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Monday, April 30, 2018

Director Report Card: Adrian Lyne (2002)

8. Unfaithful

By 2002, the so-called erotic thriller genre was no longer taken seriously. It had long since become the domain of late night cable smut and direct-to-video schlock. This did not deter Adrian Lyne. Following the controversial “Lolita,” Lyne next decided to tackle a remake of the 1969 Claude Chabrol film, “The Unfaithful Wife.” A script had been circulating for a few years but its themes of jealousy, sex, and infidelity clearly appealed to the director. Against all odds, Lyne would make an erotic thriller that earned critical praise. Diane Lane's performance would be especially signaled out, eventually earning an Academy Award nomination. Pretty good job from the director of “Flashdance.”

The Sumners are happily married, leaving in the New York countryside. Husband Edward runs a successful business. Wife Constance is a stay-at-home mom, with their rowdy eight year old son Charlie. They are content, it would seem. While shopping for a birthday present for Charlie, Constance has a chance encounter with Paul, a young and attractive French book dealer. After meeting him a few more times, Constance begins to have a passionate affair with Paul. She feels guilty about the infidelity but can't stop seeing him. When Edward discovers the affair, drastic measures are taken.

Supposedly, “Unfaithful's” production was hassled by busy-body producers. They wanted the Sumners to have a sexless, passionless marriage. They wanted a more clean, concise ending. Adrian Lyne and the cast resisted all these demands. What interested Lyne about the story was the random nature of desire. The film goes to great lengths to show that the Sumners are happy and have a healthy sex life. The only flaw is that their marriage is a little routine, a little tired. Constance has no reason to begin an affair with another man. And yet she does. The whims of desire and passion are irrational and unpredictable.

The film never explains the exact reason why Constance has an affair. There's simply a spark between her and Paul, a newness to their relationship that her marriage is lacking. However, her inner life does not go unexamined. She is wracked with guilt. After the first time she sleeps with Paul, there's a powerful scene devoted to the wife sitting on a train. As she remembers the details of the lovemaking, her face contorts in both shame and excitement. She becomes so wrapped up in the affair that she forgets to pick up her child from school one day. She brings home physical reminders, like a drawing Paul makes on her body. It's this horrible guilt, this inner sense of conflict, that causes her to call the affair off. “Unfaithful” explores the complicated emotions at the center of infidelity.

It's easy to see why this material would interest Lyne. “Unfaithful” covers many of the same themes of “9 ½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction,” and “Indecent Proposal.” However, unlike the glossy love scenes that characterized his last few films, “Unfaithful's” physical moments return to the director's rawer, earlier days. The sex scenes are graphic. Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez make love in a theater, a dinner restroom, and his apartment many times. The film never slips into the ridiculously over-choreographed humping of “9 ½ Weeks.” Instead, the scenes are plausible, if passionate. Most importantly, “Unfaithful” never looses track of its characters' feelings during the sex. Constance shakes and shudders while Paul explores her body, her feelings complex. When he takes her in a stairway, she is overwhelmed by arousal. It's the best kind of movie sex: Passionate, realistic, but rooted in emotion.

The Claude Chaborl film that inspired “Unfaithful” was primarily told from the perspective of the husband. The wife is the primary protagonist of Lyne's film. However, when “Unfaithful” devotes time to the husband, it leads to one of the film's most memorable scenes. When Edward confronts the man his wife is sleeping with, he is quiet. It's only when he sees a snow globe, a gift he gave to Constance, in the other man's apartment, that he looses it. His breakdown is fantastically depicted. His words quicken to a frenzied pace. Before he even knows what he's done, he fatally wounds the other man. Lyne shows the violence as a quick, irrational act. The fallout – the trickle of blood down Paul's face that then turns into a torrent – is startling in how casually its produced.

It's at this point that “Unfaithful” begins to fulfill the “thriller” part of the “erotic thriller” genre. Its thrills are surprisingly subtle. Edward's attempt to dispose of the body are constantly complicated. Cleaning up the crime scene is a difficult, drawn-out process. He's rear-ended while keeping the dead body in the car's trunk. The cops soon come asking. When a police siren passes outside, he stares out the window in dread. Whether or not Edward is ever in danger of going to jail isn't the real question. It's the guilt hanging over the marriage now, of Constance's affair and Edward's violent act. This is best illustrated in two moments: While burning photographs of her with Paul, Constance imagines things playing out differently, her leaving before she begins the relationship with the man. Later, she discovers a love note Edward left her years ago. This affectionate gesture has a different meaning now, a symbol of what she selfishly threw away. The marriage is what's at stake, if things can ever be the same again.

