At the beginning of this film, a beautiful young woman, who is clearly a beautiful young prostitute, narrates in a nasal voice-over a completely unnecessary vignette about becoming each client's “living, breathing, unflinching dream.” At least, we have the impression that this is unnecessary. But once we have finished watching Chloe we realize that this throwaway piece, which could have preambled any X-rated feature, is actually the key to the film (admittedly, I found the first two minutes so annoying as to consider the possibility that this was indeed the intention of the director). An explanation for our about-face will not be granted on these pages, in no small part because the work has its reasons for doing what it does. In fact, it has reasons aplenty.
Our young beauty is Chloe Sweeney (Amanda Seyfried) and her bailiwick appears to be the ironically yclept world of the 'high-class hooker,' as if class can be bestowed by clothes or hourly rates. No, the only term we can use is expensive, as in all the items and habits in the life of Chloe’s clients. Some of these clients even flaunt their desires before open daytime windows, such as the one to the Toronto office of gynecologist Catherine Stewart (Julianne Moore). The doctor – who must be supremely well-regarded if she can afford such real estate – has her gaze out the window interrupted by her assistant and assumes an embarrassed mien she will maintain for almost the entire film. Why would a noonday tryst with an expensive whore fascinate an affluent married mother? A few possibilities cross our minds before we are introduced to her husband, musicologist David Stewart (Liam Neeson). A friend of mine once called Neeson the best-looking man in the Western world and this may be the movie in which her claim is upheld. We find Professor Stewart lecturing at a New York university auditorium, three-quarters of which are packed with starry-eyed female co-eds, with the topic of today’s class being this opera. It is here that his students ask him out to dinner, to which he replies that he is obliged to be home because, after all, it’s his birthday. The way in which he replies could mean two, perhaps three things – the repeated chain of ambiguity provides the film’s innate strength – and we are whisked back to Toronto to an absurdly beautiful house filled with absurdly beautiful guests, all awaiting the birthday boy (this includes one of Dr. Stewart's colleagues, Frank, who makes a lewd joke every time he sees Catherine, although it is never really about Catherine). David of course misses his flight – does anyone in the movies ever arrive either on time or unscathed to a surprise party? And the reason why he missed it, if that is really the reason (we were told earlier he had ninety minutes to catch his flight) sidles up next to him, the same starry-eyed coed who asked him out to dinner. The problem is that she does her sidling just as her dear professor and his cell phone inform his crestfallen wife that he will not be back from New York tonight, a message she will have to relay to her two hundred-odd guests.
What ensues is predictable, almost woefully predictable at times (Catherine just so happens to walk by David's cell phone which just so happens to betray some information about his birthday night), but the payoff is not nearly as straightforward. After deciding that David, esteemed professor and a dashingly handsome fellow with a funny accent, is most certainly unfaithful, Catherine begins to sink into the morass of paranoid despair. They attend a Vivaldi performance with their adolescent son Michael (Max Thieriot) and his girlfriend Anna (Nina Dobrev), but Catherine can only stare at David's left cheek in toothy outrage. They proceed without the horny teenagers – a prior scene shows Catherine powerless to stop their coupling under her own roof (“This can't happen every night”) – to dinner with Frank the lecherous bastard and his tart of the month. Catherine looks on with horror as David Giovanni all too naturally responds to the waitress's usual query by asking her, by name, what she likes to drink. To clear her spinning head she visits the petit coin and just so happens to run into Chloe, who just so happens to be crying in the neighboring stall, which just so happens to have run out of toilet paper. Ever the caregiver (her Hippocratic oath will be tested on more than one occasion), Catherine comforts Chloe who tells her from beneath stall partitions that men are such jerks – well, she uses a slightly more emphatic term. All this is fine and good, and yet we sense a strange undercurrent, perhaps because Moore, that infinitely subtle actress, seems to sense it, too. Then Chloe just so happens to find (or produce by legerdemain) a massive hair clip that looks uncannily like a dagger and offers it to Catherine. She politely declines the gift and leaves, but we know something Catherine merely intuits. When Catherine comes back, Frank and David are playing “spot the hooker,” which diverts Catherine's attention back to Chloe in a corner with a man she obviously does not like. In the car ride home ensue some thinly-veiled questions to David – who must either not love his wife or be a complete imbecile, or perhaps a bit of both – as to what he was doing on his birthday night and why he was so nice to Delia the waitress, and how many other waitresses has he treated so kindly, and so forth. Another vignette rehashes some elements of the opening scene and Catherine now knows what we know: that the girl in the ladies' room is the expensive hooker she caught herself watching. Our two female leads will meet again, in that same upmarket restaurant, and a deal will be struck whose language gives away much more than we suspect at the time, so on further details we will remain comfortably mum.
Egoyan is a marvelous director, even if he is too willingly drawn to lurid subjects (such as in this film, not to my liking at the time and maybe due for a re-viewing). His eye for detail, however, is unfailing: the rapid contrast, for example, easily missed in the theater, of the giant portrait of Catherine holding a reluctant Michael as a child, to that nymphet-like being sidling up to David and unquestionably young enough to be his daughter; or Chloe's gently defensive expression when Catherine storms out of one of their meetings; or Catherine's own reaction when Chloe interrupts her story with a violent sneeze. Egoyan based his work on a French film that I detested, a tribute to a tighter script, sensational cinematography, and generally superb acting. I have not retained Nathalie... in the minute vividness with which I tend to remember remarkable movies, which means that I must have been horribly bored, a charge I could not possibly raise against Chloe. That said, one problem is immediately evident: the role of Nathalie or Chloe must go to someone extremely young, innocent-looking, and not at all imbued with womanly wits (Béart, while gorgeous, was forty at the time Nathalie... was filmed), and in this superficial regard Seyfried is a godsend. Yet Chloe would likely be doomed without an actress like Moore: Neeson is essentially playing himself with a half-Irish accent, and there are few roles less challenging than that of a prostitute, whose every wink, gesture, and movement can be controlled and purchased, not unlike those of the thespian himself. That is not to say that Seyfried and Neeson are not good actors; they most certainly are. But they ultimately feed off the energy and fears generated by Moore, even when Seyfried begins, in the film's latter half, to live up to her titular billing. The ending is neither thoroughly convincing nor foreseeable, but it is a distinct option given the persons we have met and the ambitions they have evinced. And what about Michael, the only molecular combination of Catherine and David, the sullen teenager whom David casually mentions is in therapy, although the reason for such measures is never stated, the sensitive musical prodigy who gets dumped on Skype by his tantalizing girlfriend and then just so happens to meet a pretty blonde girl who likes musicians? Let's just say some qualities do not bother to skip generations.