Director: François Ozon
Stars: Marine Vacth, Jérémie Renier, Jacqueline Bisset
François Ozon often appears adept at understanding the female gaze, especially when compared to some of his male peers, or maybe he’s simply just more interested. Regardless, there is a recurring femininity to his work that recurs again here, though the approach marks a slight tonal departure.
For erotic thriller L’Amant Double (aka Double Lover), Ozon toys with the open influence of Brian De Palma (and by extension Alfred Hitchcock), bringing us a knotty story of trauma and twins that teases dual identities while opening up female sexual fantasies.
Meet Chloé (Marine Vacth), a 25-year-old Parisian who starts taking sessions with psychiatrist Paul (Jérémie Renier) to combat her sense of vulnerability, which appears to manifest as stomach pains. Paul is warm and caring, and Ozon skips quickly to the two of them breaking off treatment to focus on their relationship. Chloé seems better for it… until she sees Paul’s doppelgänger on the street. When Paul appears unwilling to discuss having a brother, Chloé plays detective and discovers his twin, Louis, who is also a psychiatrist. She books an appointment.
From here the film diverges into open sexual fantasy, as Louis’ domineering side compliments Chloe’s submissive nature. Sexual therapy has rarely been so literal. As Chloé reproaches Paul for his evasiveness, so her lies start to compound one another. Early in the film she describes herself as ’empty’ and ‘incapable of loving’. Louis’ aggressive approach triggers a sexual reawakening in Chloé (there’s even a sex dream sequence in which Chloé is morphed into a new being altogether). But it also allows her to balance her emotional connection to Paul, and she even finds the assertiveness to ask him to indulge in a particular fantasy of hers which is best left unspoiled.
Ozon plays on our experience in the genre, applying not only techniques associated with De Palma (split screen, which compliments the theme), but also the knowing tone found in the likes of Body Double. There’s something of an arched eyebrow about all of this. We’ve seen enough thrillers featuring twins to expect some kind of third-act secret or twist, and Ozon plays happily to our expectations here, hoping to provide a different set of revelations.
The use of split screen in Chloé’s initial sessions with Paul is used very effectively to place them closer than they are in the space, and spacial arrangements are an ongoing concern. Even before the twin storyline is revealed, duality infiltrates. Hell, it’s there in the title, but Ozon starts up an early visual cadence. During one of Chloe’s sessions, he literally doubles her image. Instead of feeling heavy-handed, it comes over as convivial. Ozon is inviting his audience to enjoy L’Amant Double as a cinephile. His film is very giving in this regard.
The aforementioned sex dream sees Chloé fantasising about having both men at the same time; an inversion of the male gaze stereotype in which twin sisters become incestuously involved. As with Chloé’s special request of Paul, Ozon delights in holding a mirror up to the erotic thriller itself, which is so often a byproduct of male sexual fantasy. The feminine approach credits Chloé with her own psychosexuality, and in that regard feels like a breath of fresh air.
The plot’s eventual spiralling will likely divide viewers, as Ozon deliciously changes up genre and influence. A more pronounced Cronenbergian element enters the fray. Not just the most obvious touchstone, Dead Ringers, but the psychoanalytical three-way of A Dangerous Method, too. Not only that, but Ozon provides some unexpected body horror in a denouement that comes to feel as fractured as his protagonist. L’Amant Double hits a hysterical fever pitch, and even recalls a particularly notorious piece from Takashi Miike.
Again, tonally, this feels like a modern take on the same ground De Palma’s Body Double was aiming for. L’Amant Double is a film that is aware of films and as such seems to exist within a set of quotation marks. There’s plenty to enjoy here – not least in the subversion of some stereotypes – but it can feel a little too knowing for its own good, distancing the viewer from genuine emotional connectivity.
Marine Vacth’s turn is as fearless as it is exceptional, while Jérémie Renier puts in double duty as Paul and Louis, giving each a specific sensibility. Ozon keeps the thing pacy, too; it moves with a brisk impatience. Finally, as it settles, another cinematic counterpart – or double – reveals itself; Ozon’s own Swimming Pool from 2002. The two seem to face one another, the latter a warped funhouse mirror reflection of the former.