Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's 1994 film Exotica is one of cinema's greatest video-store fake-outs. Set partly in a Toronto strip club, the film depicts a male customer (Bruce Greenwood) obsessively returning to watch a much younger performer (Mia Kirshner), gradually revealing a connection between the two that has nothing to do with sexual desire. With a video cover depicting a partially clad Kirshner writhing under a spotlight, the film has invariably been slotted in the "erotic thriller" section of video stores, where it has gone on to disappoint untold thousands of renters who return home to find a sad, meditative, structurally bold work about coping with loss.
Now, with Chloe, Egoyan has returned to the erotic thriller as art film. What Exotica was to Shannon Tweed/Skinemax thriller fodder, Chloe is to the Poison Ivy/The Babysitter school of dangerous-object-of-desire thrillers.
Finding something of a thematic and artistic midpoint between Eyes Wide Shut and Fatal Attraction, Chloe focuses on suspicion of infidelity and growing sexual anxiety in a longstanding marriage. The couple at the center is film professor David Stewart (Liam Neeson), who has a thing for flirting — at the least — with students and restaurant servers, and his OB/GYN wife Catherine (Julianne Moore), who is upset at the fading sexual spark in her marriage and becomes convinced her husband is having an affair. The couple also has a teen son, Michael (Max Thieriot), who is bedding his latest girlfriend in the family home over his mother's objection and with his father's silent consent.
Into this scenario comes Chloe (Amanda Seyfried), a young call girl with kewpie-doll features and hourglass curves who crosses paths with Catherine in a restaurant-restroom meet-cute that, by the film's related final shot, has taken on a decidedly Hitchcockian air. A few plot machinations later, Catherine is hiring Chloe to hit on her husband as a test of his fidelity, but the unintended consequences of this transaction leads Chloe even deeper into unsettled family waters.
Egoyan is perhaps best known for what is still his best film, 1997's brilliant Russell Banks adaptation The Sweet Hereafter, and he built to that achievement with a series of cerebral, low-key Canadian features (seek out Family Viewing) populated by a recurring cast of little-known actors (including his wife, Arsinée Khanjian). Egoyan's previous film, last year's under-recognized Adoration, was a return to his early style. But Chloe goes the opposite route. It's his glitziest project yet and with his highest-wattage cast: a couple of Oscar nominees (Neeson and Moore) and an "It Girl" ingénue (Seyfried, fresh from Big Love and Mamma Mia! and current Glamour cover subject).
It also hews somewhat closer to its Hollywood B-movie premise than Exotica did. There's real pulpy drive here — the sexual material is legitimately hot whereas Exotica is always cool — and if the climax doesn't quite descend into the mad violence Hollywood always finds with theses stories, it's certainly more contrived than you expect from Egoyan's work. And the plot twists — while effective and true to the story's real emotional and intellectual underpinning — are a bit straighter than Egoyan's norm.
There's something glassy and robotic about Seyfried's performance, but it seems less shaky acting than an intentional effect. Chloe is less like a real person than something conjured, a manifestation of the various sexual tensions roiling under the calm surfaces of this family home. Or maybe it's partly because the young actress isn't quite up to matching scenes with Moore, who delivers perhaps her most interesting performance in years, both more controlled and more daring than her overpraised supporting work in last year's A Single Man.