From a jarring opening close-up of a speculum encircling a cervix to a pegging scene so rough you’ll be clinching through your wincing, “Double Lover” is not short on provocations. The latest from French auteur François Ozon, this erotic thriller is a mash-up of metaphors as beguiling as they are befuddling. In the vein of Lars Von Trier’s two-parter “Nymphomaniac,” “Double Lover” centers around a disturbed woman with an insatiable libido. Chloe (Marine Vacth) has less agency than Charlotte Gainsbourg’s Joe; she bounces capriciously between her twin lovers in a sort of ethereal sex-haze. Like Von Trier, Ozon grounds his extreme sex scenes with narrative urgency, justifying even the most gratuitous details; at the same time, the movie depicts consent violations in deeply problematic fashion.
Turning a twisted twin fetish into an exploration of identity, “Double Lover” charts a love triangle between a woman and two estranged twin brothers (Jérémie Renier). Chloe first meets Paul on his therapist’s couch, but he terminates treatment when he develops “feelings that make it impossible to continue.” They quickly move in together, but something is missing, and their lackluster sex life leaves Chloe lovingly gazing into her cat’s eyes over Paul’s. Paul is hiding something, and in her attempt to uncover his secrets, she stumbles upon his twin brother Louis — also a therapist — and the two soon form a secret of their own.
From there, Chloe bounds between the Jekyll and Hyde-like twins with a feverish enthusiasm, satiating her baser desires with Louis even though (or perhaps because) he frightens her. Louis antagonizes her in their odd sessions, manipulating her with lines like: “Lying to seduce is common practice amongst pretty women. Especially the frigid ones.” When they finally engage in what Louis calls “applied techniques” (charming), he is assertive to the point of being rough. Increasingly, their scenes begin to push the boundaries of consent, with Chloe insisting they stop the affair, as Louis paws at her clothes and ignores cries of “No.”
Chloe channels the “applied techniques” she has learned from Louis with Paul, donning a leather harness and strap-on dildo before bending him over a table. “Go easy,” he tells her, as she doles out a too-small dollop of lube and enters him. “You’re hurting me,” Paul says, as her thrusts quicken. Afterwards, she asks, “Was that your first time?”
The scene feels like a significant moment, although Ozon’s intentions are difficult to divine. Chloe first floats the pegging idea in bed with Louis, but ultimately Paul is the one who acquiesces. Paul is the “good” brother: Sensitive, gentle, and boring — yet secure enough in his masculinity to take it up the butt. The pegging scene seems to establish Paul as the more evolved man, especially contrasted with Louis’ subsequent coercion bordering on assault. Louis claims that Paul felt threatened by him as a child, which is why they don’t speak. The truth may be more nefarious, or it may be irrelevant.
Later, when Chloe confronts Louis, she will say: “You hate Paul, because he’s the real dominant twin. He fucked you in the ass.” Ozon draws an obvious correlation between penetration and dominance, revealing rather conventional heteronormative ideas as well as what receiving penetration means in the world of the film.
The idea of the “Double Lover” is omnipresent in the film’s visual language — from geometric mirrors to symmetrical framing to the pristine uniforms Chloe wears to her job at an art museum. The twin metaphor says more about Chloe than it does Paul or Louis, and it soon becomes clear that the twins are mirrors of her own psyche. In its most generous interpretation, Ozon seems to be playing with dominance and submission as it relates to individual identity and desire. Of course, it took a lot of wading through Ozon’s gorgeous house of mirrors to reach that conclusion.
On the surface, “Double Lover” has a lot of extreme sex scenes, and in most cases, it’s not clear whether they are consensual. (There’s also something going on with cats). In a pivotal reveal in the film’s third act, Paul describes the last time his brother slept with his girlfriend: “He soiled her.” If Ozon thinks he has written a self-possessed, sex positive female character in Chloe, he is sorely mistaken. Between the twins, the cats, and the mirrors, “Double Lover” is an equal-opportunity rape fantasy as told through a melange of mixed metaphors.
“Double Lover” is now playing in select theaters.