July 03, 2003
Unfaithful, the DVD

(Spoilers abound)

Nine 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Lolita, and the intriguingly abated Unfaithful, all from the mind of Adrian Lyne - the reigning master of the Hollywood sexual-thriller.

The DVD for his most recent offering is rewarding in its way. I love how Olivier Martinez talks about his family, for instance. They're much loved and famous - a long line of boxers who are heros in his home town. Eventually, in one of his many tirades about boxing, he explains an injury prevented him from turning pro and following in their footsteps. Instead he took up acting, he says, which saved him from becoming a mechanic and a nobody like the rest of his family.

Quantifiably more is said about being 'unfaithful' in this single moment than Lyne's entire film manages, because you get a tangible sense of the arrogance in a person who would hold up his own family so lovingly one minute, only to write them off mercilessly the next.

The unfaithfulness in Unfaithful, on the other hand, is an accident of nature - apparently having more to do with wind than behaviour. Lyne's refusal to part with this dubious notion reduces his characters to caricatures, in spite of some solid work by his cast.

Diane Lane is quite good, excelling in scenes where she has no dialogue at all (her train ride home from her first adulterous afternoon whip-lashes powerfully back and forth between the thrill of sexual gratification and the reality of her shame). Richard Gere (in a part written for Michael Douglas and Harrison Ford,) is also convincing as an uxorious tight-ass who gets hurt beyond all recognition in spite of being so darned principled.

The weakest link is Olivier, for the simple reason that it's hard - if not impossible - to buy him as a 'book-dealer', or anything other than a boxer/mechanic cum male model. Even with his token 5000 square foot loft and bedroom eyes, he's threatening mainly in his proximity to being a pretentious goof.

Real pain (such as that of a silver-haired man who learns his trophy wife has been making it with a young buck) is not something mainstream cinema allows its protagonists (or audiences) to feel - it's just not something people pay for. So I was curious to see how Unfaithful would diminish the pain of its premise. Partially, the sheer artificiality of the set-up does the trick - it's so damn decipherable at every turn you "read" instead of "view" the first five scenes. The opening image of a child's bike blowing over in the wind speaks to us about what is to come - more second-rate symbolism. Gere runs a "security" company - protecting assets is his thing - Get it? Lane goes to art auctions, and is herself a work of art that has been acquired by a wealthy man - Get it? Their kid - a poorly handled child actor featured like WAY TOO MUCH - is obsessed with violent video games, the byproduct of his parents' subtle lack of communion. The wind storm - our aforementioned accident of nature - literally forces Lane and Olivier to collide, and naturally (as is par for the course by this point) it's also a collision of objects. Hers are fruit, which symbolize yadda, Olivier's are books, because he is a man of yadda. And when she falls in the mud, he puts a band-aid on her wound, because he is but a band-aid solution to some deeper problem. Get it?

We "get" everything, but feel little.

And the big problem appears to be that, like Gere's character, Lyne is too ill-at-ease with the reasons behind the affair to face them. So, the minute our loving hubby learns of the indiscretion, all the tension about unfaithfulness is supplanted by the tension of how to get rid of the young stud's corpse. Essentially, it's the same thing we've seen 100 times before. The elevator's stuck; the trunk won't close; there's blood on his shirt; the cops are onto them - standardized suspense much more manageable than the tension developed in the film's first half. And Gere is so obviously the good guy in all of this, the victim of both his cheating wife and his own innocent-little-crime-of-passion, that the thesis becomes: See! Women can also have mid-life crises and run off with young bubble-headed babes, ruining the lives of their kids for the sake of a novel lay!

It feels vindictive on this level.

Yet I'd still somehow recommend it, if it weren't - like this review - way too long. Its closing frame, which succeeds at being comprehensively "ambiguous", feels like it's showing us what should have been left to our imagination 40 minutes ago.

When I say anything about Lyne - as I am wont to do - people rise to his defense to remind me Jacob's Ladder was ok. I haven't seen that movie since it came out, so I don't know. But I know it's the only film he's made that hasn't purported to offer insight into that menacing world of female sexuality, something Lyne seems every bit as obsessed with as he is in the dark about.

Posted by at July 03, 2003 06:17 PM
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