In the past, the films of Atom Egoyan generally have struck me as intellectual exercises that examine emotions without really pausing to feel them.
Every once in a while, however, he makes a film that does locate its heart - and also uses it. The Sweet Hereafter was one; his latest, Chloe, which opens Friday (3/26/10), is another.
Based on a script by Erin Cressida Wilson, Chloe casts Julianne Moore as Catherine Stewart, a Toronto gynecologist whose practice is thriving but whose life eludes her. Her teen-age son seems to have slipped out of her control and her husband, David (Liam Neeson), a college professor who apparently is catnip to the coeds, appears to have lost interest.
Indeed, she's convinced that he's cheating and apparently discovers proof: an email from a female student on his cell phone, accompanied by a photo - from a night where he failed to appear at his own surprise party because he supposedly missed his plane from New York.
Still, Catherine is enough of a pragmatist (and a bit of a masochist) that she wants hard proof. So she hires a callgirl named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) and gives her the assignment of seducing her husband. Catherine is a bit of a prig, but even as she's telling Chloe not to give her the details of her encounter with David, she's coaxing them out of her and getting aroused as she listens.
She's so aroused, in fact, that, when Chloe summons her to a hotel room where Chloe and David have just had sex, she and Chloe couple up for an afternoon of their own illicit passion. Now what?
Now what, indeed. Egoyan has more on his mind than a married woman's awakening to her own Sapphic urges. Probably, he's got a little too much on his mind, including a Hitchcockian twist that takes this film into Fatal Attraction territory, where it's not all that comfortable.
I don't mean uncomfortable in the sense of making the viewer squirm. Rather, when the film takes a left turn in the final act, it moves into territory that's both too predictable and too implausible at the same time. Still, having gone there, Egoyan cranks up the suspense as best he can, creating a feeling of dread that's effective, if not quite believable.
Moore has a jittery reticence, an almost prissy quality that makes this character intriguing and believable. She's made herself into a prude, a quality that seems calculated to shield her from base urges that she would rather not deal with. Moore conveys a lot of feeling with a little, as a woman who finds herself in the deep end when she finally does give in to her suppressed appetite.
Seyfried has a kind of disembodied sultriness - she's a sex worker who doesn't get emotionally involved in her job, yet never betrays her lack of connection to the client. But she too is blocking feelings she can't control, which make her even more seductive when she gives in to them.
Neeson brings a melancholy to the role of a man who mourns the loss of intimacy with his wife and longs to have it back. That mournful quality may stem from Neeson's own life; he was making this film at the time that wife Natasha Richardson died in a ski accident.
Chloe builds to a climax you may or may not buy. But go along for the ride; it's one that's alternately hot and chilling.