Once upon a time, back when the Talking Heads were still together and we had a president who was merely senile, we used to love movies like Double Lover. It was as fashionable as coke on a coffee table: the glossy, chic, decor-porny, pathological-sex thriller, complete with Hitchcock allusions, Freudian-cock-symbol knives and guns and passionate forcing. Maybe it was fun while it lasted, but I can’t say I’m nostalgic for the subgenre, any more than I’m nostalgic for slasher films or Spielbergian fantasies, and that’s because I remember the ’80s/early ’90s well enough, thanks.
Director Francois Ozon — at 50, certainly old enough to recall the day — has a fonder yen, and his new film plays as though Adrian Lyne and Jean-Jacques Beineix were back in the saddle, fetishizing sweaty flesh and black lacquer. Adapted from one of Joyce Carol Oates’ ’80s mystery-pulp “Rosamond Smith” books, the movie begins with a speculum-view vaginal exam. The down-under belongs to Chloe (Marine Vacth, the spitting image of a 1981 Rick Springfield), a skittish model who quits the biz and decides to see a shrink. The muscular, sandy-haired stud doctor, Paul (Jeremie Renier), has an office at the top of a mile-high circular stairwell (looks great, but what?) and a recessive therapeutic M.O. Before you know it, sessions later, he attempts to end the treatment, due to a sudden case of sensual obsession. Immediately they tryst and then they’re a couple, but Ozon’s DePalma-esque mise en scène and general coolness suggest ulterior motives on the doctor’s part, and even a little gaslighting.
It’s odder than that, it turns out: Chloe, undistracted by friends or family of any kind, snoops around and finds out that Paul has a secret twin brother — also a psychoanalyst. She sets up an appointment with him, but this Renier has a radically different method, which he seems to have learned at the Wynn-Weinstein School of Psychology: provocations, insults, Viagral domination, coerced sex. (To make matters even worse, he ends a session just a few minutes in but still charges her in full.) Of course, she’s turned on by it all and starts fucking both bros, because this subgenre, as Oates well knows, depends upon emotional improbabilities. It also depends on unwavering just-take-me mascu-philia — too many sequences hinge on one twin or the other cornering Chloe and making her submit. Stalking means never having to say I love you. Once a Bechdel test champ, in the days of See the Sea (1997), 8 Women (2002) and Swimming Pool (2003), Ozon has now made the second-least #MeToo film of the year, presumably trailing behind the new Fifty Shades sequel.
That is, if you take it seriously, which you shouldn’t. Tiptoeing toward the hot tub of camp without quite diving in, Double Lover starts to fracture Chloe’s point of view, resulting in at least one fabulous Cronenbergian dream scene, where Vacth doubles during a twin three-way (two heads, three nipples). The story goes decidedly Gothic and subjective and finds refreshing room for a 73-year-old Jacqueline Bisset as the angry mother of a girl the bad twin may have raped into a coma years before. Cunnilingus with menstrual blood, sexy beatings, strap-ons, one twin masquerading as the other, an apartment full of stuffed cats — it’s a buffet of psychosexual delicacies, borrowed and otherwise, all staged with hot-blooded, straight-faced vigor.
The demands upon the sparse cast vary. Renier, more used to the proletarian angst of the Dardenne brothers, needs only to brood and hump and exude macho privilege, albeit with two polar temperaments, and a bucket-list-check scene in which he gets to kiss himself. Vacth, a model Ozon first put center stage in Young and Beautiful (2013), is naturally opaque in that model-y way, and hardly has the melodramatic resources to fill out Chloe’s wild psychology. (You think of the meltdowns a youngish Sandrine Bonnaire, say, might’ve had.) She tries, though, like a short kid playing basketball, and her brave and hesitant stabs at rocky emotion end up seeming like Chloe’s own instability.
Trick endings are another inevitable aspect of this subgenre, and I spent a lot of Double Lover dreading what I expected to be an easily predictable either/or third-act twist. Thankfully, Ozon sidesteps it in an unexpected way, going a little David Lynch instead, while staying within the margins of pop psychology. In the end, it’s only a raunchy bagatelle, a St. Valentine’s musk truffle, in which mundane digs, off-the-rack clothes and unpretty people are strictly forbidden. Same as it ever was.