"I wanna do this one more time, just to see what he does," Catherine says. "And then we'll stop. Okay?" Chloe nods. "Okay." Catherine (Julianne Moore) is an independent career woman, a doctor (a gynecologist, in fact), and her husband David (Liam Neeson) is a popular and happy college professor. Their marriage, however, has lost its luster, and Catherine begins to suspect that he is cheating on her. She has a chance meeting with Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a call girl, and makes a business proposal: She'll hire the younger woman to make herself available to the husband, and then report back to Catherine what happens next. That way she'll know if he's been faithful. That's the plan. Things don't go according to plan.
Chloe is the work of challenging Canadian director Atom Egoyan, who is here making his most accessible film to date--which is ultimately its undoing. It is missing much of the skewered chronology and trick storytelling that have become his trademark, though it does contain the kind of lush sexiness that made previous pictures like Exotica and Where the Truth Lies so memorable. Eroticism permeates the film from its opening frames (of Seyfried's Chloe suiting up in sexy lingerie); the film is full of fetishistic attention to detail (dig that floor-level shot of their high-heeled shoes in neighboring bathroom stalls), a sexy score, copious nudity, and themes of voyeurism and sexual jealousy.
But Egoyan is not merely looking to titillate; he's less interested in showing us sex than showing us how it affects those in the room, and out of it. The first time Chloe and Catherine meet after Chloe has met David, Egoyan plays out her relaying of the events with masterful control, holding not on the dirty details, but on Catherine as she hears them. One of the joys of the picture is reading the complexities of the character's emotions across Moore's subtly expressive face; there's more happening here than a woman trying to trap her husband. As she directs Chloe as to what will happen next, we realize that she is finding a way, however difficult, to control the situation--and perhaps finding her own sexual satisfaction in that control, a notion that Chloe puts to her explicitly later in the film.
This is strong, grown-up material, not the kind of mature examination of sexuality that we're used to seeing in anything resembling mainstream film. In these early scenes, again, it's all tell, no show; Egoyan (and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson) know that's the erotic part anyway. Chloe tells Catherine what she asks to hear, and what she may very well want to hear, but Catherine doesn't know what to do with that information (Moore is acting up a storm in the scene at a recital, where she knows all but says nothing). Subtly, the film becomes less about her jealousy and more about the power dynamic between the two women--it shifts and shuffles, and then goes all the way to the edge, and then leaps over blindly.
At that key moment, the score and cinematography get a little Skinemax-y, which rather cheapens what's happening intellectually. And there are other speed-bumps along the way--it is, in places, somewhat stilted, occasionally veering towards the pretentious, and scattered scenes (like a lecture scene showing Neeson's rapport with his students) ring clangingly false. But it still involves us, not only because of the aforementioned eroticism, but because of Egoyan's intelligent approach to it.
And then in the third act, you feel, with dread, the picture threatening to become something else, something far more pat and ordinary than what it seemed to be working up to. It takes a narrative turn that gobsmacks you, and it's a good one, but it doesn't go in a direction that matches the wit and brains of the set-up. We're left, instead, to deal with the disappointment of seeing a real, grown-up movie about marriage and sex and lust switch over to a standard erotic thriller, to some kind of a refugee from the Poison Ivy series, resolved with a cheap shot of a bullshit ending. It's a shame. Chloe has enough of interest in it that it's worth recommending, but I've rarely seen a film's own ending so thoroughly shoot itself in the foot.
Jason lives with his wife Rebekah and their daughter Lucy in New York. He holds an MA in Cultural Reporting and Criticism from NYU. He is film editor for Flavorwire and is a contributor to Salon, the Atlantic, and several other publications. His first book, Pulp Fiction: The Complete History of Quentin Tarantino's Masterpiece, was released last fall by Voyageur Press. He blogs at Fourth Row Center and is yet another critic with a Twitter feed.