and, briefly, least predictable.
Still, Chloe herself seems slightly out of place in the movie, a slight kink in a fairly rote domestic strife. Chloe plays like an old-fashioned thriller, the kind that stays rooted in characters and low-key drama for much of its running time. It’s not a dumb movie, but it holds at a level of superficial perception, not quite exploring deeper, more complicated straits of psychology or sexuality. For long stretches, as the movie slowly uncovers one non-surprise after another, it appears that Egoyan’s mature good taste may have gotten the better of him.