On the Climax of Chloe

April 1, 2010

I’ve said this about Avatar and I’ll say it again about Atom Egoyan’s psychological/erotic thriller Chloe: In general, all the reviews you read will be the same. Or, at least, they’ll hit the same basic conclusion that whatever the merits of the first hour, the final third loses the plot and either almost or completely does derail the picture. They might not like the film at all, or they might defend it as mostly good, but they’ll pretty much all agree on that one point. I, for one, do not feel compelled to disagree. For the first hour features some truly excellent elements, and they work together very well to create a solid if, in some ways, rather minor work in the Egoyan’s oeuvre, and the final third does, indeed, disappoint. I do not think, however, that climax is completely devoid of value, nor do I think it feels like a completely separate film from the first part.

Before getting to that ending, some words on the rest. Egoyan has often made films in which past sexual encounters play a significant role. Chloe is no different, and although it is a remake of the French film Nathalie, and also the first script Egoyan hasn’t written himself, you can get a sense of what drew him to the project. The titular character, played by Amanda Seyfried, is a high class prostitute who begins the film by explaining her job is more about reading the client and figuring out and, most importantly, telling them what they want. Reading people and creating a narrative that turns them on is the key, and I was reminded of Roger Ebert’s maxim that the brain is the most erotic part of the body. Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, a gynecologist who suspects her opera-teaching husband David (Liam Neeson) is cheating on her with one or several of his students. She sees Chloe from her office, and later meets her in a bar, figuring out her line of work quickly and then propositioning her to meet her husband and flirt with him, and report back on how he reacts. Catherine finds herself more and more intrigued as Chloe goes further than she was asked to, and pretty soon Catherine is regretting that comment she made to a patient earlier that, ‘an orgasm is just a series of muscle contractions.’ This part and where it goes for the first hour is tense and fascinating, and while not particularly flashy or even new, done with a steady, intelligent hand with an eye for detail. It explores the sway narrative has on our psyche and, consequently, other areas. In short, it is very, very good.

And now, that ending. There’s a twist, of course, but one that’s been laid out for you from the start, so it isn’t cheap. In fact, it is the opposite, in that it enriches the thematic force of the piece. After that, things begin to spiral. There’s some good bunny-boiler stalking, which is commendable for holding off on Fatal Attraction ridiculousness until the very last few scenes. Those last few scenes are disappointingly standard and, to some degree perhaps, sub-standard. Egoyan seems to have switched off all interest in making that part of the film and the script just finally gives into convention by cowardly admitting to itself that it just has to be this way, because that’s what is expected. It’s a shame, but fine. So it goes. I would like to draw attention to the saving grace of this final sequence, and it’s something I don’t talk about much because, quite frankly I don’t know much about it. That is, of course, the acting, and the acting in one moment in particular.

Now, everyone knows the merits of Julianne Moore. If you will allow me a digression, I would like to talk about Amanda Seyfried, an actress for whom I have developed a real fondness. I saw her in Mean Girls, but didn’t register her there because she had the thankless task of playing a ditzy supporting character. I noticed her more in Veronica Mars, as the hero’s deceased best friend Lily Kane, but as that character was always seen in flashback and acted in ways very dependent on the perspective of the person remembering, it was never easy to construct an honest idea of who she was and, consequently, difficult to judge Seyfried’s qualities as an actress. I never really paid attention to her in Big Love until the third season, when two things happened. Firstly, her role was given an interesting storyline, and secondly, it aired after Mamma Mia was released. I really cannot stress how good she was in Mamma Mia enough. It is, quite simply, one of the worst films I’ve seen in the last five years, and yet it was enjoyable for the Abba songs (of course) and for Seyfried’s turn as the bride-to-be. Basically, everything was wrong with that film, from the absolutely atrocious direction to the fact that it actually failed to make a Greek Island look exotic and beautiful (something that, it should be kept in mind, not one but two Sisterhood of the Travelling Pants movies managed to pull off). One of the most crucial sour elements in Mamma Mia was the acting, which is saying something considering the cast included Meryl Streep, Colin Firth, and Stellan Skarsgard. While the heavy-hitters played it as high camp in a somewhat condescending ‘isn’t this absurdly stupid?’ way, Seyfried played it straight. I don’t mean ‘straight’ in the sense that she was a dour anchor of believability, but while everyone else struggled to keep their cool by winking at the audience, she played it as though she genuinely felt the exuberant joy of a young woman on an exotic Greek island who was about to get married while singing Abba songs. It is no mean feat to stand out above the dreck, much less raise the level of an entire film solely by your performance. I say all this because I think she has a special kind of talent; a real movie star quality in that she either consciously or subconsciously understands a role and how it needs to be played.

So in Chloe, when all hell breaks loose, and Chloe is behaving in a more extreme way than we have been led to believe she would, Seyfried still imbues her with a grounded sense of emotion that we can understand. Mere seconds before the climactic moment, Moore and Seyfried give each other a look that is emotionally honest that gives us some connection to the characters we saw in the first hour and who we’re watching now. Amidst all the insanity of the action and disappointingly predictable final movements of the plot, two actresses give out something special that saves the ending from total disaster. There were more obvious choices they could have made (Angry Defiance or Stark-Raving Mad, to name two), but they go for character rather than the easy, manichean black and white. There’s loss and tragedy here, and even if it is only transmitted for a few seconds, it’s more than the climax on paper deserves. For that talent, we should be grateful.

-M

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