The Kinky French Film That Puts Fifty Shades to Shame

Following a brief opening credits sequence, Double Lover (LAmant Double) commences in earnest with an early contender for shot of the year: a zoom out of an extreme close-upfrom inside a womans vagina.

Its a wait-what-just-happened moment of hilarious brazenness, especially since the image quickly transitions to that of a womans crying eye. And it boldly sets the mood for this most delirious of erotic thrillers, whose Valentines Day theatrical debut (Feb. 14) conspicuously coincides with the release of Fifty Shades Freed, the final installment in the E.L. James-created trilogy thats primarily notable, on-screen at least, for the fizzling chemistry between Jamie Dornans bland S&M pretty boy and Dakota Johnsons blank sex kitten.

That the French might craft an erotic thriller more uninhibited than that dreary American series is hardly surprising; Ive had naps that were more sensually charged than the pairing of Dornan and Johnson. Nonetheless, with his latest, celebrated director Franois Ozon (Swimming Pool, 5×2) performs an impressively crazy Hitchcock-by-way-of-De-Palma routine, delivering psychological screwiness and passionate screwing with a ludicrousnessand tawdrinessthats, ahem, arousing.

The woman with whose insides were immediately, intimately acquainted is Chloe (Young & Beautifuls Marine Vacth), who during a gynecological exam complains about her recurring stomach pains, and is thus told to see a psychologist. That she does, in the person of Paul (Jrmie Renier, best known in America for Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardennes LEnfant, The Kid with a Bike, and The Unknown Girl), a sensitive and handsome fellow who, without uttering a word, gets Chloe to spill her cavalcade of hang-ups.

A tough but stressed former model, Chloe lives alone with her cat Milo, is estranged from her whore mother, has lifelong abdominal issues (her stomach is a second brain), and cries because she thinks shes incapable of loving. I feel empty sometimes. Like somethings missing. Oh yes, and shes also always dreamed of having a twin (A double, who would protect me)a confession made while Ozon employs a split-screen that captures Chloe from two different angles.

After a scant few sessions, Chloes cramps are gone, and shes fallen in love with Pauland then moved in with him. Snooping through his stuff, however, she discovers that his passport boasts a different last name. More puzzling still, on the bus ride home from her new job as a museum guard, Chloe sees Paul outside a building speaking to another woman. When, at dinner that night, he denies having ever left the hospital where he was stationed, Chloe investigatesand discovers the office of a psychotherapist named Louis who, its clear, is Pauls identical twin.

The issue of doubling is, per its title, central to Double Lover (loosely inspired by Joyce Carol Oates short story Lives of the Twins), and Ozon makes it clear from the outset that he cares little for subtlety. Mirror images, dopplegangers, and competing desires run rampant throughout this hot-blooded tale, especially after Chloe begins an affair with her boyfriends sibling. Louis is the aggressive, domineering flipside to his more sensitive and compassionate brother, and his curt, cold demeanor with Chloe during their brief appointments is matched by his hard-thrusting ways in the bedroom (conveniently located just behind a door in his office!). Hes the deviant yin to Pauls soft-and-cuddly yang, and it doesnt take him long to start driving Chloe wild in the sack, her innermost cravings unleashed, to the point that he even tempts her with the idea of schtupping someone else.

Which she does, in a literal sense, after agreeing to marry Paul and taking him to a sex shopwhere she buys a strap-on dildo that she dons, and uses roughly, with her new fianc. Role reversals and identity switcheroos abound in this carnal fantasia, which Ozon paces with a fleetness that keeps the pulse racing as well as helps the material glide over any (or should I say, its many) narrative head-scratchers. The directors camera slides through long passageways, penetrates architectural openings, and blends reflective-surface sights with such stylish shamelessness that one cant help but chuckle at the form-content excess on display. And thats without even mentioning that, during one heated romp between Louis and Chloe, the film plunges directly into her open, gasping mouth to discover, yes, another close-up of a vagina.

Double Lover is a consistently lurid affair, and its got enough steamy over-the-top sex to satisfy those simply looking for a titillating thrill. Nonetheless, Ozon isnt just interested in helping audiences get their rocks off; nestled within his outlandish De Palma-esque set pieces are detours into a dreamy domain where the issue of whats real and whats illusion is up for debate. Is Louis an actual person, or a manifestation of Chloes fantasy life? If he is real, why does Paul deny his existenceand why do none of his friends at a cocktail party have any recollection of Paul ever having a brother? Whats Paul hiding in the private belongings he doesnt want Chloe investigating? Does it have something to do with a woman named Sandra (Fanny Sage) who, Louis says, was the cause of the siblings estrangementand was she a victim, as claimed by her mom (Jacqueline Bisset), or someone who played a part in her own downfall?

Ozon is after a hallucinatory vision of desires duality, a notion clear from the aforementioned intro credit sequence, in which Chloes long locks are cut away to reveal her facea symbolic evocation of her roiling internal/external tensions. Before long, the director is diving headfirst into a body-horror-ish realm indebted to David Cronenbergs 1988 gem Dead Ringers. The art installations that surround Chloe at work transition from peaceful swirling paintings to twisted overhead tree-branch structures to giant mutant-organic-mass sculptures, while Chloe begins losing control of her mental and physical selfand the world (and lovers) around her. Guided by the entrancing Vacth, who has a cagey, feline aura ideal for a character so fixated on her pet cats, and energized by Reniers fervent twin performances as polar-opposites Paul and Louis, Double Lover proves a flamboyant funhouse of schizophrenic sexual turmoil, its minds and bodies entangled in ways that are all the more entertaining for being so outrageous.

This February, Mr. and Mrs. Grey may see you one last time, but if its kinky theatrical kicks youre after, Double Lover has its stateside competition beat fifty shades to Sunday.

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