Diane Lane would receive the majority of the praise for “Unfaithful.” And with good reason. Lane adds a great deal of complexity to her character. Her body language, the way she signals how she's both excited and deeply ashamed of her actions, frequently at the same time, is impressive. Lane is also extremely good at showing how the affair reignites her passion, reminding the viewer why she's doing this to herself and her family. It's a multi-faceted performance and a powerful piece of acting. Lane, it must also be said, is gorgeous in the part, frequently wearing slinky dresses and nightgowns.

Casting Richard Gere as the beleaguered husband is an interesting choice, considering his history as a sex symbol. However, Gere is surprisingly believable as a happy husband with a seemingly ideal life. He's charming, funny, and has great chemistry with Lane. Once the script turns darker, Gere shows himself equally capable. A powerful moment occurs when Lane confronts Gere about the murder, causing him to spit forward his anger and resentment. Yet it's not just his verbal announcements that work. While teaching his son to play piano, Edward gives his wife a meaningful look, which could mean many different things. Gere's performance is thoughtful and focused.

If the central cast has a weak point, it's Olivier Martinez as Paul. It's not that Martinez gives a bad performance. He's charming, handsome, and suits the part. It's easy to see why Constance would be enamored of him. However, how exactly he seduces Constance borders on the cheesy. A scene where he asks to read a passage from a book is really silly. While Gere and Lane get a chance to expand on their characters, Martinez' Paul is mostly just an idea. He's the young, swarthy, French lover that lures away the dutiful housewife. There's not much of an inner life there.

Adrian Lyne does not direct “Unfaithful” in as slick a manner as “Lolita” or “Indecent Proposal.” There is, shockingly, not a single billowing curtain in the movie. The film's more dour direction recalls “Fatal Attraction” and “Jacob's Ladder.” There's a smoky appearance to the film, which was apparently accomplished by literally pumping smoke into the set. The New York setting is always overcast and gloomy, contributing to the movie's downbeat feeling. This is most apparent during the scene where Edward disposes of the dead body, in a junkyard that is so foggy, it looks like an alien world. Lyne does employ some of his trademark, flashier moves. There's a POV shot of Constance's car as she looses control of it in traffic. The murder scene features the same frenzied quality that appeared in his other film. Some of the rough zooms that showed up in “9 ½ Weeks” also appeared during some of the love scenes here, which is a little distracting.

Accompanying “Unfaithful” is a strong soundtrack. Jan A.P. Kaczmarek's score is piano driven, a simple theme that suggests a secretive side. This is soon accompanied by sweeping strings, which are simultaneously romantic and melancholic. The music helps build a tone that is sensual but also tragic, perfectly matching the movie's story and its themes.

“Unfaithful” is one of Adrian Lyne's most beguiling film. Its ending is ambiguous, the exact fate of the Sumners left up for the audience to decide. As a story about secrets and relationships, it plays its emotions equally close to the chest and as big drama. Things are kept low key enough so that it never becomes melodramatic or tawdry. That makes it one of Lyne's more restrained films. And it's all the better for it. “Unfaithful” is a mature and thoughtful drama, about serious topics that doesn't pull punches or talk down to the audiences. If it ends up being Lyne's last film, it's a pretty good note to take things out on. And did I mention it co-stars Dewey from “Malcolm in the Middle?” [Grade: B]

If Adrian Lyne hasn't made another movie since "Unfaithful," it hasn't been for a lack of trying. In 2012, he was attached to the John Grisham adaptation, "The Associate," a secrets-and-sex-filled legal thriller. Later that same year, he became attached to "Back Roads," a story about murder and extramarital affairs set in Pennsylvania mining country. (Both were suppose to star Andrew Garfield.) In 2013, he was suppose to make his comeback with "Deep Water," another tale of secrets, sexy sex, and mysterious deaths. More recently, and most intriguingly, was "Silent Wife." Meant to star Nicole Kidman, the film was to be about a wife that begins plotting her husband's murder after discovering he's having an affair. This was unrelated to the similarly entitled "Silence," a Christmas-set romance/thriller that would've reunited the director with Michael Douglas. That one was apparently still in development fairly recently.

Obviously, none of these movies made it in front of the camera, at least not yet anyway. It's very easy to tell what attracted Lyne to each project and any of them probably would've been pretty cool. I don't know if Lyne will ever direct another film again, considering his difficulty getting projects funded. Not all of his movies have been great and this wasn't the most rewarding retrospective. (Yes, I mostly did this so I could talk about "Jacob's Ladder.") But it was interesting looking for style and meaning behind the frequently glossy erotica Lyne was responsible for. 

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