The first thing you see before the opening title of Double Lover, the new thriller by François Ozon, is its young star getting her long hair cut very short. As she throws away one look for another, she seems strangely agitated, and when she makes eye contact with the camera, there’s something of an instant challenge to anyone staring back. Is she preparing to play a role? Having a mental breakdown? Or simply getting her hair done?
The first thing you see after the opening title is an extreme close-up of her vagina. The scene is a trip to the gynecologist, and it is, by design, among the least erotic nudity you’ll ever witness. But for a movie in which sex and intimacy play such leading roles, it’s a way of immediately and squeamishly giving you the most physically private sight of its heroine possible and letting her stay no less an enigma when she comes out the other side.
There is intrigue in such gamesmanship, in a director playing with what we see and what we know. This approach, not to mention the plot built around it, finds Ozon in De Palma territory: doppelgängers, split-screens, and lethal unreliability. In an apparent state of physical and psychological pain, the heroine (Marine Vacth) visits a therapist (Jérémie Renier) to pour out her subconscious. She starts a love affair with him in an emotionally unhealthy sort of way, and then learns that—unless she’s imagining things—he has a twin brother with a nastier and kinkier streak. It’s a solid concept for a character study doubling as a mystery, or vice-versa. It has its stylistic flourishes—mirrors abound—and a heartfelt destination in mind. But the intrigue starts to wane when the film, god help it, has to find ways to sustain its middle hour in that dangerous duality of pretension and camp.
And here, Double Lover is useful mainly as a case study in the difference between Good Ridiculous and Mediocre Ridiculous. As the sexy bad twin, Renier comes across less as a force of irresistibly dangerous masculinity and more like a 50 Shades of Grey impersonator for bachelorette parties. The film’s in-the-streets, in-the-sheets psychoanalysis is thumpingly literal, bluntly scripted, and visualized in ways that seem like the stuff of underfunded art school projects. Set it next to something like De Palma’s Obsession or Dressed to Kill or Femme Fatale (which are no less insane) and you can see what Double Lover is missing: a more skilled and dextrous command of what film can accomplish as a dream state. Double Lover tells you straight out too much of what it should be implanting subconsciously. It makes disbelief something you have to suspend rather than something you’re happy to throw away, and in the process breaks and continually recasts its own spell. Late-game body horror elements mean that anyone who picked out the film for purely lustful reasons will get exactly what they deserve. But forbidden desire needs to transform its excesses into the audacious kind of wit that Double Lover keeps losing control over. The good people at Cohen Media had the devilish sense to premiere the film in American theaters on Valentine’s Day. It’s almost the wittiest thing about it.
Double Lover played in the main competition at Cannes in 2017 and came out on US home video this summer. I can’t say I recommend doing so, but if you can safely watch it with your significant other, you have a very healthy relationship.