Among its many virtues, François Ozon’s wickedly uninhibited “Double Lover” brings startling new meaning to the term “opening shot.” From its first post-credits frame, a small trompe l’oeil display of cinematic invention and gynecological technique, this cracked mirror of a movie knows exactly what it is: a ludicrous erotic-thriller trash-terpiece that boldly conjoins the sensibilities of Brian De Palma and David Cronenberg, but with its own dash of Parisian kink. Fifty shades freed? More like 50 shades French!
The mouse sprinting through this dizzying psychosexual labyrinth is Chloé Fortin (Marine Vacth), a dark-haired 25-year-old beauty with a sad, haunted stare and a history of abdominal pains. No physical explanation can be found, and so she begins therapy sessions with Paul Meyer (Jérémie Renier), a nerdily handsome psychiatrist who fixes her with a politely quizzical smile as she prattles on and on about her strange dreams, her extreme anxieties, her distant mother, her curious longing for a sister, her seeming inability to love.
If you look and listen closely, the entire movie is more or less laid out in this initial stretch, not only in Chloé’s relentless confessional monologue but also in the way Ozon frames and continually reframes the conversation visually. Employing a deft barrage of fades, dissolves, split-screens and slow zooms, he teases, deepens and accelerates Chloé and Paul’s burgeoning intimacy — an intimacy that, before long, has gone from strictly professional to deeply personal.
“I feel good,” Chloé says. And for a while, she’s right: She has a well-paying job as a museum guard and a new life and apartment with Paul, who loves everything about her except her cat, Milo. (Overcompensating on that end is their feline-loving neighbor, played by a casually sinister Myriam Boyer.) But while Paul ensures Chloé a measure of stability, he also gives rise to more perplexing mysteries: If he’s an only child, as he claims, who is the identical-looking other boy in his childhood photographs? And if his surname is Meyer, why does his passport identify him as Paul Delord?
The answer to those questions, revealed too early to constitute a spoiler, comes directly from Joyce Carol Oates’ novel “Lives of the Twins” (written under the pseudonym Rosamond Smith), though it may also trigger fond, icky memories of Cronenberg’s 1988 classic, “Dead Ringers.” As Chloé soon learns, Paul has an estranged and possibly deranged twin brother, Louis Delord (Renier again), who also happens to be a psychoanalyst, albeit one with a radically different temperament and methodology.
Unlike Paul, with his spectacles and his sensible sweaters, the dark-suited Louis isn’t an especially good listener. After mocking Chloé during a few heated sessions, he tells her she’s sexually frigid, a condition for which he and his instruments alone can supply the cure. If you guessed that cure involves several rounds of heedless, vigorous intercourse in the bedroom conveniently adjoining Louis’ office, then you are very much on “Double Lover’s” wavelength. There are certainly less pleasurable wavelengths to be on.
Secrets and lies multiply on all sides, and the movie becomes a self-cannibalizing fever dream: a riot of menstrual imagery and orificial camerawork, Chekhovian guns and non-Chekhovian sex toys. What gives the film its surprising coherence is not only the fluidity of Ozon’s technique but also his mastery of tone, the ease with which he applies serious craft to a resolutely un-serious endeavor. The filmmaker’s cackle is always audible beneath the story’s glassy, deadpan surface.
Ozon is a gifted stylist and a wildly erratic filmmaker who switches genres the way some people change their undergarments. His excellent previous film, the post-World War I mystery “Frantz” (2016), hardly anticipated this sudden shift into exploitation-thriller territory. It’s not the first time that Ozon, best known for sensual divertissements like “Swimming Pool” (2003), has made a feast out of carnal fetishes, naked actors, Hitchcockian flourishes and the ever-blurrable line between hallucination and reality. But it may be his purest, most unfiltered expression of those particular obsessions.
Which is not to say that it’s even remotely his deepest. For all the mirrors and mirrors-within-mirrors that pop up in Sylvie Olivé’s bravura production design, “Double Lover” doesn’t exactly incline one’s mind toward reflection. Your inner cinephile will be tickled by the recurring shots of “Vertigo”-style spiraling staircases, and by the appearance of British screen legend Jacqueline Bisset in a small, crucial role. But the movie is a shallow tour de force, one that treats human psychology in much the same way it treats conventional narrative: as something to be bent, twisted and violently convulsed to its own entertaining if increasingly mechanical ends.
The actors, at the very least, seem to be enjoying those convulsions immensely. Vacth, who starred as an inscrutable teenage prostitute in Ozon’s “Young & Beautiful” (2013), once again gamely subjects herself to the director’s gaze and returns it with one of her own; she brings a soulful presence to even the story’s most ridiculous manipulations. As for Renier, a long way from the Belgian neorealist masterworks (such as “La Promesse” and “L’enfant) that launched his acting career, he attacks his hunky twin-therapist roles with lip-smacking abandon. He holds you shrink-rapt.
In French with English subtitles
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: Laemmle Playhouse 7, Pasadena; Laemmle Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; AMC Rolling Hills 20, Torrance