‘Double Lover’ Is a Knotty Delight of a Thriller

Posted February 13, 2018 4:19 p.m. EST

In the opening scene of “Double Lover,” its protagonist, Chloé (Marine Vacth), is seen getting her hair cut. Her wet hair and pale face and the gray background impart a simple elegance to the sequence.

The following scene takes place in the bleaker confines of a gynecologist’s office. In one shot, the screen fills with the colors pink and silver.

Viewers may wonder exactly what they are seeing at first, but as the camera zooms out it becomes clear: a speculum seen from the point of view of a doctor conducting a vaginal examination. The shot dissolves into a geometrically corresponding close-up of Chloé's eye.

The straightforward explicitness of the imagery is a hallmark of François Ozon, the film’s director (his best known films include the thrillers “See the Sea” and “Swimming Pool”); the juxtaposition is very Georges Bataille (he wrote a piece of outré eroticism titled “Story of the Eye”).

Some might say it’s all very French, and perhaps it is. But it does make one sit up and take notice. The clever thing about it is that it’s not until the movie is almost over that the viewer can fully understand this imagery as something more than an effective, but perhaps idle provocation.

Chloé, looking underweight, has complained about chronic stomach pains to her gynecologist. And on that doctor’s advice, she starts seeing a psychoanalyst, Paul (Jérémie Renier).

He’s handsome, gentle, compassionate. He “cures” her, they confess romantic feelings for each other, and they move in together. One small glitch is that he does not much care for her cat Milo.

A bigger glitch comes soon after that: Chloé meets another psychoanalyst, Paul’s double, who claims to be his twin brother. He’s a rougher character who likes his own cat, a specimen of a rare breed. He thinks he can cure Chloé of a new complaint, and there’s lots of athletic sex involved in the treatment.

What’s going on here? The doubling imagery, the recurring spiral staircases, and so much else engulfing Chloé make this thriller unusually engrossing.

“Double Lover” nods a bit to David Cronenberg’s “Dead Ringers” (1988) and Roman Polanski’s “The Tenant” (1976), two arguably classic thrillers on doppelgangers and madness, and Ozon’s stylistic gymnastics sometimes bring to mind Brian De Palma, who made a film about good/bad twins early in his career.

But “Double Lover,” which Ozon “freely adapted” from the Joyce Carol Oates book “Lives of the Twins,” spins its influences into a frenzy that ultimately reveals the story to be very much its own thing. And a crazy, and eventually strangely moving, thing it is.

As elaborate as its visuals are, the movie is also intimate. There aren’t many characters besides Chloé and the twins, which adds to the frisson late in the movie when the great Jacqueline Bisset makes her entrance.

Renier is clearly having a blast as the twins, but Vacth, who worked with Ozon on the 2014 film “Young and Beautiful,” does more than hold her own opposite him.

She modulates Chloé's mood from slumping vulnerability to hip-swinging confidence, from a whirlpool of self-doubt and near despair to defiance. “Double Lover” is as much, if not more, Vacth’s movie as it is the director’s.

Production Notes:

‘Double Lover’

Directed by François Ozon. Running time: 1 hour, 47 minutes.

With: Marine Vacth (Chloé) and Jérémie Renier (Paul).

“Double Lover” is not rated.