Last week, the 10YA project celebrated its second anniversary. What better way to celebrate with returning writer Jen Malone‘s fantastic re-view of Adrian Lyne’s Oscar-nominated erotic thriller Unfaithful? Seriously, we love this re-view so much we want to fantasize about it, alone, on a train.
So, then, ten years ago, as discussed in my previous reviews (for The Others and Amelie), I was wading my way through the popped collars and endless Lilly Pulitzer prints at a really preppy university and moonlighting at the sort of fancypants video store that is a film lover’s Mecca. Although I often failed at the requisite film snobbery (largely because I was apt to follow a Yasujirō Ozu marathon with a Center Stage chaser and feel limited guilt), I had developed a relatively hearty disdain for the British-ish director Adrian Lyne and the racy blockbusters (Flashdance, Nine ½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) upon which he built his brand – not, of course, because I have anything against trashy movies, nor attempts to legitimize and make mainstream some version of erotica, but because I am wearied by the ways in which these sorts of movies (yes, some of them more than others, Indecent Proposal, I’m narrowing my eyes in your general direction) seem to constitute an unnecessary conspiracy between lazy filmmakers and sex-embarrassed viewers: “Okay, so, I’ll make a film in which I attend little to things like writing, pacing, and plot in favor of vague titillation, and you pretend the movie is great, even though this is really just the equivalent of claiming you read Playboy for the articles.” Why not just make a good movie that is also sexy? Really, this shouldn’t be asking for the moon (and, of course, it isn’t, as evidenced by other films, by other filmmakers).
But I had recently seen Lyne’s adaptation of Lolita, which I recall finding at least partially compelling (though this likely had much more to do with the masterful casting of Jeremy Irons as Humbert Humbert than anything else), and Jacob’s Ladder had been rather smart, unexpected horror. And the reviews for Unfaithful – oh, those reviews, reviews that waxed rhapsodic about the “revelatory” nature of Lane’s performance (she was later nominated for an Oscar) and the maturity and restraint of the tale. Therefore, when an advance screener came my way, I let it follow me home one night.
The then-verdict? (at least as I remember it, ten years later) Movie: pretty good. Diane Lane: excellent, particularly in the heavily-advertised scene in which she rides the train home after her first encounter with He Who Is Not Her Husband, and we watch dozens of emotions flicker across her face in the space of a few minutes. This is the scene I remembered, years after concluding that I’d never bother to watch this movie again (clearly, I was wrong re: that), this is the scene that others remembered enough for it to come up during two different creative writing classes during my Master’s program, this is the scene that was mentioned when customers of aforementioned video shop wanted to convince me (let me just point out, I’m just about the least judgmental video clerk ever) they’d rented the movie for reasons other than the suggestive cover photo (seriously, put a half-naked lady on the cover of any DVD and watch it fly off the shelf).
And so, upon the requisite re-watching, the now-verdict? Yeah, um, I was wrong. Not about Diane Lane, but about pretty much everything else. Not only is this film one Desperate Housewives cast member away from being a Lifetime movie (and, let’s be honest, they wouldn’t even have to change the title), it is deeply flawed/problematic in numerous other ways. How many other ways, you might prompt? I’m glad you asked that…
Our semi-erotic tale begins with a violent windstorm – which, just as in Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day, spells D-O-O-M (though I’m pretty sure that one didn’t end with Tigger and Piglet frantically making out in a dim corner of the hollow tree. Then again, it has been a while since I’ve seen it). This wind, an ill wind, if you will, causes an empty canoe to bang eerily against the dock, a child’s abandoned bike to fall over in the yard (quelle horreur), and a bunch of other stuff to move/fall/drift in ways meant to suggest that changes are a-brewin’ in this affluent New York suburb. Connie (Diane Lane, mom-disheveled and wearing some sort of cashmere potato sack) and Edward (Richard Gere, blinking and squinting his beady eyes like a mole just come up from underground) have somehow managed both to be married for eleven years (this is repeated often – eleven years!) and to give birth to that weird-looking kid from Malcolm in the Middle (okay, fine, one of the weird-looking kids from Malcolm in the Middle). After the menfolk trot off to work and/or school, Connie, despite weather-based warnings from her husband, goes “into the city” to buy decorations for her youngster’s upcoming birthday party (it really seems like the suburbs would be a far, far better place to do such a thing, but I digress). Wandering through SoHo with a bag full of soccer balloons, she has a meet-cute chance encounter involving scattered bags and books, a skinned knee, and an exotically accented Adonis (Olivier Martinez) who sports Lisbeth Salander gloves and an amended Rachel-from-Friends haircut that cannot conceal the magic of his cheekbones. After he lures her up to his (conveniently adjacent) apartment with promises of Band-Aids and a sworn oath that he is not an axe murderer (worst pickup line ever?), Connie discovers that this well-stubbled fellow possesses a love of literature almost as undying as his apparent aversion to light bulbs and/or lamps, and all is lost. Let the sexytimes begin.
