DOUBLE LOVER: Erotic Thriller Meets Arthouse
Double Lover is a loving and surprisingly artful homage to the genre’s masters, equal parts a silly and stylish trashy erotic thriller with enough twists and turns to delight any mainstream audiences.
If the rumour is to be believed, Orson Welles decided to direct Touch of Evil to prove that it was possible for him to make a great movie out of a bad script- in his case, an artful adaptation of a trashy pulp novel. Director François Ozon has decided to take a leaf out of Welles’ book for his latest effort Double Lover; taking the source material of a lesser known Joyce Carol Oates short story as the basis of his screenplay, he’s crafted a purposefully trashy throwback to the erotic thrillers of the late eighties and nineties.
When it comes to his direction, however, Double Lover is a loving and surprisingly artful homage to the genre’s masters, Brian De Palma and Paul Verhoeven. It’s cinematic junk food packaged as haute cuisine: you feel bad for enjoying it so much, but it just looks too good to say no to.
Gives the audience what they want – and makes them feel weird for wanting it
Following a leading role in Ozon’s 2013 drama Jeune & Jolie, Marine Vacth stars here as Chloé, a young woman sent to visit psychoanalyst Paul (Jérémie Renier) after being left mentally weakened following an illness. After frequent visits to get assessed, she finds herself falling for him – and mere months later, the pair have moved in together. Domestic bliss isn’t on the horizon, however, as Paul claims to be spending long hours at the hospital, even though Chloé has seen him elsewhere in town with other women.
Booking an appointment at the mystery clinic where she thought she saw Paul, she finds out a shocking truth: Paul has a twin brother, Louis, who is also a psychoanalyst, but with considerably different methods. As her mental state begins to deteriorate once again, Chloé eventually finds herself in sexual relationships with both brothers- and things only get worse for her from there.
Ozon’s films have always had a frankness in their portrayal of sexuality, but here, he pushes the “erotic” element of the erotic thriller to ludicrous extremes. As an openly gay man, it is clear to see he is having an enormous amount of fun subverting the heteronormative conventions of the genre, leading to some of the most hallucinatory images he has ever put on camera. He deftly blends dream and reality throughout, yet never more successfully than during a threesome sequence, which leads to the bizarre sight of Jérémie Renier passionately making out with himself, before everybody involved morphs into a singular entity.
It’s the first of many moments where you feel Ozon deliberately playing against the expectations of the straight, male viewer hoping to see gratuitous sex scenes – he gives that viewer what you assume they would want, before twisting it and pushing it into a direction purposefully designed to make them uncomfortable.
An effective tribute to two of cinema’s sleaziest directors
This is comparable to what Paul Verhoeven did with Basic Instinct and Showgirls. Before moving to the US to make Robocop, he spent an entire year researching Hollywood movies so he could simultaneously make something within the rigid conventions, yet subvert them at the same time. A film like Showgirls delivers what you’d expect a straight male viewer would want out of an erotically charged film – yet it knowingly refuses to quit there, getting frequently overblown to make a commentary on the media’s hyper-aggressive portrayal of sexuality.
Double Lover doesn’t have any satirical intent in that regard, but Ozon does share Verhoven’s (basic) instinct to double down on the most ludicrous elements, making the target audience feel guilty for getting what they asked for and more. Without going into any plot specifics, as the film passes its halfway point, Ozon eventually starts toying with the dominant masculinity in his sex scenes.
Most notably, Paul gets “pegged” by Chloé, and elsewhere, a rough sex scene is halted, leading to twin brother Louis spending the next few minutes delivering expository dialogue naked, with what appears to be period blood smeared over his face (there’s something surreally comic about this being treated with indifference by the characters). This sequence in particular has a Cronenbergian undercurrent, and is perhaps the scene most akin to Dead Ringers, with which Double Lover has been superficially compared due to the protagonist/antagonist divide of the twins.
Stylistically, however, the film is a homage to Brian De Palma through and through- which makes perfect sense, seeing how many Hitchcock comparisons were thrown in his direction following his previous film, Frantz. Where do you go from a Hitchcock inspired film, if not to one following in the footsteps of Hitchcock’s sleaziest imitator? From the opening moments, Ozon utilises as many split-scene sequences as possible, in one case making the line invisible to give the appearance that two people on opposite sides of the room are practically at each others faces in conversation.
The tasteful European arthouse vibe leads Double Lover to feel more stylistically composed than the average De Palma effort, with an element of restraint present in even the most obvious recurring visual motifs; seeing Chloé repeat the same activities twice using the exact same shot compositions, as a precursor to the introduction of the other twin, for example.
Outside of the visuals, the story is obviously indebted to De Palma too – and that’s for reasons aside from its inherently, intentionally perverted nature. The best of these is a nod to Dressed to Kill (and in turn, Hitchcock’s Psycho) with a ludicrous “scientific” explanation at the end of the film that somehow manages to keep a straight face offering reasoning for the 100 minutes of silliness we’ve just bore witness to.
One of the more impressive things about Double Lover is that it isn’t constantly winking to its audience; Ozon’s cast of actors know exactly the type of film they are starring in, yet all manage to play down the film’s more ridiculous elements instead of cranking up the hysteria in their performances in tune with the storyline. Double Lover isn’t a film that will remembered because of its performances – but it’s the performances that manage to keep the film grounded in some semblance of reality as Ozon increases the silliness.
Double Lover: Conclusion
Equal parts silly and stylish, Double Lover is a film that will work for the smartest and the dumbest person in the room. Ozon’s film is a cine-literate affair, with a wealth of appreciation for his influences and a willingness to toy with genre expectations – but taken at face value, it’s a trashy erotic thriller with enough twists and turns to delight any mainstream audiences who wind up seeing a subtitled film by mistake.
At this time in the year, where studios are churning out “dump month” genre movies with little artistic merit, a film like Double Lover feels all the more vital; it’s trash cinema at its most artful.
What are the best erotic thrillers?
Double Lover enters limited release in the US on February 14th, and has no release date in the UK at the time of writing. For all international release dates, see here.
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