Who would have thought that the Americans (and we’re talking North Americans) could beat the French in the game of lust, infidelity and lacy lingerie? “Chloe” is a remake of “Nathalie,” a 2003 film by French femme director extraordinaire Anne Fontaine; but in terms of sheer sexiness mileage, this U.S. version is on par with a business-class upgrade.

“Chloe” is the work of Canadian auteur Atom Egoyan (“The Sweet Hereafter,” “Where the Truth Lies”), and fans may recognize one of his signature themes: that identity has a direct link with sexual communication (or lack thereof).

Like its predecessor, “Chloe” explores the edges of conventional sexuality and stumbles upon sizzling eroticism. And then Egoyan pitches the story (if only temporarily) into the depths of black alienation. There’s real loneliness here, the kind that shatters self-esteem and deprives dignity, eroding the soul like acid.

Director Atom Egoyan
Run Time 96 minutes
Language English
Opens Opens May 28, 2011

Its three leads are enmeshed in a triangle of deception and desire, but one of them is desperately, wrenchingly lonely. That’s Catherine (Julianne Moore)—50 years old, beautiful, a successful gynecologist who explains coolly to a troubled patient that a female orgasm is nothing but a contraction of the clitoral muscle. Yet underneath a perfectly controlled exterior, Catherine seethes with hurt. Her teenage son (Max Thieriot) sneaks girls into their excessively modern designer house and she can hear them across the hallway at night. Her husband, David (Liam Neeson), is a college professor who waxes eloquently about Don Juan while his young female students shoot out smiles and inviting looks.

When David fails to show for a surprise birthday party attended by all their friends, Catherine’s suspicions bubble like lava. She needs to know if he’s cheating, how often, and in what way. To this end, she hires not a detective but a call-girl, Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), whom she meets in a bar and pays to seduce her husband and report the results.

What makes “Chloe” compelling isn’t just how it puts a pinwheel spin on the traditional menage a trois—it’s also a clinical observation of how privilege and stability are no weapons against the decay of a marriage. Moore’s performance is devastating—her face seems ready to splinter into a million fragments of sorrow, even as cinematographer Paul Sarossy’s lens highlights her rarefied beauty.

Catherine doesn’t seem (or seem to wish) to understand that she doesn’t particularly want her husband anymore, at least not in a real and physical sense. The green-eyed monster has become her bedfellow, and she’d rather tend to the cravings and demands of towering jealousy than confront the flesh-and-blood man who comes to the kitchen to give her a hug. And she relishes listening to Chloe’s graphic descriptions of her encounters with David—these arouse her in a way Catherine, for all her gynecologist’s training, is quite unprepared for. Despite her knowledge and supposed expertise on all things feminine and sexual, Catherine reveals a surprising naivete.

Chloe, who’s a quarter of a century younger than her client, sounds like a resigned philosopher. When Catherine quizzes her on the difficulties of the job, Chloe replies that the trick is to “try and find something to love in everyone.” She doesn’t mind morphing into a different version of a male fantasy every night and then “disappearing” when these men’s desires are sated.

Unfortunately, much of the mystery surrounding the Catherine-Chloe relationship and undefined murkiness surrounding the triangle is dissolved in a solution of cheesy psychobabble and faux feminism. What happened? Neeson’s real-life wife, Natasha Richardson, died suddenly following a skiing accident. Shooting was interrupted, and it’s said that Egoyan wasn’t sure whether Neeson intended to return. But he came back, the missing scenes were shot and the film was completed in haste. It’s very likely that Egoyan had a different ending in mind, as the conclusion feels like an unmatched skirt lopsidedly attached to an otherwise chic little dress.

Still, the very clumsiness of its ending injects “Chloe” with a certain sincerity and a deep, unshakable sadness. As Catherine lurches and sways into the realm of sappy soap box, we’re reminded of the fragility of commitment, the allure of someone new, and the neediness of desire. David should have made it to that party after all.

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