Opening with the most outlandish match cut of the festival – a gynaecological, frame-filling close up of a vagina that transitions into a weeping eye – François Ozon’s psychosexual thriller L’amant Double (The Double Lover) starts silly, and only gets more outrageous from there. Like De Palma directing Joe Eszterhas, it’s a film without a subtle bone in its immaculately sculpted body and, in its own self-consciously trashy way, is great fun.
Reuniting with Ozon for the first time since 2013’s Jeune & Jolie, Marine Vacth stars as Chloe, a troubled 25 year old with an androgynous pixie cut that, perhaps deliberately, recalls Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby. After medical tests on the stomach pains that have plagued Chloe for her entire life turn up nothing, the doctor reasons that the cause myst be psychological and points Chloe in the direction of boyishly handsome therapist Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier). After just a few sessions – shot through a series of slick split screens that hint at the fixation on duality to come – Paul’s largely silent treatment gets results, the pain stops and the pair fall in love.
Shortly after moving in together, Chloe sees something unusual on the bus back from work – Paul talking with another woman. Further investigating, Chloe learns it wasn’t Paul she saw, but his twin brother Louis Delord, who Paul has disavowed after an unspeakable trauma in their past. Eager to know what happened, and with her stomach pains back, Chloe starts therapy with Louis, the experience eerily similar but completely different to her sessions with Paul. Louis’ furnishings, for example, are sleeker, less welcoming, while his therapeutic techniques are dismissive and outright aggressive, eventually transitioning into the euphemistically entitled “applied techniques”.
The softcore eroticism of these sexual encounters between Louis and Chloe may be just as likely to elicit giggles as they are any hot under the collar sweats, but there’s a strain of Dead Ringers-style strangeness that puts their dangerous liaisons on the right side of kinky. At one point Chloe dreams of a dual encounter with Paul and Louis before her own body splits in a way that turns the ménage à trois into a foursome straight out of Hellraiser. Shot with an icy elegance by DoP Manuel Dacosse, it’s handsomely mounted, though Ozon overdoes the visual symbolism, seemingly incapable of putting a mirror in a scene without having his characters reflected in it to hammer home the film’s obsession with doubles and deception.
As the story makes abrupt swerves through an increasingly loopy, but nonetheless entertaining, potboiler territory, there’s one thing that remains consistent – the tone, which Ozon maintains with a cheeky confidence much more in keeping with 2003’s playful Swimming Pool than this year’s measured Franz. There’s a Fatal Attraction-style Chekov’s Cat, a ubiquitous cake-baking neighbour, Jacqueline Bisset in dual roles and a strap-on scene that’s only marginally less ridiculous than Deadpool’s. Nothing feels out of place, no matter how daft, and while the more straightforward attempts at Hitchcockian thrills come across as a little pedestrian in comparison, get on board with the joke and the rest is a joy.
As with any thriller set in or around the world of psychology, Chloe’s sanity comes into question. Is what we are seeing real, or merely the consequence of a fractured mind? Vacth has a tough time with a demanding role, botching some of the reaction shots, her expression meant to convey shock, but coming across like someone who just dropped their toast jam side down. But Dardenne regular Jérémie Renier has a whale of a time as the spectacularly smarmy Louis, relishing each filth-filled, vitriolic outburst. And yet it’s Ozon who’s the MVP here, reinvigorating the erotic thriller with gleeful abandon. Is it too soon for him to reboot 50 Shades?