here are no mistakes. There is only what you do and what you do not do.” So says swarthy French lover Paul (Olivier Martinez) to philandering housewife Connie (Diane Lane) in Adrian Lyne’s new film Unfaithful. So, following his advice, I won’t say that I was mistaken in thinking this movie was going to be a stark, grown-up portrait of adultery, free of Lyne’s usual moralizing and oh-you’ll-pay bloody consequences, as seen in his previous films Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal. Rather, here’s what I did do: Get up early Sunday morning to see Unfaithful. And what I didn’t do: Sleep late; enjoy a leisurely brunch; see a grown-up portrait of adultery.
In interviews, Lyne has claimed this film has no moral, which is a bit like arguing that The Boy Who Cried Wolf is about voice projection. In its depiction of family values unraveling, Unfaithful is at least as judgmental as Fatal Attraction, and it utilizes all the nuances and shading of an Aesop’s Fable to deliver its message. It goes something like this: adultery is a very bad thing, and very very bad things happen to those who commit it.
As played by Lane, Connie is a happily married upstate New York housewife: she has a sweet kid, a well-behaved dog, a nice house, an adoring husband (played by Richard Gere with a bad dye job), a good sex life, and “an ass that’s in the same place it was thirteen years ago,” as grudgingly noted by her best friend. Connie seems happy enough, and she doesn’t go out in search of a fling but literally bumps into it one windy day in Soho. As Lyne presents it, the difference between a faithful and an unfaithful wife is simply one of timing. If a taxi had stopped for Connie, she would have been safely swept away to suburbia; but instead she kept walking down the block, so busy scanning the horizon for a cab that she smacked right into Paul (Martinez), an espresso-swilling, hunka-hunk from whom no cliché is safe. He’s your classic pseudo-intellectual, Eurotrash bad boy who seduces by quoting poetry, wearing tight black sweaters, and looking at Connie with intensity.
Lane’s portrayal of a woman torn is sexy, funny and heart-wrenching; she carries the film, although it’s decidedly unheavy lifting. Her Connie is at once mother, husband, and fuck-in-the-bathroom-stall mistress, and somehow Lane makes the contradictions cohere. To her, it doesn’t matter that Paul is a total cheeseball; because this is a thing separate from her marriage. In their first sexual encounter, Paul starts tenderly and Connie tries to pull away. She’s terrified of what she’s about to do. And then Paul tells her, “Hit me.” She does, over and over, harder and harder, and suddenly it’s not gentle-loving-married sex but rough-fast-adultery sex, and she’s okay with that. Cut to montage of hot sex/happy family/hot sex/happy family and so on. In each scene, Paul unconsciously mimics Connie’s son, at one point doodling an arrow on her stomach with a permanent marker. We’re supposed to think he’s just a kid, and she’s just babysitting. It’s easy to believe that if Connie hadn’t got caught, she would have ended it eventually and walked away with her itch scratched, returning to her family like she’d just spent a week at the spa.
But, of course, she does get caught. (Overheard in the ladies’ restroom after the movie: “That girl needs to take lessons in cheating. You don’t lie about getting a facial and then give him the name of the place you’re supposedly going to.” Word to the wise.) And, of course, it does end badly. (In case there were any doubt, early in the film one of Connie’s friends intones, “It always ends badly.”) At least, it always does in Adrian Lyne’s world.
Not that there’s anything wrong with a little moralizing. But when the ending has all the blood-tinged melodrama of a ripped-from-the-headlines episode of Law and Order, why bother? Ultimately, Unfaithful feels as if Lyne is going down the potboiler checklist: Vengeance? Check. Rage? Done. If your requirements for a successful cinematic experience include clandestine meetings with shady out-of-work detectives and plain brown envelopes exchanged for cash on desolate park benches, you will not be disappointed. Unwisely, the film cashes in its only asset halfway through, and Connie is barely allowed a line of dialogue in later scenes. Here, the film is no longer about a marriage or a relationship; it’s about an angry man driven by jealousy to become a bit player in a Quentin Tarantino film. Would it have been so difficult to let things play out within the realm of normal human emotion? Just as in Fatal Attraction and Indecent Proposal, Lyne ups the ante so far that it feels like nothing. Or rather, it feels like a movie. Go see Unfaithful for Lane’s performance, and walk out when she gets caught. Then decide for yourself what that would have done with her marriage.