Jun '02 [Home]
The Low-Down on High Moral Porn
by Maureen Holm, Senior Essayist
An hour and twenty minutes into Unfaithful, a Soho loft elevator provides the first hopeful lurch of narrative potential: Will Gere be trapped in it until discovered with the rug-enscrolled, duct-taped remains of his wife's bludgeoned lover? Its temperamental pulleys draw from Martinez his only convincing line ("Putain! Ascenseur de merde!"), prompted by Lyne's only emotionally authentic direction ("Curse the lift, now. That's it. Ri-i-ight.").
Gere is believably Breathless-desperate as he jerks the obstinate crankwheel, but summons his once would-be naval officer's grit to heave albatross over the side and out into the downpour. Brusquely declining the unlikely help of a grooming-to-be gallerist passerby fresh from Jean-Louis David, he stows it in the trunk of his Mercedes and slips into his seat at the Spring pageant featuring his unadorable, elephant-eared son downstage center in pink bunny costume. Reconciled in soft-focus parentage, spousal fingers link, wedding bands glint, and audio platitudes swell then shift as he flashes on his aw-Jeez! act of passion. Thunk!—in another hopeful jounce, he's rear-ended in the parking lot, but dismisses the apologetic schmuck and makes for the town dump.
Qualitatively, this brief pantomime might have served as exposition to set up a midweek TV episode of swift investigation, arrest, trial, and conviction based on manifest evidence of adultery with and murder of a too-young, too-handsome foreigner at a trendy crime scene; or as opener for a reverse-order Pinteresque scene sequence of triangular Betrayal: confrontation, confirmation, break-up, suspicion, candlelit conduct, indulgence, opportunity. Instead, it climaxed a plot any Friday afternoon audience already knows backwards.
Lyne Touched by Himself
Not that Lyne doesn't add his signature flair: Bunny Boy's stage debut is preceded by a boiling pot his sexed up Westchester mom neglects (or represents) on the stove. (If imitation is the height of flattery, then self-imitation is the height of self-flattery?) The misty-white equestrian aphrodisiac of Fatal Attraction is replaced here by the antiquarian's musty poetic. The California Briton assumes wholesale American ignorance of the unattributed quote—and our acceptance that it takes a foreigner to recognize and buy a discarded first-edition copy of Jack London's White Fang for a buck-fifty. ("Can you believe eet?") Similar arrogance persuades him to overestimate our tolerance for asinine dialogue (Gere: "Con, do you love me?" Lane: "What a silly question.")—whatever the language.
Thus, 'Con' falls for the oh so French, "I'm not an axe-murderer, you know," spoken by a vient-d'arriver unaccountably conversant with Band-Aids®. (He offers them for her knees, skinned when urban tornado winds blow her into and on top of him—schoolboyishly laden to the chin with books , yet unchivalrously lets her trudge up the stairs (Ascenseur de merde!).) Becoming guarded only when he suddenly finds his proper manners—and tongue: "Tu veux enlever ton manteau?"—she stammers, "You want me to take something off?" "Yes," he says. "Your coat." ('Tie me up, tie me down. Bite me, I'm so bored.' Quiet back there!—Sorry.)
So Lyne's even coyer than Con, though her high school reading probably included Desnos's "Déshabille-toi." [*] His obviously didn't. That alternative for a text-based seduction by Martinez would have been entirely convincing—not less so than the 15-year-old French kid who seduces his presumptive sister by reciting Yeats (Olivier, Olivier(1992))—and impossible: Lyne would have risked reminding audiences of the actor's grand amant performance opposite Juliette Binoche in novel-based The Horseman on the Roof (Le hussard sur le toit, 1995). Like Martinez's talent, genuine romance is no more welcome in a Lyne movie than it is in any standard, female sexual-awakening porn flick.
But the British director claims he wants to display something more (apart from his tacit disdain for Americans and haute-voix loathing of the French): He has told the movie press he is documenting the "body language of guilt." Well enough. Let's anticipate a trilogy then: Lyne next segues through Nabokov's King, Queen, Knave en route to Crime and Punishment. Meanwhile, the basic body language of sexual guilt displayed in his Unfaithful—woman's hand shoos man's hand away from her l'entrejambes—has long been daily after-school TV fare, whether wholesome (Sabrina, the Teenaged Witch, Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Charmed) or sleazy (Change of Heart, Blind Date, Shipmates).