As our protagonista Connie shuffles between her domestic not-so-bliss in the suburbs and her attempts to steam up the dark nooks of places public and not-so-public with Sir Handsome WonderStubble, the central section of this film basically becomes the cinematic equivalent of watching Gere’s character take one of those “Is Your Partner Cheating?” Cosmo quizzes: Taking more time with his/her appearance? Check. Suddenly wearing sexier clothing (especially underwear)? Check. Preoccupied, distracted, yet suddenly more cheerful? Check. Buying you gifts for no reason, avoiding intimacy with you, lying about where he/she is? Check, check, check. Conclusion: Ruh-roh! This is not, as you might imagine, particularly compelling, as the filmmakers seem to have confused realism with cliché at pretty much every turn. Yes, Diane Lane’s sex-recollection scene in the train car is still a bravura performance, but that only lasts a couple of moments before we return to the poorly-paced slog of watching Gere’s character hire a P.I. who somehow manages to snap fully-clothed photographs of the illicit lustbirds (quite a feat), and watching Lane’s character do some non-erotic shocking things like – gasp – get a parking ticket and pick up her kid a little late from school one day (when will this woman’s reign of reckless terror end?!).
By the time Edward confronts Dagger Cheekbones, pushing for the sordid details of his affair with Connie (a scene which played about a thousand times better in the movie Closer, which was a far superior film, and not just because it involved that sonorously voiced badass, Clive Owen), chances are good that the viewer is about ready for someone to die. Which is lucky, as the sight of one of the snow globes from Edward and Connie’s suburban home – a gift from Edward, which Connie has apparently regifted to Bookish Sexyface – drives Gere’s Edward into the sort of jealous rage that causes one to lose sight of the eye-rolling ridiculousness of a potential murder weapon and bonk someone over the head with it anyway. After all, jealousy, as we all learned from Sting, will drive you mad. This is, curiously, Gere’s best moment in the film – he still exhibits all the dead-eyed appeal of a passing shark, but in this scene, one can almost feel his nausea and the slow slip of his mental state, and we can’t be sure at exactly which moment the murderous intent enters his mind (if it even really does).
Now, then, a word about this smoking gun, or, bloody snow globe, as it were. This is a remarkably clumsy – and unnecessary – plot device. Is it really believable that this couple has a vast snow globe collection that we’d never before noticed? Or that they would even collect snow globes, souvenirs of long-ago vacations to exotic places like Fiji? (Or that anyone would buy a snow globe whilst visiting Fiji? Is this a thing?) Or, more than that, that anyone would gift their lover a snow globe given them by their spouse? I mean, what a lazy and pointless gift, no? Yes, I realize that it is deeply, deeply symbolic (and by “deeply” I here mean “not at all deeply”), whatever, a tiny perfect world that could be shattered at a moment’s notice (get it? Get it? Yeah, I thought you did), but, and let me underline this here: this film is not Citizen Kane, nor does it benefit in any way from the snow-globe-forced comparison. While I appreciate a nod to cinematic history as much as the next girl (okay, maybe a little bit more than the next girl), in this film, this comes off as more hubristic and ridiculous than clever.
