Unfaithful
Starring: Richard Gere, Diane Lane, Olivier Martinez, Erik Per Sullivan
Director:

Adrian Lyne

Writing credits: Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr.
Distributor: Twentieth Century Fox
Rated: R for sexuality, language and a scene of violence
  (USA 2002)

Infidelity is a subject that makes people squirm. It's the elephant that sits in the room of just about any marriage, because let's face it: we're married, we're not dead. Sooner or later, usually during those times when your spouse is chronically emotionally unavailable, or otherwise driving you crazy, most married people are going to find someone else attractive. I'm not talking about googling over some English guy in a doublet or some babe with huge pneumatic hooters while sitting in a movie theatre. I'm talking about those times when someone you've known for years and never looked at twice suddenly looks really attractive, or those times when you're out of town and talking to someone you'll never see again, and you wonder, "What if..."; those times when your brain dumps phenylethylamine into your bloodstream by the truckload, fooling you into thinking this was "meant to be." If your marriage is basically sound, and you're emotionally together enough to realize that life is NOT one long romance novel (or porn flick, depending on your gender), and your moral compass is on straight enough so that you're able to see the potential cost of indulging these attractions, you have a candy bar instead for your PEA fix, you don't succumb, and life chugs merrily on. Nothing adverse has happened, no one is hurt, and just maybe, these red flags are a step towards thinking about why you were susceptible and what you can do to improve your marriage.

But if a marriage has serious problems, or if the intellect isn't strong enough to overcome those neurochemicals that attraction causes the brain to pour into the bloodstream like amphetamines, then it's easy to cross that line. And when phenylethylamine is allowed to make the rules, trouble inevitably ensues. Sexual infidelity is a messy business that changes a marriage forever, even if it survives. The affair is messy, the sex is messy, the complications are messy, and it doesn't even make the participants happy. It makes you wonder why anyone bothers, when it's so much easier to just buy a new nightgown or a Tantric Yoga video, pretend your own spouse is that boho stud or that passion vixen, and go at it hard and furious with the person you know.

But sometimes people don't say no, and no one enjoys documenting the pitfalls of adultery more than Adrian Lyne. Lyne is the perpetrator of such soft-pore classics as Flashdance, 9-1/2 Weeks, and the Reefer Madness of the Reagan era, Fatal Attraction, in which a sleazy Michael Douglas got it on with an even sleazier Glenn Close, thus forcing the saintly and chastely wifely Anne Archer to turn into the Terminator.

Lyne treads on this territory once again in UNFAITHFUL, a large helping of Fatal Attraction with Claude Chabrol (Une Femme Infidele, 1969) sauce and a side order of symbolism served on a sledgehammer. The sensational Diane Lane is Constance Sumner, who lives in a gorgeous old Westchester farmhouse with her cute, goofy son (jug-eared Erik Per Sullivan, the kid from The Cider House Rules who thought that King Kong's crotch-sniffing of Fay Wray meant he thought she was his mother) and husband Richard Gere. Well, it's Richard Gere trying valiantly to impersonate a zhlub by wearing Ozzie Nelson sweater vests and slouching, in the role of armored car magnate Edward Sumner. Connie's life is one of SUV's, facials in fancy New York salons, and charity auctions. She and Edward still do the nasty, they collect snow globes, and have a collection of insufferable Westchester friends.

In fact, her life is so idyllic even she doesn't know there's anything wrong, until the kind of only-in-the-movies windstorm I never experienced in thirteen years of working in lower Manhattan blows her literally into the arms of an inevitably scruffy and unshaven piece of eye candy. Look, it's Richard Gere twenty years ago just as he appeared in Looking for Mr. Goodbar! No, he's too old for that now, and Gere has now passed the torch to a new hunk. This time it's Olivier Martinez (the tall-tale spinner of The Chambermaid on the Titanic) as a French rare book dealer named Paul Martel (not to be confused with Paul Bartels, director of Eating Raoul and perpetrator of the line, "Beat me, whip me, make me write bad checks!", which now that I think of it, is à propos, but I'm getting ahead of myself).

Martel is twenty-eight, and seems to have time-traveled into this film from 1969, thinking that American women still go ga-ga over any grubby French guy with an accent straight out of a Chuck Jones cartoon. And in this particular Movie Soho, he's probably right, because this strutting young cocksman has the whole Latin/Euro lover bit down pat. He invites the lovely Lane up to see his etchings and get a bandaid, and like an idiot, she accepts. He offers her a book as a keepsake, directing her towards an obviously planted copy of The Rubiyat of Omar Khayyam, which just happens to contain his business card, and instructs her to open it to a certain page, which just happens to contain the verse: "Drink wine, it's what remains of the harvest of youth - the season of roses and wine and drunken friends. Be happy for this moment, this moment is your life." Or, loosely translated, "Make whoopee while the sun shines. With me. Right now."

