French director Francois Ozon is one of the most prolific of contemporary filmmakers, averaging at least one film a year since 1997’s See the Sea. He's also among the more unpredictable filmmakers as far as subject and approach go, veering from psychological horror to austere romanticism (2017’s Frantz). His other films range from comedies to melodramas to steamy psychological thrillers, the most famous of which is Swimming Pool (’03) with Charlotte Rampling and Ludivine Sagnier.
Ozon’s follow-up to “Frantz,” a gorgeous b&w love story with WWI as a backdrop, is a return to the more outrageous, uninhibited themes and style of “Criminal Lovers” (1999) and Swimming Pool. Like 3 of his earlier films, including Swimming Pool and “Young and Beautiful” (2013), Double Lover won Ozon a nomination for the prestigious Palme d’Or at Cannes.
It’s worth noting the new film stars Marine Bacth, with whom Ozon worked four years before in Young and Beautiful. She was good then; she’s even better now.
Ozon wrote his screenplay based on Joyce Carol Oates' short 1987 novel Lives of the Twins. Ironies abound because Oates first published the novel under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith, but when the real author was revealed, Oates said she tried it “because I wanted to escape from my own identity.”
The title sequence sets the film's tone and approach. The camera focuses on a close-up of a young woman with long, black hair combed over her face. From behind this curtain, her eyes observe us as from behind the bars of a cage. We soon discern she's just getting a haircut, a rather drastic one, as it turns out.
Chloé (Bacth) is a former model who suffers from severe abdominal pains for which her physician has been unable to find a cause. After several sessions with psychiatrist Paul (Jérémie Renier), Chloé seems on her way to recovery. She's also fallen in love with Paul and he with her.
The couple seem happy and content when, quite by accident, Chloé discovers Paul has a twin brother, Louis, also a psychiatrist, but with a different last name. To get at the truth behind Paul’s deception about his family, Chloé makes an appointment with Louis who, it turns out, is the exact opposite of Paul.
Where Paul is gentle, Louis is rough. Paul is caring, Louis genuinely selfish. Soon she's sleeping with both men though only Louis knows the truth, a matter about which he openly taunts her, ridiculing Paul’s obtuseness. Whenever Chloé is with one twin, she says, it's the other one about whom she thinks. She loves Paul, but she can't seem to do without Louis.
Finally determined to pry the secret of Paul’s utter denial of his brother’s existence, she learns of a young woman who once was the victim of both. A visit to the girl’s mother (Jacqueline Bisset) only leads to more confusion and discovery, propelling the film toward its bizarre, surprising and totally unexpected third act.
But you can discover that for yourself.
Double Lover inevitably recalls David Cronenberg’s unsettling but brilliant Dead Ringers and its tale of twin gynecologists (Jeremy Irons) and Claire (Geneviève Bujold), their lover/patient. There are also elements of Hitchcock in here, Ozon constantly using dual images in mirrors and all other sorts of doubling shots throughout, to evoke the inner world of Chloe’s disturbed psyche.
Like Cronenberg (and Hitchcock, for that matter), Francois Ozon is a master of the unexpected.