From here, the film devolves into an almost slapstick chain of events as it attempts to build suspense: “D’oh, the elevator, the elevator is stuck, now how will I get this dead body to my car? Oh, someone on the street might notice me loading this body into my trunk. Huh, I’m kinda-sorta covered in blood at my son’s school play, I’d best go frantically wash up in the bathroom before I have to watch the youngsters sing an inspiring song about a bunny. Oh no, someone just rear-ended my car and the body-containing trunk won’t close.” I just…Sigh. The cultivation of suspense in such a film is, undeniably, a tricky thing, but I think most would agree that the events should ultimately hang together well enough that the viewers of the film do not (A) repeatedly facepalm, or (B) utter exasperated “Oh, come on!”s at the screen. This film, on my repeat viewing, did not pass either test. And this may or may not be the point in this re-viewing evening at which I began drinking.
The body is eventually discovered, there are a bunch of surprisingly uninteresting arguments between the marrieds, everyone decides to save their beloved family and sweep this nastiness under the carpet (but not the one in which Fetching Dead Guy is wrapped), and then, in an attempt at a French-tastic ambiguous ending, Edward and Connie have a late-night embrace in their car as it pauses at a stoplight…in front of a police station (bum bum BUM!). Note: this film is apparently loosely based on Claude Chabrol’s 1969 The Unfaithful Wife (La femme infidèle) which, although I have not seen it, is almost certainly a much better film, primarily because Chabrol is a cinematic master of psychosexual suchlike, and secondarily because, well, Unfaithful is just not very good (which I’m pretty sure shouldn’t come as a surprise to you at this point in this review). Also, I’m going to go ahead and assume that the concept of infidelity was a little bit more shocking in the 1960s. Heck, the concept of infidelity was probably even just a little bit more shocking in 2002, before the past decade of the endlessly-aired dirty laundry of public figure after public figure. This film tries so hard to shock, and I’m just not sure that – at least today, ten years later – any of us can find the events within this movie quite as surprising and/or tragic as the film seems to assume we will. Unfortunate, sure. Scandalous, perhaps not so much.
And I think that this is largely the greatest difficulty faced by this film, as well as its primary failing; it is so caught up in its own heavy-handed (and stereotype-laden) attempts to shock, that it forgets to do anything else. Lyne has said that he is primarily interested in exploring notions of jealousy, an assertion obviously borne out by the subject matter of nearly all of his previous films. But this film only begins to vaguely approach such an emotion – jealousy can drive people to kill, okay, sure, that’s bad, and then…nothing else, no real follow-up or aftermath, minimal depth. The subject matter here seems too big for Lyne (or, perhaps, just for this movie), and the end product is curiously bloodless, neutered.
And, indeed, the movie cannot seem to settle on a coherent tone. By turns, Lyne seems to be going for “floaty and dreamlike,” “attempted film noir,” “hard-hitting emotional realism,” “dark erotic thriller,” and, as a result, seems to succeed at none of these. Lyne shot a number of scenes through the billows of smoke produced by a smoke machine, a neat trick that apparently gave most of the cast bronchial infections, but does disappointingly little for the look of the film itself. It is glossy, pretty, very dimly lit, but to what end, exactly?
Unfaithful is most interesting when it sits with ambiguity (the moment of the murder, the moment before Gere’s character turns to face his wife in a dark room, the moment in front of the police station in the final scene), but it sits uncomfortably with such ambiguity. These pivotal shots are too often paced poorly and/or overstated, and, thus, they lose their potential power. The editing certainly has its moments – while Lyne has an unfortunate taste for montage, he also has an eye for the periodically-extremely-clever match cut (for example, the sequence which culminates in the filmic flip between Connie’s soon-to-be lover’s next-room application of a teakettle to the rising flame of the gas stove and Connie’s wincing application of stinging antiseptic to her scraped knee). Nor is Lyne incapable of powerful imagery – I think here of the creepy-cool shot just before the body is discovered: a vast bright sky, rumbling machinery looming in the dump, our gaze helplessly sifting through the piles of trash as they float through the frame, the bloodied hand of the body drifting by in the mix. That’s a great moment, but one that is then largely ruined by the overbearing obviousness of too many additional shots – the body, the workers in the dump stopping the machinery and shouting, etc., etc. Lyne wants to make sure we get it, but we already did, several frames before.