Connie doesn't — this time — much to Paul's disappointment ("Zut alors! Le wild puh-SEE escapez-vous!")* but soon she's on the phone to young Mr. Not-the-Ivory-Boy wanting to drop by. By the third "date", Connie's ready to succumb (or maybe it's the dirty dancing to that roots riddim by Ali Farka Touré and Ry Cooder). Most of what Lyne shows us of this tryst is Connie's facial reactions on the train back home to the memory of what has just transpired. This scene alone is reason to sit through this picture, because what Diane Lane does here is something truly extraordinary — she manages to convey just in her face, all the excitement, all the pleasure, and every ounce of the guilt, fear, and remorse, of an extramarital encounter. It's a devastating piece of not merely acting, but actually inhabiting a character, and I only wish Lyne had trusted both his actress and his audience enough to just let her face tell the story, instead of journeying into Lyne-land and insisting on showing us every tremble of Connie's flesh as she wrestles with intellectual ethics vs. the drives of the body; culminating in the Gallic Casanova telling her to "Hit me," the better to turn this encounter into the kind of coercive, sadomasochistic rape/sex for which Lyne is famous. For there's nothing less erotic or sexy than the sex in an Adrian Lyne film. Most of the time it's done standing up, in locations of varying degrees of sordidness and discomfort. The overall message Lyne presents in his sex scenes is not that sex is life and energy, as in the life-affirming, id-dominated Y Tu Mamà También, but a nasty, degrading business that is in many ways its own punishment. In Lyne-land, the inevitable consequence of female sexual arousal is to find yourself bent over in a shabby loft hallway full of peeling paint, begging to be fucked by a guy to whom you're now hopelessly addicted, but now know is a deceitful loser. The beating, the whipping, the humiliation, the self-loathing, the sex-as-violence— it's all here but the bad checks.

But until then, Connie revels in the sexual excitement she feels when with this young stud, to the point that she becomes sloppy. She lays out her new Frederick's of Hollywood underwear right where her husband can see it. She calls the guy from her home phone. She forgets to pick up her son from school. She gives her lover a snowglobe that was a gift from her husband. She doesn't care about being careful because she's not planning to leave her husband for this guy, he's ultimately just another compartment in her compartmentalized life, albeit an extremely pleasurable one that takes up far too much of her consciousness.

Inevitably, Edward realizes that something's wrong, and hires Uncle Junior (yes that really is Dominic Chianese of The Sopranos) to follow his wife. He confronts Paul, and at the end of the confrontation, the young man lies lifeless on the floor, a victim of death-by-snowglobe; just as Connie has left a message ending the affair. An accident? A murder? Lyne is ambiguous. For all that adultery makes us squirm as an audience, what follows in the rest of this film is sickening and far more disturbing than any discomfort in watching a wife ruin her life and a husband come to realize the truth. Lyne all too meticulously documents Edward's clean-up of the murder, Ed and Connie's inevitable confrontation and tentative moves towards reconciliation. Nothing like covering up a murder to bring a couple together, eh? Should Edward turn himself in? Should they go on the lam? Give Lyne credit for not succumbing to studio pressure again, as he did in Fatal Attraction, and wrapping up all the loose ends. But give him points off for chickening out of the moral ambiguity of Chabrol's original film.

No one ever accused Adrian Lyne of subtlety, and here the sledgehammer symbolism is carted in with a dumptruck and a backhoe. An inconstant wife named Constance. A husband in the security business who's emotionally locked-up. A child who becomes unable to control his bodily secretions just as his mother's having trouble controlling hers. A shot of a weathervane that's a lumberjack thrusting a phallic saw back and forth, followed by a child's bicycle tipping over. Two simultanously-arriving (coming?) phallic trains spewing out passengers who then "swim upstream" towards their destinations. Shots of soapy water in sinks, bathtubs and car washes resembling semen. A washcloth placed on a skinned knee cutting quickly to the hiss of a flame being ignited under a teakettle. A comment "Her ass is in the same place as it was in college" followed by a shot of that very ass being slammed against a toilet stall wall in flagrante delicto. Lyne even shows he can be as winkingly self-referential as 1960's Kubrick, with pots boiling over and a kid in a bunny costume. Bunny? Boiling pot! Ha ha. Got it.

UNFAITHFUL is not a good film, though it's not quite as bad as it could be, largly due to Lyne's trademark gorgeous production values, a strong score by Jan A.P. Kaczmarek, and game, if uneven performances. The major players try mightily to rise above the material, but only Lane truly succeeds, and she is devastating, her emotions and needs raw and close to the skin. Lane has done the unfaithful wife bit before, in Tony Goldwyn's superior A Walk on the Moon, and if she doesn't stop it, she might find herself having trouble getting dates, because this is an actress who understands the emotional maelstrom into which her characters descend. Lane is tough-looking, with sexuality coming out of her very pores. She's been around a long time, but watching her today shows how far she's come as an actress, and one can only hope that this film will finally get her the recognition she deserves.

