François Ozon on sexy, twisty thriller L’Amant Double

French auteur François Ozon is back on provocative form with L'Amant Double, a feverish sex thriller that puts Fifty Shades of Grey in the shade

Feature by Kelli Weston | 31 May 2018
  • L'Amant Double

When François Ozon’s latest film, L’Amant Double (or Double Lover), premiered at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, much – generally approving – ado was made over an early shot in the film: the close-up of a vagina spread apart by a speculum.

The prolific French director, whose output has earned him both comparisons to and even praise from Ingmar Bergman himself, has never shied away from his reputation as a provocateur. “Actually the film I made before – Frantz – was very classical. So with this film it was very much like ‘the comeback of the bad boy!’” he laughs. “‘The bad boy is back!’”

The vulva soon fades into the tearful green eye of our tortured heroine Chloé Fortin (Marine Vacth, star of Ozon’s 2013 film Young and Beautiful), who’s in the middle of an apparently painful gynaecological exam. She’s having belly aches again, she explains to her gynaecologist, who flatly dismisses her. “I think it’s more psychological,” says the doctor, “in your head.” In fact, the film will frequently blur the lines between body and psychological horror, and ultimately decide they are one and the same, except it is the body, not the mind, that wields the true power. If it is understood that the mind can manifest its anxieties physically, then Ozon – true to the wry, ironic spirit of so many of his features – flips the question: why shouldn’t the body, in all its mystery and madness, infect the mind?

As the film unfolds we see Chloé fall in love with her soft-spoken therapist, Paul (played by Jérémie Renier, another of Ozon’s regular actors), and eventually moves in with him. Their sex life is mundane, as tepid as perhaps Paul himself, until Chloé stumbles across a man who looks exactly like her lover. This man, also a therapist, soon reveals himself to be Louis (also played by Renier), Paul’s estranged brother, and, as cinematic twins tend to be, his sibling’s opposite in every way. If Paul is gentle and nurturing, Louis is abrasive and cold. Louis insists upon a sexual relationship with Chloé as part of his ‘therapy,’ and the two begin a disturbed, desperately wrathful affair, each partner grasping wildly for control, while a hapless Paul struggles to make sense of the increasingly irritable and suspicious Chloé.

Ozon adapted the film from Lives of the Twins written by Joyce Carol Oates under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith – “So she has a double, too!” he says – but the comparisons to David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers (1988) are perhaps to be expected.

“I’m a cinephile director so, of course; I know many films,” says Ozon. “And when I decided to make this movie, I had in mind some good films about twins that I had seen before. So I tried my best not to make a copy. Actually I think Cronenberg's film is very good but there are many links between the themes because [of] twins. So I knew that people could make some connections. And I think it’s interesting to see what a different author can make with the same subject, same topic.”

L’Amant Double is unmistakable as an Ozon feature, an irreverent and mischievously self-aware exercise in filmmaking, deliciously stretching the bounds of genre cinema. As Chloé’s affair with Louis intensifies, her efforts to unravel the mystery of the twins’ past sends her spiraling into a perilous, illusory world, each encounter more fantastic than the last. Reveries of ‘twincest’ may well be a given considering the premise, but far from cliche. Here the now fashionable trope is elevated to a ‘foursome’ where Chloé envisions herself as a Siamese twin having sex with Paul and Louis.

“I think in many of my movies I try to show that we need fiction, we need imagination, we need fantasy,” says the director. “It was the same thing in Frantz.” That sublime post-WWII melodrama concerned a young German woman who meets a French soldier who claims to have been friends with her fiancé, who was killed in battle. Of Frantz's protagonist, Ozon says, "The girl needed to believe in a lie to survive. In the case of this film, the character of Chloé needs to express her unconscious, her imagination, in this story. So it’s always a way to escape this other reality that's terrible. And at the end, when you understand [in the film] what is reality and what is a secret, you understand why she had to hold on to that in her mind.”

“With this film it was very much like ‘the comeback of the bad boy!’”

At precisely that pivotal moment, when the audience discovers the root of Chloé’s malaise, the wealth of sex scenes that precede this unveiling – which have garnered the film both criticism and praise – take on a different tone. For the monster of the film is a body of an unassuming young woman, rather uncomfortable in her own skin (physically and figuratively). A woman who finds that her body is unknowable and mysterious, helplessly out of her control. It is in her dubious relationship with Louis, who demands her sexual submission – to which she, initially, acquiesces – that Chloé first comes to, tentatively, understand herself. More and more she resists the parameters defined by Louis and asserts her own sexual terms with each of the brothers. With Paul, she dons a strap-on dildo and penetrates him.

“We need to have a free space to express our sexuality or desire sometimes,” says Ozon, who once commented in an earlier interview that people often need “something more or different, something on the side” of their romantic relationships and expands here. “I think it’s the case for many people. It’s difficult to accept the other person you are living with needs this space, but I think it’s the only way to be happy, you know? And to have an unconscious is a reality for everybody. So you can have a love story with someone and have some fantasy that has nothing to do with the person you love.”

It’s the latter part of this philosophy that pervades L’Amant Double: “It’s [about] the complexity of sexuality, and I know it’s something difficult, maybe, today to hear in the period of the politically correct, where everything has to be clear. But actually nobody is clear. Everybody has an unconscious, everybody has something monstrous inside.”

There are many ambiguous threads in L’Amant Double that Ozon leaves for the audience to connect, such as a perpetually observant cat, but perhaps more importantly, the trio of maternal figures: Rose (Myriam Boyer), no ordinary nosy neighbour it turns out, and Jacqueline Bissett in dual roles. “You know, very often when you speak with a psychoanalyst and when you have some questions about female sexuality, there is always a link with the mother!” Ozon laughs. “So it was important for me to have these figures of maternity in the film, some different kind of maternity. And so I play with the neighbor character, the mother of Sandra, and the real mother at the end.’

It would hardly be an Ozon film without an enigmatic ending, one that diverges from the original Oates text.

“Yes, I changed because you know when you make a loose adaptation you have to make a bit of a betrayal because what works for literature doesn’t always work for cinema. And as an author you have to make yourself the story. So I changed many things, I put some of my obsessions in the film, especially at the end.

“In the book you have Marine's character in front of the two twins and she wants to kill one but she doesn’t know who is who and that’s the end of the book. For me, that was too frustrating,” he laughs. “So I changed some things. I don’t know what Joyce Carol Oates will say when she discovers the film. I hope she won’t be too shocked.”

L’amant Double is released 1 Jun by Curzon Artificial Eye