And a final note, because I’d be remiss if I didn’t talk about the subtext of this movie… Apart from the whole “marriage = death of the self” implication, by which Diane Lane becomes a frumpy wife and harried mother, and Richard Gere becomes an emasculated husband, and the fact that this movie should have been subtitled “Rich White People Totally Have Problems, Too!”, this film also seems to hinge upon, and thus say some potentially problematic things about, the anxieties of mainstream culture in the U.S. Unfaithful obviously foregrounds a fear of sex (and particularly of women having sex), but the film also speaks strongly to a fear of the metropolitan and/or the urban (“the big city,” after all, is where Connie is tempted into her domesticity-destroying affair), the fear of the foreigner (her lover, of course, is heavily accented and not nearly as white as she is), and, perhaps more surprisingly, the fear of the intellectual (Connie’s torrid and socially unsanctioned affair is with a rare book dealer who quotes poetry, but her husband, apparently a true American, runs a business that somehow involves trucks and shouting into phones). The film supports, and even encourages, these anxieties – we may be attracted to these things, it seems to say, but they are dangerous and life ruining. And this seems to be the film’s ultimate moralization – while the filmmakers have attempted to pull back from judging Connie for her affair and Edward for his violent act, the story cannot help but judge the viewer (or whom it assumes is the viewer) for what it sees as his/her potential weaknesses, whilst at the same time supporting some rather ugly stereotypes.
And so I am off to cleanse my palate with Dial ‘M’ For Murder (the sort of similarly-genre-d film that Lyne should aspire to make). I bid you adieu and wish you all a lovely weekend filled with movies better than Unfaithful. But not before…
The Inevitable Free-Floating Thoughts
Diane Lane’s hair is way cute. But that doesn’t make up for Must Love Dogs. Nothing can.
Please come up to my dark apartment, where I read my many books…in the dark. Where I shall make you tea…in the dark. And you may use my bathroom…in the dark. Anyone want to guess just how many times during this viewing I implored those onscreen to “just turn on a @(^$&*ing light, already?” Hint: this happened kind of a lot.
Remember when we didn’t have cell phones? Did this whole “having to use the payphone” thing make affairs easier or more difficult?
Ooh, a dude who gives you books, maybe this one’s a keeper, after all!
Me? Oh, I’m just dancing with a handsome man and some muffins. It’s a thing, apparently.
“There is no such thing as a mistake. There is what you do and don’t do.” I think we can all agree that when a man says this to you, you should run.
Why is Chad Lowe so terribly, terribly smarmy? Is this because Hilary Swank forgot to thank him at the Oscars that time? Because I’m pretty sure she apologized for that. Over divorce papers, but still.
That kid is super annoying. I might have left him at school, too.
“More exciting than the suburbs, I guess.” Zing! Oh, wait, no, not zing. Not zing at all. The dialogue, as it turns out, is not great.
With all the time she’s been spending in his apartment, it really does seem she would have noticed the “hot ladies I’m sleeping with” list on his desk.
Dude, don’t bleed all over your first edition of White Fang. That’s, like, valuable, or something.
Okay, I do not understand the shot of Gere’s face from the POV of the dead guy. He’s already dead. Doesn’t this violate some cardinal rule of point-of-view shots?
Ways you can tell this film is intended for viewers who have spent very little time in New York: when Richard Gere’s character hauls the rug-burritoed Sexy Fellow’s lifeless body to his trunk, some random passerby stops and helpfully asks “Need a hand?” Yeah, I’m pretty sure that has never, ever happened.
Seriously, this movie feels about seven hours long (it isn’t).
“Aw, my husband left me a find-this-in-future love note in the base of the snowglobe he used to bash in the head of my lover. Adorbs. I totally love him again!”
Diane Lane is a world-class crier. Which is lucky, because that’s 85% percent of what she was asked to do in this movie.