“Your eyes are amazing, you know that? You should never shut them. Not even at night.” In real life, if a guy used this line on a woman, she would most likely bust out laughing in his face. Factor in a thick French accent, and it would be a miracle if she didn’t collapse to the floor in a gut-busting giggle fit. In “Unfaithful,” however, it’s only a matter of seconds before the target of the line is dropping her pants. That, right there, should give one a clear indication as to the strange, alien, and rather hilarious world in which Adrian Lyne’s latest erotic “drama” takes place.
I should say “dropping her muffins,” for Lyne doesn’t pass up any opportunity for the most blatant symbolism. Before dropping her pants, the very married Constance Sumner (the very sexy Diane Lane) pays a visit to the apartment studly French book dealer Paul Martel (the very skeevy Olivier Martinez), a gift bag of muffins in tow. He drops that oh-so-slick compliment to her, but she doesn’t let go of the muffin bag–not even as they slow dance–until he grabs them and throws them to the floor in an action that screams out “This is one forceful guy.” As if we didn’t gather that before, when, on a previous encounter with Connie, Paul makes her read a poem that encourages her to seize the moment, or in another encounter where he tries to seduce her with nothing less than a chicken recipe in a cookbook written in braille. Even that latter fact somehow comes to play later when Connie is shown at home burning a chicken dinner (See–the cookbook was a “slick” foreshadowing of the gradual destruction of Connie’s domestic life! How brilliantly layered! Not).
What Lyne and screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr. don’t feel the need to drill into the audience’s heads is Connie’s motivation for falling into an adulterous affair. In fact, they offer no reason at all, for her businessman husband Edward (the very squinty Richard Gere) is not only attentive to her but actively attracted to her; and they have a bright young son (the very perky Erik Per Sullivan). The ambiguous irrationality on this point is one of the film’s few strengths, but leave it to Lyne to fill in the blanks by pushing the fate card extra hard. While on shopping trip in New York City, Connie and Paul are quite literally blown together by the winds of fate, and, yes, these winds are the harbinger of a larger metaphorical storm in both of their existences. The audience knows that very well going in–after all, the film *is* called “Unfaithful”–but it takes at least a full half hour of false starts and laughable failed seduction attempts by Paul (the poem, the braille) before the two get it on.
This being a film by known screen provocateur Lyne, one expects the film to come to life once the eroticism begins, and indeed it does–though not in the way intended. The first sex scene plays as a flashback intercut with Lane’s impressive depiction of Connie’s simultaneous feelings of horror and excitement on the train ride home, but the glimpses that the audiences see are more likely to incite the former than the latter–but above even that, laughter. Lyne leaves his camera to ogle Connie’s trembling belly button for a long while as Paul blows on her crotch, but her nerves don’t go away until he repeatedly commands her in that alluring accent of his, “Heet me!”–which then makes a post-argument foyer f**k later in the film hardly a twist. At least Lyne is able to see a rough restroom romp for the ribald ridiculousness that it is, earning the film its one intended laugh.
Too bad, though, that he saw everything else in “Unfaithful” with such self-important seriousness. Presumably is to derive from the big countdown until Edward finds out, but the idiotic character of Connie makes it no fun; not only is she a terribly unconvincing liar, she doesn’t have the sense to prepare for her afternoon booty calls until after her husband has left for work, plus she commits a crucial act of re-gifting that goes far beyond mere social faux pas. The film’s third act foray into thriller territory is also more bore than score, with Lyne and his sledgehammer pounding down points of which only those with a severe “Memento”-like short-term memory condition would need reminding.
What makes “Unfaithful” that much more of a trying sit is that the film shows flashes of potential. The premise is certainly workable (and, apparently, has worked before; the film is a reworking of Claude Chabrol’s “La Femme Infidèle”), and every now and again some genuine performance comes through, particularly by Lane, as illustrated by the previously mentioned train ride scene. At every turn, though, her valiant efforts are thwarted by a patch of atrocious dialogue or a questionable directing decision–which exposes the very reason for “Unfaithful”‘s failure: a potentially interesting project gone horribly awry in the hands of the wrong team of filmmakers.