Chloe is a voluptuous young prostitute with a very deep dark side. Catherine, a middle-aged gynecologist, is unaware of this when she engages Chloe as an undercover temptress to bait her husband, David, a music professor she suspects of having affairs with his female students. Over the course of several liaisons with David, Chloe confirms Catherine's worst fears in graphic detail. This is disturbing news — although not nearly as disturbing as what's really going on.
"Chloe" is a sleek erotic mystery spiked with unexpected twists. It's ideally cast — with Amanda Seyfried as Chloe, Julianne Moore as Catherine, and Liam Neeson as David — and its plot switches are triggered with a smooth calculation that might have won the Hitchcock seal of approval. Director Atom Egoyan usually creates his own extraordinary screenplays; here, though, he has adapted a 2003 movie called "Nathalie...," by French director Anne Fontaine, and delegated the scripting to Erin Cressida Wilson, the author of such enterprisingly strange films as "Secretary" and "Fur: An Imaginary Portrait of Diane Arbus." The result is a small classic of murky desires and mixed signals, and of love gone really, really wrong.
It's difficult to say much about the movie without giving away its surprises. Egoyan has relocated Fontaine's story from Paris to Toronto, which is presented here as an urban jewel box of gleaming snowy streets and sparkling clubs and restaurants. Out for dinner one night with David and another couple, Catherine has an ambiguous restroom encounter with Chloe, a girl she's never met before. Returning to her table, she finds David and their friends embarked on a game called "spot the hooker." Catherine rolls her eyes — but then sees Chloe returning to her own table to join an older man who has "john" written all over him.
Later, alone at a bar, Catherine is again approached by Chloe; she buys the younger woman a drink and relates her suspicions about David's extramarital activities. "I want to find out," Catherine says, with a trace of desperation. Can Chloe be of service? "Most of my clients are married," she observes. "He's not the client," says Catherine.
Chloe agrees to go to a café that David frequents and make herself noticeable, which is no problem at all. She reports back to Catherine that her husband did make a small pass, but they only talked. Her next meeting with David, at a mazelike botanical garden, goes considerably further. Then Catherine receives a text message from Chloe asking her to come to a room in a swank hotel. There she finds a bed in disarray, the remains of breakfast for two on a cart, and Chloe stepping naked from the shower. Here the movie's wild ride begins.
In bringing substance to the enigmatic character of Chloe, Seyfried gives her most impressive performance to date. She navigates a startling sex scene with brave assurance, and radiates allure even in an opening voiceover, enumerating her skills as a paid companion: "I can become your first kiss, or a torn-out image from a Playboy magazine you saw when you were nine years old," she says. "And then I can disappear." We may never figure out what makes Chloe tick, but we can definitely hear her ticking.
Neeson and Moore are as expert as always. Neeson (who continued shooting this film after the sudden death of his wife, Natasha Richardson) exudes his usual masculine solidity, and he's a generous foil for Moore's Catherine, whose insecurities have begun to multiply as she ages beyond the youthful ideal to which she knows her husband is still drawn. Moore's always-remarkable talent for conveying complex emotional states with just a look or a subtly charged line reading is one of the movie's several satisfactions (along with Mychael Danna's rich score, which recalls the classic lushness of Franz Waxman and other golden-age film composers).
But Seyfried emerges as the star of the picture. In playing a dangerous woman no one can ever really know, she manages to leave us feeling, at the end, that it's probably best that way.
Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Greenberg," also new in theaters this week.
Check out everything we've got on "Chloe."
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