Unfaithful
Reviewed in May 2002
Director: Adrian Lyne. Cast: Diane Lane, Olivier Martinez, Richard Gere, Kate Burton, Erik Per Sullivan, Chad Lowe, Zeljko Ivanek, Margaret Colin, Gary Basaraba. Screenplay: Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr. (based loosely on the film La Femme infidčle, written and directed by Claude Chabrol).

Photo © 2002 20th Century Fox
I could have had about six extramarital affairs in the time it took to watch Unfaithful, a film that (d)evolves with Darwinian slowness from an air of bland diversion into some truly unsettling sexual politics, and tumbles from that already low plateau into an ersatz In the Bedroom, in which an emotionally distant husband and wife attempt to salve their suffering marriage with the odd balm of felony brutality. As a concession to brevity, that Great Lost Art among self-serious commercial filmmakers (and, let's be honest, among cantankerous film reviewers like me), I wrote this haiku to commemorate my experience of Unfaithful:

Femme cheats on hubby.
Wind governs her behavior.
Why am I so bored?


It might help to know, in interpreting Line 2 of this opus of mine, that the philandering in this movie is motivated not by spite, revenge, double indemnity clauses, or even by recognizable mating rituals, but by the bizarre circumstance of a New York City windstorm that literally blows the leads into one another. Anyway, I was proud of my little effort, but the friend with whom I saw the movie—a real-life poet, and therefore a soul that this film-crew could sorely have used—one-upped me:

What I learned: men get
murdered because Women Are
Weak. This movie sucked!


By any reasonable standard, which is to say in a slightly less diseased moviegoing culture, these words would be more than enough to consign Unfaithful to the dust-heap of late spring while one hurries off to catch the sensational Y Tu Mamá También once more before it leaves the plexes. But the close chronological conjunction of In the Bedroom and Unfaithful compels me to say more, as do the positive attentions that audiences have paid these films (Unfaithful grossed over $10 million in its first weekend) and the career highs of critical approbation that Sissy Spacek, Tom Wilkinson, Marisa Tomei, Diane Lane, and Richard Gere have already reaped for starring in them. Never mind the fundamental trope that undergirds the plot of both films—what tragedy befalls when a woman and mother decides to have sex!—because, after all, worthy films could be and have been made on this theme. It must also, of course, be conceded that these movies tell appreciably different stories. For one, the context of Unfaithful's exploration of female desire—Connie Sumner, a rich-skewing Westchester wife and auction-house broker, conducts a heated, secretive liaison with Paul Martel, a generically Mediterranean book dealer in Soho—places the female protagonist as the agent of her own suffering, pursuing a transgressive relationship that will almost certainly incur ripples and retaliations. She is hardly, then, a duplicate of the Tomei character from In the Bedroom, a more dully passive creature than Diane Lane's Connie.

But here, already, in making these distinctions, we drift toward some of the meanness and crudity at the core of Unfaithful, because the film and its characters are recurrently obsessed with the damning fact that Connie Started It. A taxi crawls down the street behind Connie in the shot where she decides to enter Paul's apartment: here is the vehicle that could have so easily spirited her away! We know she could have chosen otherwise, and a flashback later in the film (in slow motion, no less) confirms that Connie regrets her own moral errancy. Moreover, the affair is structured such that Connie is the catalyzing, self-mobilizing conspirator, the one who must actively transport herself by commuter rail to the scene of adultery's crime; Paul just waits to see what happens. A socialite acquaintance, a silly throwaway part for current double-Tony-nominee Kate Burton, seems to sniff the infidelity in Connie's aura and launches into a monologue about her own long-past dalliance at the expense of her husband—"the single thing in my entire life that I would take back," though I might be paraphrasing her avowal of absolute, superannuating guilt. And though Edward, Connie's husband, hires a private detective to uncover her secret, and reacts to the news with barely civilized criminal abandon, he silences Connie's fifth-act inquiries about his acts of wounded-dog vengeance ("What did you do?") with his own spiteful volley ("What did YOU do??"), pre-empting further discussion. Connie's crime, evidently, speaks for itself.

Okay. Perhaps it would be feeble and uncosmopolitan to dismiss Unfaithful entirely as a piece of filmmaking simply because its attitudes toward female agency appear retrograde and condemning. But, rather than ignoring the film's technical and contextual dimensions through my focus on its gender politics, I believe I am accurately receiving a film that has suppressed any creativity, texture, or discernible artistic vitality in order to foreground its own narrative "daring" in telling the story of a woman who "wanted it all." Interview after interview with Diane Lane and her director, Adrian Lyne, has reiterated their belief that positioning a middle-aged woman front and center in an ethically and sexually adult drama constitutes, in itself, a cinematic and a national good. No one seems to be pretending that Unfaithful succeeds or fails by the measure of, say, its musical score or its cinematography. This, in truth, is as it should be, given that Jan Kaczmarek's themes are maudlin and awful, genuine sins of cheap portentousness and fabricated poignance, and the lighting by Peter Biziou, who at least gave the corrupt Mississippi Burning a high-contrast chromatic urgency, bathes Unfaithful in such arid greys and blues that the film hardly seems to be happening.

The point is that Unfaithful has only its target-market anomalies (and I'm all for movies spearheaded by grown women) and its moral provocations to offer us as an audience, and I for one found the film more provoking than its subject matter. If it is a relief to see Diane Lane play a woman with real erotic appetites and lots of meaty scenes, that is not a credit to Unfaithful itself but an indictment of the horrendously biased output for which Hollywood may one day recognize it owes us an apology, because these kinds of scenes should be regularly on offer in more ambitious and less hollowly judgmental movies than this one. Besides, a terrific 1999 drama called A Walk on the Moon already showcased Lane in an electric performance as a cheating wife, within a much richer emotional context, a more specific cultural idiom, a better-coordinated palette, and a tighter editing rhythm. The only response I can muster to the sluggish and overlong editing of Unfaithful is to ask, who anaesthetized Anne V. Coates? She's the genius who spliced together Out of Sight and In the Line of Fire into such briskly entertaining forms, to say nothing of Lawrence of Arabia. You'd never guess that from the limping rhythms and unedifying close-ups in this movie.

On its own terms, Unfaithful is cruel-hearted and wrong-headed. The concluding third of the picture is entirely premised, as was In the Bedroom, on the notion that viewers will so keenly desire to see a marriage, any marriage, preserved that we will root for Connie and Edward to hold fast through the assaults, the perjuries, and the physical and moral nomadism they will have to adopt in the wake of Paul's murder. (As though you hadn't figured it out!) Why on Earth do filmmakers idealize the union of matrimony to such a high level that even point-blank slaughter must not tarnish it? And this in a story whose signal virtue is supposed to be its subversive exhibition of how sexuality bridles at deadening routine and spousal neglect. I do not endorse infidelity, but nor do I live with a mania for seeing disloyal, infected couples safeguard their couplehood. Clearly I am not the viewer that Unfaithful's creators had in mind, and for that I confess I am grateful. D+


Academy Award Nominations:
Best Actress: Diane Lane

Golden Globe Nominations:
Best Actress (Drama): Diane Lane

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Lane)
National Society of Film Critics: Best Actress (Lane)
Satellite Awards: Best Actress, Drama (Lane)

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