CHLOE and the problem of tone

It’s been coming up a lot in filmmaking class — what is the importance of tone, how do I get it, how do I keep it, what happens when it goes awry?

CHLOE, in theatres now, is an erotic thriller from brilliant filmmaker Atom Egoyan. (My husband almost wrote his dissertation on Egoyan – so I’ve seen all of his work – and he’s fabulous.) The screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson (SECRETARY, FUR) is someone I know and respect whole-heartedly. She’s a wonderful writer. So why didn’t I walk out of CHLOE glowing? These are some of my favorite artists. Julianne Moore? C’mon, awesome. Liam Nisson? Check. But I didn’t glow. And I’m mad about it and I want to know more about why I didn’t. Glow, that is.

In stitching together a cinematic world, we often become implicitly upset if one element amongst many feels out of place. If the ‘volume’ on the production design doesn’t fit with the ‘feeling’ that the score gives us; if the acting style is understated but the costumes are overtly garish. Simply put, tone is feeling – and many elements work together, conspiring to create a particular mood. Often the most unique material is skewing an element or two creatively in order to twist expectations – so that genre is subverted, for instance – the results giving us a new and different feeling – or mood – we’ve not experienced before.

Sadly, CHLOE is nothing new. And even more sadly, particular elements are skewed – but skewed in predictable ways that simply upset the balance of its cinematic universe. A few reviews I read used the words “soft core,” the kiss of death for a film trying to take itself, its drama, and its eroticism seriously.

Like FATAL ATTRACTION and JAGGED EDGE, CHLOE entertains an affair gone wrong, and the dangerous implications of making assumptions about human behavior. Without giving too much away, Julianne Moore hires a call girl to tempt her husband after she suspects he’s cheating, but winds up becoming involved with said call girl herself. There are plenty of twists, as well as ample opportunity to reflect on larger themes – so all in all it’s a very good story. But the tone is all wrong, and I have no one here to blame but Egoyan. The score is so over the top and saturates so much of the material that I was dripping with sentimentality. The locations are wrong – too lavish, not enough like life, for me to believe these people actually belong in these places. (An OB-GYN and a professor are not poor, but these people are living like hedge fund managers.) Amanda Seyfried is miscast – although a strong actress, she’s too young and too naïve to pull off the kind of behavior the script requires. The dialogue, in conjunction with these over-blown elements, is not enough rooted in the every day – although it would have gone down more easily if other elements weren’t so bloated.

Egoyan creates a fantasy world filled with architectural lines when I longed for the ordinary. Thinking back on FATAL ATTRACTION and that boiling rabbit, I felt for those characters because it seemed real, like it could actually happen, whereas CHLOE feels far away from this world, the elements pumped up beyond their capacity, drenched, when really a little bit of damp would have done it. Here’s the trailer: