Canadian director Atom Egoyan has made so many idiosyncratic and provocative films over the course of his career — Exotica, The Adjuster, Adoration and The Sweet Hereafter among them — that his work practically comes with a guarantee. A covenant between artist and audience has been established: When you buy a ticket to one of his movies, you will be treated with respect. Your intelligence will not be insulted. You are safe from the ways of Hollywood. Chloe, I regret to report, reneges on that tacit pact.
I can’t remember the last time I watched a work of cinema begin so promisingly only to wind up a disappointing, derivative train wreck. Julianne Moore and Liam Neeson star as Catherine and David, an upscale Toronto couple whose 25-year marriage has lost its sizzle. She’s a successful gynecologist. He’s a popular music professor. To the outside world, they appear to have it all — money, taste, a designer home, a gifted son (Max Thieriot) and lots of friends. What they don’t have is sex.
Early in the film, the two share a tender moment in which this problem is discussed. Moore is convincingly wounded as a woman in middle age mystified by the dwindling of marital passion. They talk about the impact of busy professional lives and raising a child and, most heartbreakingly, about aging. “Inside I’m 19,” she confesses. “Then I look in the mirror and ... I don’t know how to seduce you.” The movie could have used more of this and much less of what comes next.
Since David is getting no satisfaction at home, Catherine suspects he may be getting it somewhere else. He did, after all, “miss his flight” home the night of his birthday party. Catherine finds a message and photo from an attractive student on her husband’s cellphone. And he is by nature friendly toward women to a degree she considers flirty. So, when her path crosses that of a baby-faced hooker played by Amanda Seyfried, Catherine hires her to test her husband’s fidelity.
Kinkiness ensues. As one would expect, given that the script is the work of Erin Cressida Wilson (Secretary), and the picture is a remake of a 2003 French steam-a-thon (Nathalie) starring Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Béart. The idea is that Catherine pays Chloe to meet repeatedly with David and report back to her with a play-by-play of their encounters.
For a time, this proves intriguing, as the wife’s reaction to these increasingly intimate accounts isn’t what we’d expect. Rather than becoming angry, she’s aroused. The young woman serves as a sort of conduit, giving Catherine the closest thing to a sex life with David she has experienced in years. We are not shocked when Catherine tries to get even closer to him by getting closer to her.
We are shocked — well, horrified may be a better word — when the third act goes all Fatal Attraction on us and takes a surprise turn that makes precisely zero sense. Movie-critic law forbids my getting any deeper into Egoyan’s gratuitous rug pulling. Suffice it to say we all know there are plot twists that work (see The Ghost Writer) and plot twists that come out of nowhere and leave you feeling cheated. The last part of this picture does dumbfounding disservice to the first.
Owing to the racy nature of the material and the numerous scenes in which she did not require the services of a costume designer, Seyfried has told reporters that she suggested her father abstain from seeing this film. I would propose that, whether or not you happen to be related to the actress, that is excellent advice.