Made in 2017 but with its heart firmly in 1947, François Ozon’s Double Lover (L’amant double in the original French) takes a pretty young woman, Chloé (Marine Vacth), and subjects her to a brutal gaslighting at the hands of a male psychiatrist. Two male psychiatrists, in fact, twin brothers (both played by Jérémie Renier) so alike that they can pass for each other. Except one is kind of nice and cuddly, the other is tough and sexy.
Maybe Rosemary’s Baby (another film with its heart in the late 1940s) was also in the mind of Ozon when he set about adapting Joyce Carol Oates’s Lives of the Twins, since gynaecology is at the heart of Double Lover, which opens with a shot of Chloé’s cervix right up the speculum of an examining doctor. There’s nothing wrong with you physically, the doctor opines, and so Chloé winds up in the hands, and eventually the arms, of hunky shrink Paul, only learning later on, after a bit of noirish subterfuge and pavement pounding, that he has a twin, the dark and brooding Louis, also a shrink.
From here things take a misogynistic and misanthropic turn (no one in this is particularly nice) as the film poses the age-old question – is Chloé losing her mind or are there really two shrinks who look the same but are in fact brothers? If she isn’t, then maybe her pregnancy isn’t a phantom, and if it isn’t who’s the father? Again – if she isn’t, then why do Chloé’s mother and the mother of one of Paul or possibly Louis’s ex girlfriends also look exactly the same?
As Chloé pings between the two brothers, Ozon tells a serpentine story that would be funny if it weren’t played with a straight face, and ladles on the gothic extravagance much as Philippe Rombi’s score works the thriller soundtrack angles – jangling, groaning, shrieking, shouting.
Vacth, a skinny former model playing a skinny former model who might just be in need of a decent meal, a good fuck, or a wee baby – misogynist taunts all – displays barely a shred of feminism 2.0 in a scaredy-cat performance that connects her up through Geneviève Bujold (in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers – again the twin shrinks) back to Ingrid Bergman in 1944’s Gaslight (or Diana Wynyard, if the original British Gaslight is more your touchstone).
Handsome Jérémie Renier’s big square head does double duty as Paul and Louis, the yin and yang shrinks, and it’s a carefully judged performance which, unusually in a film full of gargoyles, doesn’t go for absolute broke. When Louis at one point pretends to be Paul, he’s a plausible Paul, Renier just nudging us with a gesture at a given moment, so we realise a second before Chloé does just what’s going on.
Jacqueline Bisset again demonstrates her uncanny star power in a small double role as Chloé’s estranged mother, and the mother of a girl Paul or Louis might have raped and driven to a suicide attempt (depending on who you believe), dragging the entire film in her direction while she’s on the screen. The doubling doesn’t end there, and there are regular visual reminders – via mirrors, mostly – that what you see might be the opposite of what you get.
There’s lots of nudity, and sex that’s either warm and cuddly or rough and brutal, depending on who’s involved. There’s even a scene with a strap-on – no spoilers as to who’s wearing it.
Which is another way of saying that this film is more or less scaring away potential audiences from the get-go – feminists spoiling for a fight might not spot that Ozon clearly thinks this is all nonsense, prudes afraid of the odd nipple will also stay away, as will the army of Ozon’s arthouse fans who don’t do horror. Be warned, there’s a distinct shift to the gory late on, when things get much more overtly Cronenbergian.
However, for all the viscera and vulva on display, everyone in it behaves throughout as if they know they’re characters in a film not real flesh and blood humans, as if the formal experiment rather than the drama is the main thing on offer. As with the bulk of Ozon’s films, it makes for chilly watching.
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© Steve Morrissey 2022