A Film a Week - Double Lover / L'amant double

Remember those “sexy” mystery thrillers based on cheap psychoanalysis and, generally speaking, bogus psychology riddled with the clichés of genitalia symbols serving as their foundations? They might have emerged in the late 70’s, reached their peak in the 80’s and continued to drag through the 90’s, finally moving to the new natural habitat on cable TV and video platforms in the new millennium. They were usually cheap and trashy, but still fun enough to give them a chance. And if they were done with skill and zest, like those directed by Brian de Palma, they could be watched repeatedly both as guilty pleasures and as exercise in style.

It is a bit of a surprise that the French director François Ozon, known for his knack both for mystery thrillers and fearlessness to tackle the topics of sexuality while remaining light-hearted in tone, had not taken such a project before. And with Double Lover, a loose adaptation of Joyce Carol Oates’ pulp novel Lives of the Twins, he goes all in, playing with mirrors, off-kilter framing, split images and architecture porn in a manner that could be described as frigid chic. Ozon approaches the depths of camp, but keeps the film above the surface, while keeping the whole thing just the right nuance of weird.

The film opens with an unnecessary shot of a young woman getting her hair cut short probably because opening it with the following shot of a stretched vagina for the gynecological exam transforming into a vertically-set eye would be a bit too much. We are introduced to the same young woman named Chloé and played by the titular star of Ozon’s Young and Beautiful, Marine Vacth, complaining about abdominal pain. Since the reason for that cannot be found anywhere in her body, it is ruled psychosomatic, so Chloé is being advised to try going to psychotherapy with Dr Paul Meyer (Belgian actor Jérémie Renier, seen often in Dardenne brothers films). After a number of sessions, her pain is deemed cured, she falls for her therapist, he falls for his patient and they move in together.

But one day, coming back from her work as a part-time guard at modern art museum, she sees him with another woman outside his former office. Back home, she finds his old passport with another surname and old photos of two identical-looking children. He denies everything, from being there to not being the only child, so she begins her own investigation by getting an appointment there under a false name. The new therapist in Paul’s old office introduces himself as Louis (also Renier), Paul’s twin brother. However, his methods are a bit different: he berates and borderline rapes his patients, but Chloé falls for him too, while her mind dives deeper and deeper into chaos.

As we know, she is not the most reliable narrator in the world, so everything that ensues – love triangle and even threesome with the twins, reversion of roles in sex in a particular scene with a strap-on, nightmares, the return of the abdominal pain, pregnancy, her cat, Louis’ cat, “crazy cat lady” neighbour, secrets of the past... – can take part both in reality and in dreams. Who is gaslighting whom? Is Louis real or just a figure of imagination? If so, whose – hers or Paul's? All we know is that there is more than we are able to see on screen in carefully arranged scenes followed by Philippe Rombi’s brilliant score cues.

The silliness of the source material maybe calls for a filmmaker who would make it downright bizarre fest, like Almodovar, but Ozon follows some other cues. The plot closely resembles Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers and Ozon is also not afraid to play with body horror, so here is the first hint. Then, there are traces of Hitchcock via de Palma like in much of Ozon’s work in the mystery and thriller field, here spiced up with Rosemary’s Baby-era Polanski and dream / nightmare logic of David Lynch. With intelligent casting (Jaqueline Bisset’s double role is a bonus) and directing the actors away from their usual types (Renier’s proletarian appeal is being transformed into something more sophisticated, still on the line of machismo and in the case of Louis, with a note of psychoticism) and past their limitations (that goes for Vacth, a former model), Double Lover simply works because it does not take itself too seriously. It might be superficial, but it is fun and well done one.

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