Sexual Preference 

Cheap thrills mix with universal truths in Atom Egoyan's latest, "Chloe."

click to enlarge art12_film_chloe_200.jpg

"I've always been good with words,” are the first words we hear in “Chloe.” They're uttered by the Chloe in question (Amanda Seyfried) in a state of undress that contradicts her notion of what her attributes are. Soon the movie, loosely about the challenges posed to a marriage, is involved in further complications. Chloe, a call girl for wealthy men, opens the picture, but in an immediate shift the central character turns out to be Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore): wife, mother, gynecologist and hopeless paranoid, whose suspicions of affairs of her husband (Liam Neeson) lead her to hire Chloe. She wants to test his willpower. A more levelheaded woman might have picked someone a little less impossibly attractive, and Catherine's selection leads to a schism within the film, which alternates between insightful commentary on the perils of aging and titillation.

“Chloe” is being bandied about as an erotic thriller but erotic something or other might be a better fit, because the danger in the movie is too low-key to quicken the pulse or suggest classics of the genre such as “Fatal Attraction.” To its credit, the movie takes a leisurely path to the conflict that concludes it, opening with a surprise birthday party for husband, David (Neeson), which concludes with him failing to show up. The next day Catherine finds a suspicious message on his phone, events that lead her to overthink his every subsequent contact with women, a quick descent into a mental whirlpool of snooping and jealously that culminates in the hiring of Chloe.

While “Chloe” sometimes comes across like a lightweight version of “Eyes Wide Shut,” Catherine's plight feels authentic, a combination of middle-age decay and obsolescence. Her husband's best friend (R.H. Thomson) has a slinky girlfriend half his age; the girls at lunch talk about friends who've resigned themselves to living with infidelity; and women seem to throw themselves at David, a tall and rangy foreign-language professor that Catherine thinks gets more attractive “with every wrinkle.”

Even Catherine's beloved teenage son, Michael (Max Thieriot), has left mom for a younger woman (Nina Dobrev). Pretty young things seem to surround Catherine like barracudas. Besides Chloe, the list of other women in the credits includes an Anna, an Alicia, an Eliza, a Trina and a Bimsy; a Miranda and a Maria; waitress, waitress 2, young coed, nurse, woman behind bar and someone simply titled “another girl.” Even Catherine's receptionist could be classified as a hottie.

Catherine's internal turmoil is understandable, and as the “Chloe” goes along it becomes increasingly questionable why it's not called “Catherine,” except for the ceaseless parade of Seyfried in the nude. An arguable reason, to be sure, but her presence is more ponderous the more clothing she dons. The movie was directed by Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan and produced by Ivan Reitman, easily as mismatched a pair as Catherine and Chloe. Egoyan's films tend to deliberate on the psychological, social and political. Reitman's slated projects include “Ghostbusters III” and “Baywatch.” It's not difficult to imagine the combination of these two sensibilities having something to do with the schizophrenia experienced by the movie, one minute entranced by Catherine's waking nightmare of subtle threats to her relevance, and the next descending into the kind of low-lighted bedroom writhing that requires a wood flute panting on the soundtrack.

“Chloe” sets up well, but lacks a punch that might also have something to do with the scarcity of Neeson, whose performance was interrupted by the tragic accidental death of his wife, Natasha Richardson. The film's one unwavering element is scenery — of not only Seyfried, but also the setting, Toronto, captured by longtime Egoyan cinematographer Paul Sarossy as an inviting blend of snow-swept picturesque streets and cozy restaurants, which made me want to plan a trip. But as others have observed, you know there's a problem when you begin to notice the background.

The movie eventually drops its preoccupation with Catherine's flagging self-esteem and paranoia, adding another obsession that's too late to be much more than puzzling. It all ends in a dramatic medley of overheated and unjustified histrionics, high-strung music and slow motion better suited for another movie. Chloe bursts into tears near the finale, but when it comes to explaining why she's been so moved, both she and the film go mute. Not convincing when you're supposed to be good with words. (R) 96 min. HHIII



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