This piece originally ran during the Cannes Film Festival, and we’re running it again ahead of Double Lover’s theatrical release this weekend. Spoilers ahead.
What’s your sexual preference? Loving and slow? Fast and brutal? A little dangerous? Autoerotic? Do you like to have a cat looking at you while in the act? Is that cat’s name Milo? And how do you feel about twins? At the same time? What if they looked like Jérémie Renier? What if Jérémie Renier made out with himself? Now we’re talking.
My colleague Kyle Buchanan has already written in detail about the hilarious, audacious shot of a pulsating vulva (which match-cuts to an eye) that starts things off in French director François Ozon’s psycho-sexual cornucopia, L’Amant Double — by far the trashiest fun to debut here at Cannes. But as a possessor of said anatomy, who found that shot less shocking than, it seems, every male in the room did, I’d like to report that there’s plenty more kink to go around for everyone, whatever your predilections. (Well, almost everyone. A female friend sat next to me, muttering “I hate this movie, I hate this movie,” while I sat on the edge of my seat, clapping with delight every few minutes.)
Based on the 1987 novel Lives of Twins by Joyce Carol Oates, who was herself living something of a double life and writing under the pseudonym of Rosamond Smith, the story centers on Chloé (Marine Vacth, star of Ozon’s 2013 Young & Beautiful), a beautiful, anxious ex-model who can’t hold a job, never has sex, lives alone with her cat, Milo, and has constant stomach pains. Ozon (Swimming Pool) has transferred the action from suburban Connecticut to Paris, which immediately signals that this film was not made to help repressed American housewives get off — though I hope many of them watch it and do. That aforementioned vagina shot is part of a gynecological exam, which determines there’s nothing wrong with her; it must be psychological. Or rather, psycho-sexual. You don’t open your movie with a vagina turning into an eye for nothing.
She decides to try therapy, though the sexual tension is so obvious the second she sits down with her gorgeous therapist, Paul (Renier), that they quickly decide to end their professional relationship. Too quickly, of course, and we as viewers feel an immediate unease watching Chloé carry her boxes, and Milo, up to the apartment in a foreboding high-rise that she and Paul will now share. She has revealed all to him, but he is a mystery, a taciturn listener who knows everything about her frigid nature, her feeling that she has never been loved, and about whom she knows nothing. His declaration of Chloé as sane seems as dangerously misguided as her decision to move in with him. Indeed, while unpacking, she finds a passport of Paul’s with a different last name. And when she asks him about it, he spins a tale about needing to change it when he opened his own practice, which makes no sense.
Who is this man and what are his secrets? Chloé begins to spiral in doubt and suspicion. At night, they make hot, steamy, conventional love, and as Paul thrusts into her, she glances over to see Milo staring at them, perhaps in judgment, perhaps as a warning, and the rising anxiety; the thought that her perfect lover suddenly feels like a stranger makes the sex even hotter. In the brief moments when he is home, she tries to get more out of him, but he bristles. The name, the name, she can’t stop thinking about the name. Is he leading a double life? Having an affair? Her paranoid detective work leads her to making an appointment under an assumed name at the offices of another psychotherapist, Louis, who bears the last name Paul once had, and who she is shocked to discover looks exactly like Paul, but sharper, edgier, plus dangereux. Ho boy.
Ah, that classic twin psychologists story. Louis immediately sees through Chloé’s made-up identity — though not before revealing what she’d come there to discover, that he has a twin brother named Paul who cut him out of his life. “Lying is a common practice among women, especially the pretty ones,” Louis says, showing Chloé the door after minutes, while still demanding his full session fee and telling her to come back when she’s ready to dig into the truth. Oh, will she be back. That night, in a sequence that feels steamily, deliciously real, a second, naked Paul — or is it Louis? — enters their bedroom as they’re mid-missionary-coitus. Paul looks up, still in the act, and beckons the other him over to join in. He begins to make out with himself, first tentatively, then aggressively, and soon the two hims fall forward onto Chloé’s breasts to devour them. Her arousal is so piqued, her desire so strong, her mind so addled that she begins to split at the chest, like a cell dividing, a second head forming so she can equally engage with both her lovers.
Louis may be the more aggressive, dominant twin, but it’s Chloé who keeps coming to him for “unconventional” therapy sessions that take place in a luxuriously appointed bedroom adjoining his office. Their affair is one of cat and mouse, made rougher, juicier by Louis’s knowledge of Chloé’s relationship with his brother — which he’d sniffed out the moment she’d walked into his office — and his deep, and soon obsessive, desire to give her what he’s sure his brother is too weak to provide. And as the psychological warfare progresses, so does the sex, with one twin or another, to rape fantasies, period cunnilingus, pegging, and things involving wombs that you wish you could un-see. The obvious comparison is to Dead Ringers, David Cronenberg’s 1988 creepy surrealist thriller featuring Jeremy Irons as twin gynecologists in sexual competition with one another, though the central mystery of L’Amant Double is far less twisted, with far less body horror — which it makes up for with way, way more sex.
And really, what else did you come for other than kink steamier than anything that has come from the mind of E.L. James and shot in the way only a European can? This film never could have been made in America, and it certainly benefits from that lack of puritanism. Is it sometimes silly and overwrought? Of course. Can you see the twist ending coming a mile away? Definitely. But unlike that stateside supermarket erotica that shall not be named, this isn’t about a virgin who takes up BDSM to please a man and then tries to tame his base desires. It’s about the opening up of a woman who finds unorthodox means to live out her every sexual desire — cat observer, mirrors, giant dildo, aggressive fingering, twins, twins, twins — and then discovers that she wants more. Maybe it doesn’t all go well. Maybe the twins are more diabolical than they first appear to be. But the vagina-to-eye prophecy of the opening scenes, in the end, has real meaning. Stimulate that organ enough and perhaps you will learn to see.