Francois Ozon’s Double Lover plays like his own particular take on Hitchcock, or on Brian De Palma’s Hitchcock. Based on the short story Lives of the Twins, by Joyce Carol Oates, the plot is filled with such an abundance of psychoanalytic tropes, motifs and ellipses that it almost seems beside the point to try and “read” it through a psychoanalytic lens. Instead, that kind of psychoanalytic reading is itself turned into a camp spectacle, and a platform for exploitation cinema, although Ozon’s film is perhaps a bit different from others of its ilk in that it condenses its traditional psychoanalytic sessions to an abbreviated first act. Over the course of these opening twenty or so minutes, Chloe, played by Marine Vacth, seeks out therapy to explain a stomach pain that she has had for as long as she can remember, and that her doctors have advised her is probably psychosomatic in nature, given that she has no discernible physical ailment. Upon being referred to Paul, played by Jeremie Renier, she quickly cycles through a series of more or less generic symptoms, confessing to him that she is “incapable of loving” and that she “feels empty inside.” Beyond a certain point, all those symptoms congeal into a simple act of transference, in which she “realises” that she needs Paul to assure her of her existence and her significance. What makes these opening scenes of Double Lover so abbreviated, however, is that Chloe and Paul both mistake this transference for a cure, with the result that the moment he tells her that his feelings for her prevent him treating her is also the moment at which she also “realises” that those feelings are all she needs, as she promptly ends therapy and moves into his apartment, as his lover.
As might be expected, that creates a pretty artificial sense of resolution – a resolution that is in many ways more unsettling that the symptoms that drove Chloe to seek out therapy in the first place. In fact, this sense of resolution, and her new life with Paul, tends to augment Chloe’s symptoms more than anything else, turning that very atmosphere of resolution into one of the creepiest and eeriest aspects of the film, which tends to be most enhanced in and around their shared apartment. While this space is undoubtedly peaceful and serene, it’s full of little details that turn it slightly awry, or that intensify its calmness until it’s closer to the pregnant pauses of the therapist’s chambers than a genuinely domestic environment. Yet it’s not just the apartment but the entire psychological architecture of the film that takes on this quality, as Ozon suffuses his mise-en-scenes with mirrors, replicas and other doubling motifs, but also imbues even the most flamboyant spaces with a blankness and flatness that prevents them ever disclosing Chloe’s mindset to her in a direct or explicit way. On the one hand, every space takes on the opacity of the therapist’s stare, but at the same time every space evokes the labyrinthine and unknowable depths of the therapist’s mind, making it clear that Chloe’s transference is still alive and well despite her therapy having officially come to a close. Throughout all these sequences, Ozon suspends us between Chloe’s fantasy and waking life, marooning us in the midst of a series of symptoms that gradually escalate, and which the film never entirely discards, even in its closing sequences.
Yet that psychological architecture is simply part of a more generally discontinuous attitude towards space that makes it increasingly difficult to ground what is fantasy and what is reality in Chloe’s experience of the aftermath of her therapy. From the opening sessions with Paul, Ozon juxtaposes different sight lines and splinters any consistent temporality through periodic and disarming fades, progressively abstracting any space outside the therapist’s room – or, alternatively, making every space feel continuous with the therapist’s room – until even the most iconic Parisian spaces, such as the base of the Eiffel Tower, feel strangely jettisoned from their typical cultural connotations. Into that mixture Ozon introduces a range of highly visceral images, starting with the close-up of the interior of Chloe’s vagina that begins the film, but the abundance of viscera never quite segues into body horror as might be expected, just because the notional sense of space and time prevents it feeling directly connected to embodied experience in any emphatic way. The result is a very French sense of quotidian transgression that has almost vanished from Francophile cinema in the wake of the New French Extremity, but which Ozon resurrects here as a period effect, something to be hung on a wall or framed, rather than a genuine source of provocation. The gallery where Chloe works thus often feels like a synecdoche for the film as a whole, with much of the action playing out against a site-specific installation titled “Flesh + Blood,” in which the visceral images that punctuate the film are presented, framed and mounted, in a clinical exhibition space, as an object of detached contemplation.