The casting of Richard Gere as the cuckolded husband is not just an in-joke because we're used to seeing him as the eye candy, but also because it reunites him with Lane for the first time since The Cotton Club in 1982. Watching them portray this couple who, despite what they go through, still can't communicate, is heartbreaking. Time was when it would have been Gere playing the eye candy, but here, despite slouching and looking craggy, he's still very much a Movie Star. This is probably fortunate, because the man simply can't act. Hangdog looks and rapid eye blinking pass for emotion, in between the wooden delivery of lines. Without his trademark cock-of-the-walk swagger, he just doesn't know what to do with himself. The only scene in which you buy Gere as this character is when Edward confronts his wife's lover. When he asks, "How old ARE you?", while looking at the young man who looks unsettlingly like Gere did twenty years ago, we're uncomfortably aware ourselves of the passage of time. The uncanny resemblance between Gere and Martinez adds yet another dimension to not just Connie's attraction to this young man, but also the husband's emotional absorption of what that means.

Olivier Martinez, in the Mickey Rourke role, is the latest in the dubious parade of Adrian Lyne studs. Lyne's leading men (like Rourke in 9-1/2 weeks, the oily Michael Nouri in Flashdance, and — why not — Jeremy Irons in Lolita) always look as if they don't bathe, the better for the heroine to hate herself for her own lust. When watching an Adrian Lyne film, I'm always reminded of the exchange between Diane Keaton and Woody Allen in Love and Death: "You're disgusting, but I love you." "Well, my disgustingness is my best feature." Martinez has a great body, but with his slitty eyes, discolored teeth, greasy unkempt hair, and three-day stubble, you have to figure that Paul Sorvino is tearing his hair out daily at the thought of his little girl Mira being pawed by this beast for the last two years. Still, you've got to give Martinez credit for being able to spout lines like "Your eyes are amazing...you should never shut them...not even at night" with a straight face. Of course, if you've ever seen The Chambermaid on the Titanic, you know where he learned how to do it. All that's missing from this boy's seduction arsenal is "You are a keeng-sized belle femme skunk fatale...You are ze corned beef to me, I am ze cabbage to you."** Paul is a plot device in search of a character, and I kept picturing in this role someone like Jude Law, who could have served up some urbanity and intelligence with the great body; or even a Josh Lucas, the sleazy club owner of The Deep End, who would brought to the role all the sleaze, but at least with intelligible lines.

Of course, given what the character has to work with, perhaps it doesn't matter. Co-screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr. have done between them some admirable work in the past. Sargent penned Ordinary People and Dominick and Eugene; and William Broyles Jr. wrote the screenplay for Apollo 13. But UNFAITHFUL is more reminiscent of some of their less stellar work, laden as it is with awful dialogue and plot elements plunked in out of nowhere for the purpose of explaining other plot elements. The lines they're written for Olivier Martinez are, variously, right out of a Barbara Cartland novel or from the floor sweepings of the script conferences for Yoda in STAR WARS II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES: "Zere is no such ting as mistake. Zere is what you do, and what you don't do." Gee Ollie, thanks for clearing that up. May the force be with you too. The cops on the case of Paul's disappearance are so inept they might as well be Chief Wiggums and Eddie from THE SIMPSONS; and worst of all -- surprise!! It seems Paul has an estranged wife and family that have never been mentioned before, but oops -- we forgot that if this boho sex machine has no close relationships, there's no one to report him missing! Yet the one fatal problem with the script is that there is absolutely no context to Connie's pursuit of her young stud muffin. A woman like this doesn't shlep into the city to shtup a stranger, no matter that he is French and some Hollywood cokehead's idea of a sex symbol. She may find herself becoming too friendly with a charity auction donor and slip into an affair, she may even find herself sliding into a fling with the pool boy. But most affairs don't result from close encounters with strangers. This one occurs because the plot requires it, not because the character does.

Lyne is a highly reactionary and conservative filmmaker, for all his artsy pretensions. Fatal Attraction painted a terrible picture of career women as sex-crazed, baby-mad harpies. In UNFAITHFUL, his characters are somewhat less cartoonish, but it's impossible for the audience to hope that Ed and Connie can resolve their problems. For juxtaposed against scenes of the tentatively reconciling couple holding hands as they watch their son perform on stage; and saying grace over a family Thanksgiving dinner, are shots of a carpet wrapped in duct tape, lying discarded and useless in a garbage dump. Inside the carpet is the corpse of Paul Martel; just another discarded toy in the life of the upper middle class. As if to remind us of that, Lyne twists the knife further by showing us an alternate reality of Connie's first encounter with Paul, in which she declines the invitation, thanks her benefactor, and goes home, allowing him to move on to his next first-edition book, his next lover, and presumably, a long life. In an infidelity drama, we're supposed to empathize with the wronged spouse, certainly not with a predatory young man to whom this is just another conquest, a man who cares not one whit about the marriage and family he's helping place at risk. Paul Martel's disgustingness is not just his own best feature, it's perhaps the best feature of any of these self-involved people, and when the credits roll, it's the corpse in the dump for whom we grieve.

- Jill Cozzi

*Direct quote from Wild Over You, dir. Chuck Jones July,11 1953
** Ibid.

Review text copyright © 2002 Jill Cozzi and Cozzi fan Tutti. All rights reserved. Reproduction of text in whole or in part in any form or in any medium without express written permission of Cozzi fan Tutti or the author is prohibited.

 

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