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Tango in Toronto

Restrained voyeurism carries Egoyan's Chloe

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A suspicious wife hires a classy prostitute to try to find out if her husband is the cheating kind. Could anything possibly go wrong? Goodness, no!

To unpack an old saw, if I may, I've always delighted in the expression "All's fair in love and war" because it puts such a charitable spin on essentially the same principle, laid down almost two hundred years ago by the Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz. What Clausewitz meant is that nothing is off the table when nations go to war: the irrational scope of reciprocated violence is, in theory, limitless. He died before working out all the nuances, but one need only turn on the television to see the same governing principle played out endlessly, in endless variations.

The most sensual diamond heist ever attempted.
  • The most sensual diamond heist ever attempted.

Ah, but the clause in love that defies facile Clausewitzian comparisons is that people end up destroying each other out of love without meaning to. Thus does a string of misapprehensions threaten to ruin the married couple in Chloe, directed by Atom Egoyan, and starring Julianne Moore as Catherine, Liam Neeson as the husband under surveillance and Amanda Seyfried as the title's eponymous call girl. Naturally things go wrong with Catherine's plan almost immediately, first in predictable and then in increasingly unpredictable ways. From Chloe's first breathless report, Catherine can already sense that events she set in motion are spiraling out of her control, but she has to see it through to get to the truth. Her fatal curiosity—at least, we think it's just curiosity—drives her on.

The movie is set in Toronto, the Hollywood of Canada, but different from our Hollywood in that on film the city always looks like it's from the future, but only by a couple of years. In the movies of David Cronenberg, this indeterminately futuristic look adds a strange remoteness to the human proceedings, which in movies like Crash or Dead Ringers are usually weird and icky enough already. (For the longest time, when someone mentioned "Toronto" the first thing I pictured was James Spader taking Deborah Kara Unger from behind on a highway embankment, in full but distant view of a glass jungle of high-rise buildings.)

Chloe presents a coolly modern Toronto of doctor's offices and expensive homes in the city's upmarket Yorkeville district. A warmer city than Cronenberg's, but nonetheless an atmosphere in which romantic emotions seem to hover barely above ambient late-winter temperatures. For all its pornographic and voyeuristic aspects Chloe retains a certain Canadian reserve.

And those aspects it has in plenty. As the call girl's reportage unfolds, we learn it's not simply determination to get at the truth that keeps Moore's character on the hook and Seyfried's call girl on retainer. Chloe's stories sound like loftily translated French erotica, which in a sense they are: Chloe is Egoyan's remake of Nathalie, a 2003 French movie starring Gérard Depardieu and growing-older-gorgeously Emmanuelle Béart. But confessions like "I moved my hand lightly over his [so-and-so]" are bound to be comically at odds with any movie dialogue, however oddly mannered, that isn't pornographic.

Still, Seyfried is pretty captivating in this movie. She is nothing if not Nordic, and in one scene those preternaturally big blue eyes of hers project a look of almost spine-tingling derangement. Liam Neeson, too, lumbering around like a collection of logs stuffed into pantlegs and designer shirtsleeves, fills the screen as always—and talk about a distinctive profile. Something about the bones in his face now recalls my childhood fear of being crushed by a cigar store Indian.

A New Yorker critic pooh-poohed Chloe in a recent issue with a backhanded "he should have known better" aside aimed at Egoyan directly. Known better than to do what? Make a trashy movie? American critics can be strangely patronizing like that, taking it personally when their pet Canadian directors (most people, even most Canadians, can name two at most) somehow let them down—generally by not making the same movie again and again.

Detachment and prurience have always mixed uneasily in Egoyan's movies. Here the latter, in borderline softcore porn form, seems to have the upper hand. I can see how Chloe would annoy Egoyan fans still waiting for the next Sweet Hereafter or whatever, but so what? Who says Canadians can't trash it up a little sometimes? At least he's still making movies in Canada, and set in Canada, despite the fact that none of the principle trio of actors in Chloe are Canadian.

When the United States was getting ready to square off against Canada for hockey gold, a number of American pundits found it handy to rationalize a Canadian victory, even before the fact, as a kind of national concession to Canada's sense of self-worth: I mean, what else have they got going for them up there? Chloe might not help remedy Canadian cinema's underlying identity crisis, coming off as it does like a strange mix of French romantic drama and low-rent American cable softcore. But there's nothing wrong with a little trashy fun.

Chloe continues at the Wilma Theatre.

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