Director Atom Egoyan’s new movie, Chloe, has a script by someone else, Erin Cressida Wilson. That’s unusual for him. Even more unusual for Egoyan, Chloe is based on another movie. Yet Egoyan’s fingerprints are all over it; it exudes his sensibilities as clearly as if it had sprung entirely from his own watchful, thoughtful imagination.
The source for Chloe is Anne Fontaine’s 2003 French film Nathalie, in which a jealous wife hires a prostitute to seduce—or at least test the fidelity of—her errant husband. I haven’t seen Fontaine’s original, but reviews suggest that the focus of the story is not the woman’s marriage but her relationship with the prostitute. And so it is with Chloe.
Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, a successful Toronto gynecologist married to David (Liam Neeson), a professor of music. Catherine’s discreetly lavish downtown office contains, among its tasteful decorations, a framed magazine article about how she and David “have it all,” combining prosperous careers with a secure and nurturing marriage, nestled in their airy suburban demi-mansion with their teenage son Michael (Max Thieriot).
When David fails to show up for his surprise birthday party, claiming to have missed his flight out of New York, Catherine hides her disappointment and humiliation behind a perfect-hostess mask for the dozens of waiting, wine-sipping guests.
The next morning, Catherine quizzes David. “Did you run? You said you missed your plane by minutes. Did you run?” Downstairs, as she passes his jacket draped over a chair, she hears his cell phone buzzing in the pocket and sees a text message: “Thanks for last night. Miranda.” Catherine’s unfocused suspicion crystallizes into certainty.
That evening, at dinner with friends, David flirts mildly with their waitress, and Catherine, unwilling to make an issue of it, takes momentary refuge in the ladies’ room. There, she hears someone quietly sniffling in the next stall. “Are you OK?” Comes the reply, “Men are such assholes,” and Catherine nods to herself.
The voice in the next stall belongs to Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), who later, at the restroom mirror, tries to give Catherine a silver comb—“I think you dropped this.” But the comb isn’t Catherine’s, it’s Chloe’s; we know this because we’ve seen it before. Even before meeting Catherine or David, we’ve seen Chloe as she carefully dresses and places that comb in her honey-blond hair, telling us in voice-over why she’s in this line of work. She doesn’t come right out and say she’s a call girl, but from the way she talks about her clients and the personae she adopts for them, she could hardly be anything else.
Sometime later—hours? Days? Weeks?—Catherine and Chloe chance to meet again. Chloe doesn’t tell Catherine what she is, either, but somehow Catherine knows as surely as we did in that first scene. Hesitantly, she hires Chloe to approach David and lead him on. Will David follow?
We sense that Chloe is uncertain about Catherine’s motivations. Is she trying to tempt David, to test him or to procure for him? Is she one of those wives who get their kicks that way?
Chloe and Catherine continue to meet, with money changing hands in a plain white envelope. Chloe reports on her meetings with David—from coffee to lunch to flirting to kissing to groping, and finally to a tryst in a hotel room. Catherine, so clinical and matter-of-fact when discussing orgasms with her patients (“a series of muscle contractions, nothing more”), finds herself getting, along with the hurt and betrayal, an unsettling erotic charge out of hearing Chloe’s stories. This has gone too far, she thinks, it’s got to stop; we have to break this off. But she can’t. It’s almost as if Catherine, and not David, is the one having the affair.
There are twists to the movie, and they inspire a kind of cathartic dread, not because we didn’t see them coming, but because we did. As with all of Egoyan’s movies, there’s a feeling of life beneath and behind the screen, of still waters running deep and dark. The movie’s last image is a glimpse of that silver comb, reminding us that a comb can be used not only to keep unruly things in order. It can also be used to stab.