Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore star. (Sony Pictures Classics )
"Chloe" is a conundrum. Envisioned as a psychosexual thriller about a woman scorned, director Atom Egoyan's latest puzzle is just puzzling, little more than a messy affair with mood lighting, sexy lingerie, heavy breathing and swelling, um, music.
Everyone here is dripping with money, lust and anxiety, all to bad effect. Julianne Moore is Catherine, a successful Ob-Gyn who suspects husband David (Liam Neeson), a college music professor, of something more than a pedagogical interest in one of his students.
The couple have a modern two-city marriage, a modern house of the sort that grace the pages of Architectural Digest, and despite the relative intelligence of everyone involved, a thoroughly midcentury (not modern) way of dealing with their issues. In other words, they don't talk.
So rather than a conversation about her suspicions, or therapy, or a drunken confessional with friends, Catherine hires a high-end hooker named Chloe (Amanda Seyfried) and sets about to trap her cheating spouse -- that is, if he is cheating. Although he must be -- how else to explain why he missed his plane home on the night of a birthday that confirms he's on the down-slope of middle age.
The problem with setting traps is that they sometimes ensnare the wrong animal. What is a given is that someone will get hurt, and "Chloe" leaves all manner of collateral damage lying around, some expected, some not.
Egoyan and screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson are using the premise to examine the nature of betrayal and the power of the imagination to fill in the blanks, a deep well the filmmaker has dipped into many times. The specific template has been given them by the 2003 French film "Nathalie," with French writer-director Anne Fontaine having a hand in "Chloe's" adaptation. Still, what in Paris seems both intelligent and erotic, in the States seems just seedy.
All that sex and need add up to a whole lot of trouble, but unlike the filmmaker's critically acclaimed 1994 film, "Exotica," where the cerebral intersected with lust and longing in a strip club so that guilt, obsession and responsibility as well as Mia Kirshner's young body were laid bare, "Chloe" stops short. The result is a sort of story interruptus, the thematic possibilities of the sexual balance of power in relationships teased but never to a satisfactory conclusion.
Still, Egoyan has always been good with actors, and Moore and Neeson are skilled at making trouble interesting to watch, while Seyfried, with that Rapunzel hair ever coming loose from its filigreed comb, certainly looks the seductress. At times, the texture of the film is so seductive it is almost enough to forgive the flaws. The filmmaker, along with frequent collaborators cinematographer Paul Sarossy and production designer Phillip Barker, and costume designer Debra Hanson, have created an exceedingly lush canvas, particularly for Chloe, where desire hangs like a heavy perfume in her crushed velvet world.
But the real riddle here is why the filmmaker has struggled so in recent years ("Adoration," "Where the Truth Lies"), as if he's forgotten quite how, and when, to play the emotional cards he usually handles so deftly. When Egoyan is on point, as he was in his 1997 breakthrough, "The Sweet Hereafter," he turns the machinations of all manner of human connections into something rare and too easily shattered.
In "Chloe," it's hard to care if anything breaks.