Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Feb 13, 2018 7:51 pm 
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Ozon camps it up with a surreal sex romp

The overly prolific François Ozon's new film, Double Lover, debuted at Cannes, and was thoroughly reviewed (and raked over the coals) there. Some liked it, many don't and we can see why in both cases. All must acknowledge its good actors (even if, arguably, wasted), its cleverness, and its polished and elegant execution. Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian thoroughly detested it - though he opens his review by saying it may be destined for camp classic status. I never fell for it, and somewhere past halfway lost interest and conviction, though you have to admire its violent composure of execution, resembling Verhoeven's dubious but much-heralded recent comeback film, Elle. Note both were made in France, a first for Verhoeven. The French can put a glossy finish on a movie, however rotten or shallow.

Double Lover is a psychosexual romp in the manner of - well, of many people, but quite clearly also of Ozon. Among those mentioned: Hitchcock, DePalma, and "50 Shades of Gray." One can't help thinking of Cronenberg, whose Dead Ringers like this had creepy, contrasting twins and kinky gynecological details. Dead Ringers is more concentrated, disturbing, and also better. Chabrol might also be mentioned, but wistfully. Double Lovers starts out with one story and shifts to another, and then another and another. It's nutty over-the-top final developments flip it into the territory of Possession and even Alien. He can't stick to his witty, naughty love story.

This movie is based on a Joyce Carol Oates tale, but a pseudonymous one: she evidently didn't want it associated with her name. If only there were pseudonymous films; but Ozon couldn't hide his authorship of this: after all it stars Marine Vacth, whom he put on the map with his 2015 Young & Beautiful .

This time Vacth is Chloë, an ex-model with health problems. We see her getting her hair trimmed down to a boyish bob at the outset; a Nineties look, some have pointed out, signalling this film itself as a throwback, not really contemporary. Then we see a cunning, provocative closeup of a gynecological exam, where the uterus switches to her eye. But her trouble is stomach pains, and she's advised it's in her head, so she goes to see a shrink, Paul Meyer (the Dardennes regular Jérémie Renier), "whose Parisian office sits perched atop one of those spiral staircases that only exist in movies about beautiful people losing their minds" (Erlich). That staircase, so handsomely photographed, is an example of the many details that ornament this movie but weigh it down with unnecessary elements. If Ozon could have pared down and simplified, he'd have made a better film, something not so abundantly soft-core trasny or so obsessed with its artificial, also trashy, "doubling" theme.

Paul is bland and quiet. He helps Chloë, or at least she unburdens herself to him with ease. There's more than analyst-analysand harmony. They soon fall in love, the treatment ends, and they move in together in "a high-rise that might as well have been designed by David Cronenberg" (Erlich again).

But the story really gets going only now, when Chloë discovers by chance that Paul has a rough twin brother, Louis (also played by Renier), a shrink also but an outrageous and radical one. No sitting down and talking for Louis. He believes the psychiatrist best cures his female patients by fucking them. Chloë enters into this new form of therapy eagerly and secretly with Louis, hooked on the contrast with Paul, even though the sex with Louis is not always consensual, or nice. The movie enters into more and more softcore territory now, including what Bradshaw calls "the best female strap-on scene since Myra Breckinridge."

But provocative sex sequences aside, it's now that the questions multiply. And the fact that they're answered inadequately or left dangling is one of the movie's major flaws and the main thing that makes it start to grow weak in the middle. Why didn't Paul mention having a twin brother? What is the secret in their past? What happened to Chloë's cat, Milo, lost when her ditsy neighbor left a window open? Bu do you care? All the way through, Ozon plays up the doubling theme, constantly posing his protagonists in front of mirrors, so sometimes it's not two people having sex, but four, and at the same time we begin to wonder if Louis even exists, or is just a wet dream of Chloë's to compensate for nice Paul's conventionality. But never fear, there's a whole elaborate plot to explain the lies and concealment. Whether it has any useful dramatic function is another question.

One trouble is not only the movie's artificial, schematic plotting, but, I suspect, Renier's professional but not overly convincing portrayals of the two contrasting siblings. It's hard to care terribly about either Paul or Louis. More subtlety and complexity was needed here, the kind Cronenberg delivers, with the help of Jeremy Irons, in Dead Ringers. I want to put in a good word for Marine Vacth, however. Some have called her shallow, but she brings real intensity and conviction to her thankless part as Chloë. And as two caring mothers, also a double role, Jacqueline Bisset delivers. (We remember how charmingly Ozon used a brace of famous French actresses, some of a certain age, including Darrieux, Deneuve, Béart, Sagnier, and Huppert, in his popular 2000 film 8 Women.)

There is a consistency but also wild variation of the level of seriousness and of success in Ozon's prolific production. His recent Franz, in black-and-white, seems from an earlier decade; it's discreet, tasteful, and touching, a beautiful, perhaps overly staid piece. This new effort, Double Lover, David Erlich of Indiewire cannily suggests is an "over-correction" - it's goes to the opposite extreme, and is as schlocky, as tastefully soft-core porny, as anything Ozon has ever done. He has been in such territory before, as recently as Young and Beautiful, which depicts d a posh lycée student who chooses, just for fun, to become a call girl. It's a trashy provocation, but tasteful, and it works because it sticks more realistically to its material.

Teen titillation can be found much earlier in the not very well received Criminal Lovers. Right from the beginning, Ozon's 1988 short Photo de famille, he sought to provoke and shock. It's outline: "After a family dinner, the son poisons his mother, stabs his sister and chokes his father, then reunites the three of them on the living-room couch and takes a picture of them, with him in the center, smiling, holding them still." The desire to shock seems adolescent (and the director was only 21), but the boldness and directness of execution are impressive.

Ozon is better when he's subtler, though. This showed recently in Franz. And he scored a coup in restoring Charlotte Rampling to stardom. She is hauntingly beautiful and sad in Under the Sand (also 2000), about a woman whose denial that her husband has disappeared leads to her mental disintegration. The 2003 Swimming Pool, with the same cowriter, Emmanuèle Bernheim, is another chance for Rampling to do her suave, Spinx-like thing as a mystery writer on a Mediterranean work-vacation disrupted by the unshceduled arrival of an annoying daughter. Rampling and the heady summer mood anchor this film. But Ozon has done well enough in other modes. Potiiche (2010), from a play, with Deneuve and Depardieu and Fabrice Lucchini, is an engaging bourgeois farce about politics and society and a factory; and In the House, again with Lucchini and again from a play, a sly power struggle between a lycée teacher and his precocious student. One can only hope Ozon will return to sensible material.

Double Lover/L'amant double, 104 mins., debuted at Cannes 26 May 2017, simultaneously opening in Paris cinemas. (The AlloCiné press rating is a mild 3.3, but the best sources rated it low.) Ten other international festival showings. Limited US theatrical release 14 Feb. 2017 (Landmark, AMC). (Metacritic rating: 68%).


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