French cinema is legendary for its production of sex. So naturally, Palmes D’Or prizes and conservative criticism permeate the industry, plotting a course through a filmic history rife with frank sexuality — from decidedly indie films riding shakily on low production value to multiplex screen thrillers; from “Belle de Jour” to “Baise-moi” to “Blue is the Warmest Color.”
François Ozon’s “Double Lover” is no exception to the cultural trend. Aptly named, the film is most succinctly billed as a foreign-language erotic thriller, with two main themes: sex and twins. Indulging in a truly cinematic trope — that of the helpless woman saved by love — the femme fatale Chloe (Marine Vacth) suffers from chronic stomach pains until she falls in love with her psychoanalyst Paul (Jérémie Renier), later believing, in a subversion of the cliche, she has found his aggressively and obsessively sexual, isolated twin brother.
Her obsession with Paul’s (indeterminably real) twin stems from her own desire to be a twin, a desire that pulls her image onto others, convincing Chloe in a mounting whirlwind of imaginings that she too has a secret sister. In this way, the film pins down a sinusoidal plot line of love and hatred, physical love and fear told through scenes replete with heavy-handed metaphors and general heavy-handedness. The directorial flourish of minimalist, symmetrical shots is not to go unaccounted for, but for all its beauty and its suspense, “Double Lover” ultimately fails to clear at an integral bar of cinematic passability: On-screen sexual consent.
The film presents what are best put as gray areas — sex scenes that are not borne from a sober and resounding “yes” but are not expressly nonconsensual. For example, in one scene Chloe says no to advances approximately four times before she nonverbally consents. Even after this, she returns to her lover, and their sexual encounters continue.
The presence of gray areas in French film represents a tendency not admissible in the United States. Ratings and cultural propriety restrict most explicit sex, no matter the objectivity of the consent between its on-screen participants.
Of course it is impossible to talk about sex in the media right now without looking to the #MeToo movement in Hollywood and beyond. While movies set the stage for real life and many in Hollywood are proving their disregard for the role of consensual sex in their personal lives, the exploration of sexuality on screen, even in nonlinear ways, may play an important role in improving the communicability of sex. This is demonstrated in Paul Verhoeven’s “Elle,” which subverts the rape-revenge genre into a fetish fantasy played out with gall by Isabelle Huppert.
France is not embroiled in a commanding and comprehensive conversation about sexual consent, perhaps because the French tradition of filmic sex sets a precedent of experimentally erotic themes and plots. With audiences spanning a wide range of ages — all participating in a sex-positive film culture — sex becomes a topic of conversation unobscured to the public, whereas members of Hollywood have been slow to congregate and disrupt the status quo. In short, if sex in France in its infinite forms is highly publicized, maybe the conversation has been happening implicitly for decades — though this certainly doesn’t discount the reality of the sexual violence that still occurs.
While “Double Lover” does not succeed in the realm of explicit consent, there are elements of the film that demonstrate healthy sexual power dynamics. In one scene, Chloe uses a strap-on while Paul leans against the kitchen table, listening for when Paul expresses discomfort. This contrasts with the scenes where Chloe has sex with Paul’s twin, in that while they were more fast-paced and cinematically engaging, Chloe displayed emotional instability and the physical repercussion of her stomach pains following the encounters.
Beyond that, there are other sexually explicit scenes dramatic in their absurdity, and still others that are irreconcilably hilarious (whether intendedly so or not) — stony-faced sex in bed presents a baseline, violent period sex shocks with its use of color mirrored in the museum where Chloe works, and kaleidoscope-y mirror splitting turns a threesome into a foursome in fractal-patterned confusion.
For all its sheer frequency of sexual activity, “Double Lover” presents a fair amount of sex that isn’t erotic. Maybe that’s what the #MeToo movement is giving us, among other things: the ability to watch sex in movies and decide whether it’s right for our real lives.
“Double Lover” is premiering at AMC Kabuki 8 in San Francisco on Feb. 14.
Contact Olivia Jerram at [email protected].