Chloe gives erotic thrillers a good name

Director Atom Egoyan uses insightful dialogue to induce heavy breathing

Spinal Tap's David St. Hubbins once observed, "It's such a fine line between stupid and clever." The sensual thriller Chloe suggests there's an even finer line between lowbrow smut and thought-provoking erotica. Fortunately, Chloe stays on the clever side of the divide.

Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson adapted Chloe's script from the 2003 French film Nathalie..., starring Fanny Ardant, Gérard Depardieu and Emmanuelle Béart. But don't let Chloe's high-toned pedigree fool you. If, say, Cinemax knocked off a quickie version of the same script, Chloe would likely have been a hilarious embarrassment along the lines of The Room. Instead, Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan and three impeccable actors bring their A-games to a project that uses insightful dialogue to elevate the heavy breathing.

Julianne Moore plays Catherine Stewart, a successful gynecologist who can rattle off the physiological definition of an orgasm but becomes increasingly mystified by the role of desire in her home life. Her husband, David (Liam Neeson), a music professor, commands a rock star following and flirts shamelessly with young hotties at bars and lecture halls. Meanwhile, their piano prodigy son, Michael (Max Thieriot), has become sexually active. He confides in David while literally shutting his mother out of his life.

Catherine can't help but notice she's not getting any younger – her male colleagues squire about their trophy girlfriends (one of whom attends a dinner date in what might as well be a negligé). Plagued with insecurities about her role as wife, mother and lover, Catherine has a chance encounter in a ladies' room with Chloe (Amanda Seyfried). The beautiful call girl responds a little too ardently to Catherine's passing act of kindness.

When circumstantial evidence suggests that David's cheating, Catherine hires Chloe to flirt with him in order to test his fidelity and see how far he's willing to go. (You could call the premise Fatal Entrapment.) Chloe describes her encounters with David in increasingly explicit detail, but the real chemistry develops between the two women. Although the film doesn't delve deeply into Chloe's psychology or background, it makes sense that a woman who lives out male fantasies for a living might prefer female companionship.

Most of Egoyan's films, including Exotica, The Sweet Hereafter and Adoration, incorporate some kind of sexual obsession. Usually he approaches such material obliquely, probing characters' back stories and relationships until the consummation seems beside the point. Though Chloe lacks multiple layers, Egoyan's highly attentive to his characters. Catherine, for instance, repeatedly takes awkward phone calls while being watched through windows by other people, heightening the character's feelings of exposure.

Moore knows exactly when to convey her role's intense emotions, and when to put on the brakes. As a result, Catherine's mix of self-loathing and anger never tips into histrionics. She also has moments of undeniable sex appeal, and affirms that actresses of a certain age can be cinema's most underappreciated treasures.

Seyfried's huge eyes give Chloe a hypnotic, almost predatory intensity. She's in her mid-20s but still looks like jailbait. Although Seyfried makes Chloe an alluring vixen, she also conveys the role's vulnerable side. While David spends much of the film on the margins, Neeson proves a multidimensional player of an enigmatic man. Only the character of the son turns out to be underwritten and superficially played.

Egoyan doesn't shy away from turning up the heat and taking off the clothes. Audiences disappointed by Seyfried's fleeting lip-lock with Megan Fox in Jennifer's Body will get their money's worth from Chloe. The film's finale makes a few too many concessions to genre formula, until you start looking around for pet rabbits and boiling pots of water. Neither the director nor the cast seems to be slumming, however, and instead take energy from the plot's lurid simplicity. Chloe turns out to be much too clever to be merely a guilty pleasure.