What ensues, then, in Double Lover, is a kind of post-therapy thriller, in which the horror stems from the idea of therapy itself as an entity and enterprise that is as insatiable and as unquenchable as the most traditional of monsters or villains. At first, the sheer spectacle of this life “after” therapy is unsettling enough, but the film takes a more lurid turn when Chloe decides that she still needs therapy, and that she needs to consult another therapist, only to discover that her new therapist, Louis, is Paul’s twin. In a bizarre twist of events, both brothers work as therapists, although their approach to treatment is radically “different in methods,” as Chloe discovers when Louis introduces sex into their sessions – sex that grows wilder and more dehumanising as the sessions proceed, but which he insists is a critical part of the process. Seeing Louis by day, and returning to Paul by night, Chloe initially seems to have struck a good deal with her transference, by which she can retain Paul as her lover while also managing to access her as him therapist – especially since Louis’ therapy takes her need to be affirmed and witnessed by her therapist to its logical fetishistic conclusion. For while their sex together might start out fairly sensually, it quickly becomes a way for Louis to over-identify with his role as therapist until there is nothing for Chloe to do but treat him as an source of transference, leading to a series of elaborate sexual tableaux in which he does little more but fetishistically and ceremonially acknowledge her body, if only by forcing her to acknowledge and worship the supremacy of his body from the outset.
As might be expected, that creates a certain narrative challenge in terms of building a conclusion, especially because splitting her therapist into lover and witness seems to be quite a functional approach for Chloe in the long run. The solution, or resolution, is quite ingenious when it comes, and is facilitated by a series of campy and pulpy motifs, all of which come to rest on the cats that seem to form such a big part of the uncanniness of the therapeutic spaces that proliferate throughout the film. In one of the many discourses on his twin brother Paul during Chloe’s therapy sessions, Louis reveals that his tortoiseshell cat, like most tortoiseshell cats, has experienced “trisomy of the x chromosome,” meaning that it is a “parasitic twin,” or, in common parlance, a “cannibalistic twin.” This means, Paul explains, that the cat was originally part of a pair of twins, but absorbed the genetic material and fetus of its other twin in the womb, which it now carries about as part of this bodily structure. Through a series of revelations, it becomes clear to Chloe that she is a similarly dominant twin, and that her stomach pains have been her awareness of this fetus still nestled in her body. At the same time, the film suggests, Paul and Louis were almost fused into a single dominant twin, leaving them in a state of heightened receptivity to each other from the moment they emerged from the womb, but also a state of heightened competition in which each brother is desperate to assert himself as the twin that would have dominated.
Within that matrix of doubling and redoubling, Chloe not only comes to understand her “need to expel the double” from her life, but also realises that the very schism of Paul into lover and therapist that she found so compelling was itself continuous with the very conditions she was seeking to assuage by enlisting his services in the first place. On the one hand, that results in a series of luridly proliferating motifs, as Chloe realises that, subconsciously, she recognized Paul as part of the same dominant twin conjunction as herself, and that she may even have been attracted to him in the first place as her phantom twin, blurring the lines between sisterly and romantic attraction in ways that often recall the pulpy camp of Brian De Palma’s Sisters. More profoundly, however, Chloe is confronted with a situation in which therapy neither solves nor ultimately intensifies her condition, but just turns out to be more entangled and complicit in it than she originally intended. The final note, then, is an eerie absorption of therapy into the structure and substance of everyday life, robbing her sessions of any tangible end date, but also making it harder to backdate a tangible beginning, which works quite neatly alongside the notional space and time within which the film seems to “open” In the most visceral way – and the most abstract way – Double Lover ends amidst a set of symptoms rather than with a character or narrative; or, rather, inhabits symptoms beyond the point where the spatiotemporal coordinates of character or narrative make sense, leaving Ozon with a series of motifs, and a collection of images, that are almost entirely abstract. Interestingly, Oates initially wrote the story under a pseudonym, in order to try and escape herself, and Double Lover is finally just as true to that process as to her final product, in one of the most slyly original films of Ozon’s career.