"Just get your foetus out of here before I kill you!"
Twincest. Pulsating vaginas. Extended pegging scenes. Oral copulation with a menstrual twist. A body-horror moment with a pregnant woman's throbbing stomach. Director François Ozon ('Swimming Pool', 'In the House') is a wildly unpredictable filmmaker who switches genres with the same frequency that other people change their undies. His excellent previous film, the post-World War I mystery 'Frantz', could never prepare viewers for this sudden shift into exploitation-thriller territory. 'Double Lover' is softcore pornography for cinephiles.
'Double Lover' opens with Chloé (Marine Vacth, 'Young & Beautiful') getting her hair cut - her face pale and eyes shadowed against a grey background. The following scene is an extreme gynaecological close-up - a vulva, gradually gaining recognisable shape only as the camera zooms slowly out, while a speculum is seen from the point of view of a doctor conducting a vaginal examination. Ozon then fades from the exposed cervix to an unblinking eye, recalling both 'Un Chien Andalou' and the iconic drift from drain to Janet Leigh's blank orb in 'Psycho', establishing Chloé's central tensions: her sexuality and her vision of herself.
Plagued by stomach pains that she is told are psychosomatic, former model Chloé starts seeing gentle psychoanalyst Paul (Jérémie Renier, 'Saint Laurent'). The pair fall in love but, soon after they set up home together, Chloé discovers that Paul has a twin brother, also a psychoanalyst, whom he has never mentioned. Intrigued, she sets up a meeting with the twin, Louis DeLord (Renier again, hair parted on a different side), a manipulative, negging womaniser with a radically different methodology. Before long she's banging both brothers. But for what reason did Paul disown his twin, and how will that impact on Chloé's own fragile mental state?
'Double Lover' follows Chloé as she attempts to uncover the nature of the fissure between Paul and Louis. The script, adapted from the Joyce Carol Oates novel 'Lives of the Twins' and co-written by Ozon and Philippe Piazzo, teases out the details of their estrangement slowly, preferring instead to unfurl Chloé's sexual impulses (which she begins to explore with Louis, who is aggressive and exciting, where Paul is dependable and dull). Renier's dual performance is impressive: it is always clear which twin we are seeing, even when they appear together in Chloé's fantasies. She pursues both men because each lover, separately, is incomplete. There is also an appearance by British screen legend Jacqueline Bisset ('Day for Night', 'Under the Volcano'), nearly unrecognisable in a small, crucial role.
Sylvie Olivé's production design and Ozon's careful compositions, often favouring clean, symmetrical shots, suggest modern paintings, detailed yet lacking depth. The symmetrical shots of Chloé, working at an art gallery, situated evenly between paintings, benches and window frames, like another objet d'art, gives a sense of stifling entrapment. A former model, once the focal point of the gaze, now watches the gallery visitors. Ozon loves to zoom toward characters' faces as they stare off into the distance, flummoxed or contemplative, and he has two captivating subjects in Vacth and Renier.
The film's score, by Philippe Rombi, makes typical thriller sounds with timid strings and the dreamy hum of synths.
Looming large over the film is the theme of duality, the classic motif of psychological thrillers. If you dig Hitchcock and his oeuvre (particularly 'Spellbound' and 'Vertigo') you'll enjoy the abundance of spiral staircases, doppelgängers and "dark others". Just look at Ozon's use of mirrors: there is somewhere between twenty and thirty shots of the fucking things here! Sometimes there are two or three mirror scenes in a timespan of just a few minutes. In one scene, we see a conversation between two people, but it seems as if they are talking to each other's mirror image: they are never shown talking directly to each other. The climax of the film is literally a bullet blasting through one mirror image and into another. Reminiscent of 'Psycho', there is a room of stuffed, attack-pose felines and an ending that drags out a medical professional to succinctly explain the plot.
François Ozon is a wildly unpredictable filmmaker who switches genres with the same frequency that other people change their undies.
While 'Double Lover' is an amusing homage to Hitchcock, it is heavily overlayed with the sleazy fun of Hitchcock's most florid devotee, Brian De Palma ('Body Double', 'Femme Fatale') who made a film about good/evil twins early in his career, 'Sisters'. The film also nods to the body horror of David Cronenberg's 'Dead Ringers' (which adapts the same novel) as well as Roman Polanski's 'The Tenant', two classic thrillers on doppelgängers and craziness. Chloé's short haircut recalls Nastassja Kinski's look from Paul Schrader's steamy 1985 remake of 'Cat People', which followed a young woman struggling between her human and feral side, her transformation triggered by sexual activity (here, a cat watches Chloé have sex and there's even a creepy feline-loving neighbour, played by a casually sinister Myriam Boyer). For good measure, there's a bit of Paul Verhoeven ('Basic Instinct') thrown in, too.
Like horny Michael Douglas booty-blasting both gamine Jeanne Tripplehorn and sultry Sharon Stone in 'Basic Instinct', Chloé gets to sample both the light and dark sides of masculinity: the kindly white-knight saviour and the objectifying bad boy (like Verhoeven, Ozon dabbles with the idea that Louis' ravenous advances are what Chloé really needs). Refreshingly, as in Guillermo del Toro's recent awarding-winning monster fuckfest 'The Shape of Water', the female lead character is always depicted as being in control of the increasingly wild and freaky sex, which is never depicted as anything less than very, very good.
Nothing about 'Double Lover' feels remotely safe. Unlike the tepid 'Fifty Shades' series, this film has little interest in romance, instead considering the psychological impulses that inform it. It also has the best doppelgänger make-out scene since Michael Fassbender's flute lesson in 'Alien: Covenant'. This is a mischievous, unashamedly ultra-trashy, retro offering from a talented director. Depending on your own cinematic tastes, your mileage may vary.