Adrian Lyne directed “Fatal Attraction,” “Indecent Proposal” and “9 1/2 Weeks” so who better to direct “Unfaithful,” a movie that plays off the most provocative themes and elements from all three? The filmmaker has a thing about the fragility of human connection, the frightening ease with which it can be compromised, the slick line between the civilized and the savage. In his latest, Lyne revisits this psychic terrain with commendable style and savvy.
He gets considerable help from Diane Lane, who gives the performance of her career in the role of a lapsed suburban wife. Her character would seem to have it all. She’s beautiful. She has a great kid. She lives in a sprawling Hudson Valley dream house. She’s married to Richard Gere. She appears happy, fulfilled and in love. And then one windy day she goes into the city, literally bumps into a handsome stranger and finds herself unable to put him out of her mind.
The picture’s loosely based on a 1969 Claude Chabrol film called “La Femme Infidele.” I haven’t seen the original so I can’t say where Chabrol stops and Lyne begins but the movie is filled with remarkably subtle touches. One of my favorites comes early on when Lane goes back into town a few days later and wrestles with the idea of calling the guy. She pushes a coin into the slot of a pay phone, pauses and then pulls the return lever. When the quarter tumbles into the chamber, she breathes an almost convulsive sigh of relief. It’s as though she had thrown everything away and here it all was returned to her in tact. She clutches that coin like it was life itself.
Of course, a moment later something makes her push it back in and dial. What is it? That’s the first of the film’s several mysteries. Gere’s character isn’t distant or abusive or philandering. To the contrary, we’re informed that he’s loving and hardworking, a devoted husband and father. There’s a scene that suggests Lane’s motivations are as much a mystery to her as they are to the audience. Riding the train home after her first adulterous encounter, her face registers a succession of emotions, from guilty pleasure to self-loathing with a dozen others in between.
At home, the lies begin. Little things she assumes will never come back to haunt her. A fabricated conversation with a family friend, just something to account for her time. All it takes is for one or two of these to backfire and Gere begins to suspect trouble. His pain and confusion increase as the evidence piles up and it’s semi-mesmerizing to watch husband and wife bite their lip and maintain the illusion of domestic well-being. At a certain point, Gere knows what she’s up to but does not tell her that he knows. She doesn’t know he knows and continues to play the loving wife, her lie almost as hurtful an insult as her betrayal. Something’s got to give, naturally, and, when it does, matters become even more morally murky. Where the two were once united by the bond of marriage, they ultimately find themselves bound together by a web of secrets, lies and shared guilt.
The film raises uncomfortable questions about the extent to which one person can ever truly know another, the way a fantasy can mutate into an obsession, the many shapes addiction can take and the power it has to command the most supreme of sacrifices, the temptation once lines have been crossed to simply pretend otherwise and wear the safe, familiar business of life as a disguise.
Not bad for a mainstream suspensefest. Gere’s good, Lane, as I said, is amazing in places and Lyne does some of his most assured work in years. Boffo steamy bits too.
Not much to complain about here. Except that Hollywood doesn’t come up more often with surprises this pleasant.