Adrian Lyne, the English television-commercial director turned Hollywood philosopher of the bedroom — and the freight elevator, the public restroom and the grubby stairwell — knows that sex not only sells, it freaks us out. But since seriously and deeply freaking the audience is one sure-fire way to commercial perdition, the box-office-savvy Lyne has become a master of the art of cinematic titillation. He has a gift for seduction, and he’s particularly cunning when it comes to the sort of hot-button movie topics, adultery being a favorite trigger, that seem to invariably make the leap from screen to newspaper commentary page. He‘s expert at getting audiences where they live, and sometimes stray, and it’s a measure of how deeply he scrapes against the collective unconscious, as well as testament to the integrity of his airbrushed style, that while he‘s directed just eight features, it feels as if he has a much larger body of work to his name. But if Lyne can be a brilliant tease, he’s also a punishing, unforgiving one. He may enjoy making us feel good, getting our juices and thoughts flowing, but what he likes even better is making us feel really, really bad. With Adrian Lyne, no good time ever goes unpunished.
Before the fall, though, comes the fun — the vaguely sordid, slightly tacky stuff, the human sense and insensibility that make Lyne as irresistible as he is embarrassing. In Unfaithful, his third film about marital infidelity, it‘s also the stuff that works. The fun begins when married New York suburban mom Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) meets, then takes a tumble with, the younger Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a French bookseller living in Soho. Along with her husband, Edward (a fine Richard Gere), and 8-year-old son, Connie lives in upper-middle-class affluence in one of those sheltered Hudson River towns co-opted by city professionals. It’s all rather soft-focus lovely, if about as full of life as a Martha Stewart Living get-together, but because middle-class comfort is its own sort of hell, at least at the movies, this is also the sort of town where the daily walk from the commuter train has the feel of a death march. The women here don‘t have much to do besides their nails, and Connie seems to have less to do than most. There’s some talk about a charity auction, but other than servicing her lover and husband, along with preparing her son‘s lunch, Connie seems fairly useless — no wonder Edward calls her “Con.”
Lyne isn’t an especially personal filmmaker, but there is a facile integrity to his vision. His films have the anonymous, high-buffed gloss of costly professionalism, but an inevitable vulgarity clings to their edges. It isn‘t simply the way the director films women, though he never can resist pushing his camera down their blouses or under their skirts (from the evidence, he is a big-breast and leg man). It’s the way he tarts up his style. He has a weakness for shock cuts — the kind that make us jump in our seats, as if we were watching a horror movie instead of a movie limned with horror — and a fondness for gauzy lighting. The irony is, it‘s his vulgarity, this mixture of the gaudy and the glossy, that distinguishes Lyne, that makes his work identifiable and, when the story’s right, such a guilty pleasure. The day that Connie falls from grace, she‘s running errands in Soho when a wind kicks up that’s so violent you half expect Margaret Hamilton to fly by on her bicycle. Tossed about like mesclun greens, Connie stumbles over the cobblestones in her stilettos, struggling to hold on to the shopping bags clutched in both hands. As the wind shrieks into metaphor (there‘s a storm a-coming!), her skirt blows higher and higher until we get a peek-a-boo glimpse of panties, along with those miles of leg.
The whole thing is absurd, wildly so — the wind, the high heels, the forbidden Fruit of the Looms. It isn’t just that the storm whips the story out of the register of the real, but that Lyne‘s insistence on underscoring, tweaking and eventually clobbering the moment — too many moments — leeches the narrative of its power and, unintentionally, its high-mindedness. He can’t seem to help himself. Every time Lyne appears on the verge of taking his stories seriously, he veers into kitsch and the unbearable lightness of being Zalman King. Connie doesn‘t just fall from grace; the wind literally knocks her off her feet and on top of Paul, landing them both in an art-directed heap. Of course he’s beautiful, of course he‘s French, and of course he’s got as many moves in his arsenal as Bobby Fischer. Her knees bloodied, Connie accepts Paul‘s invitation to recover upstairs, which is how, in between accepting his bandages and eyeballing his bed sheets, she ends up reading verse aloud amid the deshabille bohemianism of his loft. “Be happy for the moment,” she says tenderly. “This moment is your life.” Yes, well, at least until the husband or the wife finds out, the lover goes bonkers and boils up a bunny bouillabaisse, and it all goes straight to movie hell.
In Lyne’s world, the body is more than a prison, it‘s a veritable penal colony through which men and women are condemned to reenact the Fall every time they have one too many drinks, as in Fatal Attraction, or get a bit too greedy, as in Indecent Proposal. In Unfaithful, Connie’s mostly bored, and to judge by her sepulchral domesticity, it‘s no wonder. Lyne’s sympathies initially seem to be with Connie: Lane is incredibly moving in the role, and she wills the character to depths that remain unarticulated in Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr.‘s screenplay. The first time Connie sleeps with Paul, Lane’s body trembles with a violence that‘s shockingly, almost embarrassingly, naked. We see the lovers’ encounter not as it happens but somewhat after the fact, as Connie sits on the train back home, weeping and laughing to herself, her body knotted with emotion as she remembers the sex. It‘s by far the best work with an actor that Lyne has ever done. Which makes it all the more frustrating when Lyne not only loses interest in Connie, but trades in his evident sympathy with the lovers for the sort of moral posturing that always finds him selling out his favorite characters.
Lyne is a shabby moralist. He not only sells his characters out, he sells out his own point of view, which is why, while he sympathizes with Connie, he cuts her loose. This isn’t the first time he‘s done that, but never before has a film gone as flat when he did. What’s curious about Unfaithful is just how little it pops; it‘s as if Lyne had become so self-conscious about having based it on the work of a serious filmmaker, on Claude Chabrol’s 1969 La Femme Infidele, that he decided to tone down his go-for-the-jugular instincts for something more grown-up, and staid. Throughout Unfaithful, you can feel Lyne trying to be less Lyne-like, which is the wrong tack since what gives his films oomph is crude sensations, not ideas. Like Chabrol, Lyne has an interest in the emotional geography of infidelity, but unlike the French director, he isn‘t a sophisticated thinker, and he can’t help but pass judgment on his characters, especially the women. The wife in Chabrol‘s film is a mystery, and as expressionless as a corpse, because her motivations are irrelevant to how the betrayal affects her husband. In both films, the husband’s actions are terrible and finally, in a perverse way, both rational and moral. Yet only in the Chabrol does the wife maintain her innocence, however eccentric (and French). In Unfaithful, the wife falls, and stays fallen. Lyne‘s women are consistently more vibrant than his men, yet if he loves women in his own way, and I think he does, there’s a part of him that always wants to punish and humiliate them as well. If he liked women as much as he loved them, then it might be easier to take Lyne as seriously as he seems to take himself.
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