With Hollywood having long succumbed to timidity when it comes to the pleasures of the flesh, it has fallen to foreign cinema to show us what it actually looks like when people have sex. So it’s fitting that while the coy glossiness of Fifty Shades Freed is bringing the mildest sizzle to theaters nationwide, an alternative—albeit in limited release—is also becoming available with Double Lover (L’Amant Double), the latest from French provocateur Francois Ozon.
Never one to hold back in either his early thrillers or more recent erotic dramas, Ozon delivers a delirious and highly, disreputably entertaining cocktail of sex and duplicity. Frank and forthright in its depiction of the carnal intrigue that fuels its story and heroine, it also provides the pulpy pleasures of a twisty, essentially implausible yet irresistible character-based mystery.
Ozon can make even the act of getting one’s hair cut seem vaguely sinister, as he does in the opening scene. He moves on to a gynecological close-up announcing the uninhibited approach he’ll take to all of Double Lover, and a visual transition expressing the mischievous sense of humor with which he’ll apply it. This is all attention-grabbing prelude to the story of Chloé (Marine Vacth), a troubled 25-year-old Parisian former model who begins psychiatric sessions with Dr. Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier). His calm, receptive manner—he encourages her to do all the talking, purging herself of her anxieties—enamors him to Chloé, and their relationship develops beyond the professional. She moves in with him, and all is blissful for an inevitably short amount of time, as she begins discovering evidence that Paul may be living a double life.
Here’s where further discussion requires revealing an important twist (though an opening credit gives the game away), so the truly spoiler-averse should skip to the next paragraph. Chloe learns that Paul has an estranged twin brother, Louis Delord (Renier), also working as a psychologist, and begins taking appointments with him, calling herself Eva. His aggressive, confrontational manner is the opposite of Paul’s, but it turns her on in a way her boyfriend doesn’t, and they get up to some serious, nasty shagging and role-playing. Everyone in the movie, in fact, is playing a part in some way or another, hiding or repressing some side of themselves; even as Chloé indulges in her secret affair with Louis, she discovers that his existence isn’t the only thing Paul has been keeping from her. Ozon is less after a penetrating (ahem) emotional drama, though, than a giddy fantasia of bad behavior that spins the good twin/bad twin trope to the outer limits of narrative and visual delirium.
The emphasis on duality extends further into Double Lover’s casting (veteran actress Jacqueline Bisset appears in two different roles) and Ozon’s imagery. Mirrors have become a worn-out visual trope in screen thrillers, but Ozon manages to find creative ways of incorporating them, including one particularly eye-tickling shot. He just as enthusiastically embraces the visceral, with explicit, bizarre images of body transformation and violation, some reminiscent of David Cronenberg; one Cronenberg film is a clear influence on the narrative as well. Double Lover, in fact, is a gleeful grab bag of classic thriller references, including the morbidly amusing revelation of a taxidermic hobby to outdo that of Norman Bates.
Which is not to say that Ozon has created a mere pastiche, and he comes up with plenty of sneakily ribald moments of his own, some more subtle than others. (I particularly appreciated the way he cuts from someone going down on a woman having her period, coming up with blood on his face, to another man drinking a glass of red wine.) In Vacth, who also starred in his 2013 teen-prostitute drama Young & Beautiful (Jeune & Jolie), he has found a muse who is willing to plunge down the psychosexual rabbit hole with him, and enacts a heroine who piques and intrigues us throughout. Just as crucial to the film’s effect is the sometimes glossy, sometimes ominous, always seductive cinematography by Manu Dacosse, a regular on the equally heightened films of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani (Amer, The Strange Color of Your Body’s Tears). He helps Ozon create a world where every development, no matter how questionable it may appear on its surface, makes sense in the overall twisted scheme of things, setting the audience free to gasp and giggle in equal measure.