Does a director as normally triumphant as Atom Egoyan deserve diatribes for a rare, but major, misstep? In the case of something as bad as “Chloe,” the answer is yes.
Egoyan has a knack for making convoluted stories flow, a skill that’s all the more riveting because he often jumbles them into random order. The 1997 Russell Banks adaptation “The Sweet Hereafter” captures the dissolution of an icy upstate New York town following a tragic bus crash, jumping repeatedly between the characters’ placid routines prior to the crash and the isolating silence thereafter, and shifting viewpoints throughout. The 2002 saga “Ararat,” about a filmmaker’s attempts to shoot a true-life account of the Armenian Genocide, is even more multi-layered, unspooling three stories in different locales and time periods.
In “Where the Truth Lies,” Egoyan’s 2005 murder-mystery/bisexual triangle tale, Egoyan was accused of prurience by certain critics. The film had several lurid lesbian and group sex scenes which almost earned it an NC-17 rating, and they were seen as flashy, leering, not conducive to the central plot. Still, the film deftly balanced two stories unfolding in different eras—1957 and 1972—and Egoyan’s sexual frankness, while over-the-top at times, was never less than intriguing.
So it’s all the more dispiriting that “Chloe,” which continues Egoyan’s fascination with sexual impulsivity and betrayal, is utterly lacking in complexity, suspense or eroticism. There’s no crime in a talent like Egoyan attempting more cookie-cutter Hollywood thriller fare—told chronologically, no less—but it’s almost eerie that Egoyan, who beforehand demonstrated such dexterity handling wildly erratic stories, is so clumsy this time around.
“Chloe,” adapted from the French film “Nathalie,” is about a Toronto gynecologist (Julianne Moore) who suspects her music professor husband (Liam Neeson) is having an affair with one of his students. Instead of just trailing Neeson, or hiring a private detective, Moore instead pays the titular prostitute (Amanda Seyfried)—whom she meets in a chic restaurant bathroom—to flirt with her husband. If Neeson falls into Seyfried’s trap, that will ultimately prove his infidelity.
The moral of not letting your suspicion or jealousy get the better of you is always a potentially rich one, and had Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cresida Wilson kept the characters’ actions believable—at least within this context— “Chloe” could have been a passionate, heart-wrenching account of a fraying marriage.
In the early scenes, Egoyan establishes an evocatively chilly mood; he certainly didn’t skimp on set design. Moore, Neeson and their sexually active teenage son reside in one of those impossibly cold Victorian homes, where a spiralling stairway banister seems to separate a child’s bedroom and father’s study by miles. The furniture and curtains are stark, dark-colored, seemingly unused. The characters are always eating, joylessly, in dimly lit four-star restaurants, while sleet falls intermittently outside. The family’s only leisure is attending their morose son’s Mozart piano recital.
Moore, who’s in almost every scene, wears a constant expression of malaise and dread. She’s an oddly prudish sort, furious at her son for having his girlfriend sleep over, and at Neeson for allowing it. So what is the audience to think, for example, when Moore, upon hearing first-hand synopses of Neeson’s dalliances, shifts from complete horror to getting off on his conquests? Would envy and disgust really lead to that sort of curiosity that quickly? And if so, wouldn’t Moore play out her fantasy, her desire to be as young and bountiful as Chloe, with Neeson, as a way of rekindling her marriage, rather than falling into bed with Chloe?
Egoyan could stop there, or at least laugh at the inevitable campiness, but he doesn’t. The last act is a cornucopia of bad movie clichés, played entirely straight, as Chloe shifts from doe-eyed, hesitant perpetrator to ample seductress to batshit insane manipulator. A late plot twist that is supposed to be shocking is, in actuality, abundantly obvious from the get-go. Entire plot points, such as Moore’s disintegrating relationship with her son, are dropped from the movie; so, for quite a long time, is Neeson’s character, until he re-emerges with a few sputtering, clenched-teeth rants that will make you forget this actor ever had any subtlety.
But it’s Seyfried who fares worst. Given the star-crossed romance lit roles she’s snugly fit into lately, she’s distractingly uncomfortable in Chloe’s skin, and she’s ill-served by Egoyan’s constant tight close-ups. Seyfried is a classic blonde cheerleader sort, all voluptuous curves and dewy eyes. But here, called upon to strip frequently and, eventually, to overpower Moore—a mighty screen presence—she looks timid, miserable, on the verge of tears. And when Egoyan goes in for the kill and fills the frame with her face, she looks ashen, unhealthy, child-like in a fiercely unerotic way.
This could not have been Egoyan’s aim: even when her hair is pulled tightly back and she’s supposed to be wild-eyed crazy, Chloe is intended to remain captivatingly beautiful throughout—in fact, Moore says “You’re so beautiful” just about every five minutes. And yet Egoyan inadvertently proves that Seyfried’s beauty lies in mid-shot range, where her flowing blonde locks, watery blue eyes and pale skin are all in view and comprise a true ingénue package.
For Egoyan to take on such a slick, soulless, audience-pandering piece of junk is forgivable; for him to make it look bad isn’t.