NSFW

The Kinky French Film That Puts ‘Fifty Shades’ to Shame

Filmmaker François Ozon’s (‘Swimming Pool’) latest pushes the sexual envelope in ways few American films do.

Cohen Media Group

Following a brief opening credits sequence, Double Lover (L’Amant Double) commences in earnest with an early contender for shot of the year: a zoom out of an extreme close-up—from inside a woman’s vagina.

It’s a wait-what-just-happened moment of hilarious brazenness, especially since the image quickly transitions to that of a woman’s crying eye. And it boldly sets the mood for this most delirious of erotic thrillers, whose Valentine’s Day theatrical debut (Feb. 14) conspicuously coincides with the release of Fifty Shades Freed, the final installment in the E.L. James-created trilogy that’s primarily notable, on-screen at least, for the fizzling chemistry between Jamie Dornan’s bland S&M pretty boy and Dakota Johnson’s blank sex kitten.

That the French might craft an erotic thriller more uninhibited than that dreary American series is hardly surprising; I’ve had naps that were more sensually charged than the pairing of Dornan and Johnson. Nonetheless, with his latest, celebrated director François Ozon (Swimming Pool, 5x2) performs an impressively crazy Hitchcock-by-way-of-De-Palma routine, delivering psychological screwiness and passionate screwing with a ludicrousness—and tawdriness—that’s, ahem, arousing.

The woman with whose insides we’re immediately, intimately acquainted is Chloe (Young & Beautiful’s Marine Vacth), who during a gynecological exam complains about her recurring stomach pains, and is thus told to see a psychologist. That she does, in the person of Paul (Jérémie Renier, best known in America for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s L’Enfant, The Kid with a Bike, and The Unknown Girl), a sensitive and handsome fellow who, without uttering a word, gets Chloe to spill her cavalcade of hang-ups.

A “tough” but “stressed” former model, Chloe lives alone with her cat Milo, is estranged from her “whore” mother, has lifelong abdominal issues (her stomach is “a second brain”), and cries because she thinks she’s “incapable of loving. I feel empty sometimes. Like something’s missing.” Oh yes, and she’s also always dreamed of having a twin (“A double, who would protect me”)—a confession made while Ozon employs a split-screen that captures Chloe from two different angles.

After a scant few sessions, Chloe’s cramps are gone, and she’s fallen in love with Paul—and then moved in with him. Snooping through his stuff, however, she discovers that his passport boasts a different last name. More puzzling still, on the bus ride home from her new job as a museum guard, Chloe sees Paul outside a building speaking to another woman. When, at dinner that night, he denies having ever left the hospital where he was stationed, Chloe investigates—and discovers the office of a psychotherapist named Louis who, it’s clear, is Paul’s identical twin.

The issue of doubling is, per its title, central to Double Lover (loosely inspired by Joyce Carol Oates’ short story Lives of the Twins), and Ozon makes it clear from the outset that he cares little for subtlety. Mirror images, dopplegangers, and competing desires run rampant throughout this hot-blooded tale, especially after Chloe begins an affair with her boyfriend’s sibling. Louis is the aggressive, domineering flipside to his more sensitive and compassionate brother, and his curt, cold demeanor with Chloe during their brief appointments is matched by his hard-thrusting ways in the bedroom (conveniently located just behind a door in his office!). He’s the deviant yin to Paul’s soft-and-cuddly yang, and it doesn’t take him long to start driving Chloe wild in the sack, her innermost cravings unleashed, to the point that he even tempts her with the idea of schtupping someone else.

Which she does, in a literal sense, after agreeing to marry Paul and taking him to a sex shop—where she buys a strap-on dildo that she dons, and uses roughly, with her new fiancé. Role reversals and identity switcheroos abound in this carnal fantasia, which Ozon paces with a fleetness that keeps the pulse racing as well as helps the material glide over any (or should I say, its many) narrative head-scratchers. The director’s camera slides through long passageways, penetrates architectural openings, and blends reflective-surface sights with such stylish shamelessness that one can’t help but chuckle at the form-content excess on display. And that’s without even mentioning that, during one heated romp between Louis and Chloe, the film plunges directly into her open, gasping mouth to discover, yes, another close-up of a vagina.

Double Lover is a consistently lurid affair, and it’s got enough steamy over-the-top sex to satisfy those simply looking for a titillating thrill. Nonetheless, Ozon isn’t just interested in helping audiences get their rocks off; nestled within his outlandish De Palma-esque set pieces are detours into a dreamy domain where the issue of what’s real and what’s illusion is up for debate. Is Louis an actual person, or a manifestation of Chloe’s fantasy life? If he is real, why does Paul deny his existence—and why do none of his friends at a cocktail party have any recollection of Paul ever having a brother? What’s Paul hiding in the private belongings he doesn’t want Chloe investigating? Does it have something to do with a woman named Sandra (Fanny Sage) who, Louis says, was the cause of the siblings’ estrangement—and was she a victim, as claimed by her mom (Jacqueline Bisset), or someone who played a part in her own downfall?

Ozon is after a hallucinatory vision of desire’s duality, a notion clear from the aforementioned intro credit sequence, in which Chloe’s long locks are cut away to reveal her face—a symbolic evocation of her roiling internal/external tensions. Before long, the director is diving headfirst into a body-horror-ish realm indebted to David Cronenberg’s 1988 gem Dead Ringers. The art installations that surround Chloe at work transition from peaceful swirling paintings to twisted overhead tree-branch structures to giant mutant-organic-mass sculptures, while Chloe begins losing control of her mental and physical self—and the world (and lovers) around her. Guided by the entrancing Vacth, who has a cagey, feline aura ideal for a character so fixated on her pet cats, and energized by Renier’s fervent twin performances as polar-opposites Paul and Louis, Double Lover proves a flamboyant funhouse of schizophrenic sexual turmoil, its minds and bodies entangled in ways that are all the more entertaining for being so outrageous.

This February, Mr. and Mrs. Grey may see you one last time, but if it’s kinky theatrical kicks you’re after, Double Lover has its stateside competition beat fifty shades to Sunday.