The opportunity for Lyne to document the body language of moral guilt (for the adultery) is shunted off onto the viewer's imagination: Earlier invited to witness and indulge the wife's naughty phone call initiating the affair, when she does repent and break it off, we merely get her off-screen remorse on the lover's answering machine—by then only audible (what irony) to the blood-stained husband—no split screen simultaneity of overdue contrition and unhesitating forgiveness. The two unconvincingly act out the body language of guiltiness during a follow-up visit to their upstate porch by downtown detectives. It's a scene whose only reward is the subtle facial derision from one of New York's Finest, who reads the woman-wronged subtext in the wife's statement, "I didn't know he was married," and says, "Separated."
Applying the old stand-by porn formula, Lyne couples sexual guilt with its liberation—and adds its unregenerate misogyny. The wife's repeated "no's" and "I shouldn't's" are just double-speak appeals to be taken and taken rough. ("Hit me," he says. She does. He hits her back. Repeat, repeat, repeat: it's pretend rape—free of responsibility for her. A quick study, she spots him later with another and roughs him up for real.) He reads her jealous threat then to end the affair as a coded signal to sodomize her against a public staircase. ("Now tell me you want it.") The husband asks permission to enter her candlelit bath ("Is there room for two?"), which she grants, but when he tries to fondle her, she clenches, spoiled now for any but her liberator (and felt-tip tattoo artist).
Faking the Moral Foreplay
Between intervals of feigned resistance or remorse, mistress quivers or giggles, complicit in Lyne's trademark PDA's (public displays of affectation) contrived to scandalize ambient lunchers or Wednesday matinee moviegoers—and alert her husband's employee (soon coincidentally fired) to the affair. In the film's most criminally inane conceit, the beatific adultress, slow-motion floating to an afternoon assignation at the loft, chances upon dowager acquaintances who snag her for a coffee klatsch in the next-door café. She calls her lover to explain. He shows up unidentified, wowing Frump One ("He's gorgeous! I'd be on my back in two seconds!"), and slams his midweek squeeze around the restroom walls. Rejoining the table, her secret and complexion remarkably intact, she sobers as Frump Two imparts the cautionary tale of her past infidelity and the wisdom that "such things always end in disaster." Foreshadowing now stretched back tight to expose the point of a fatuous morality instrument, the good women of bathos resume the pilgrimage to piety, and she the ploughing.
Lyne reprises Con in the "nosy Barker" test, but stops short of cross-dressing her in tux and bowler; maybe because this chick is just not babe enough to rate the full 9-1/2 Weeks tuition; or maybe because he lacked a novel to scavenge for the odd bit of (truth-)telling human dynamic and interior monologue voice-over. He scarcely musters the feeble particulars of: a snowglobe collection (one of them the murder weapon), the implausible Big Wind (girl meets boy), an impending school auction (pretext for more meetings with boy, Three's Company-caliber lies, etc.), and a water-resistant ink-on-skin flower tattoo with OJ-worthy pudenda-pointing arrow (suspense ruse for husband's thwarted in-tub discovery).
For the rest, fluid and circle variants proliferate in the triangular landscape (squirt guns and cloudbursts, rug scroll and steamroller, and even a two-fer: a lid-down streaming arc from Pee-Wee); not the least of these the subliminal halo about Martinez the Martyr's glossy hair. With Garibaldi's hussar scripted for banister-clutching lust-lunges, the role of undulant fell to a ribbon-length of Dobb's Ferry Hudson: a compound casting error—and both actors sullied for it.
River dialogues better with hill and Lyne thankfully leaves the audience to parse the body language of car (unmoving through several traffic light changes zoom out in front of station house), following a tearful exchange among its occupants about their certain escape to a secret blue serene at earth's end seldom attained by murderers on the lam and their accessories-after-the-fact (kids traveling along free). Perhaps an earlier unforgettable line holds the clue: "We'llknow," he says paternally when she urges, "No one will ever know." (Apparently she doesn't read cop body language—or, for that matter, notice a tail of trenchcoat and camera.) The sheepish, pauvre con husband is less wise than Gere was shrewd to play him (badly), thereby proving that he is irrepressibly alpha-male. (George Clooney scoffed at the role, Bruce Willis optioned it. Bill Pullman was never asked?)
Something Borrowed from the Black and Blue
A viewer can find the themes and taboos Lyne purports to broach treated much more rewardingly elsewhere—with, say, ten minutes each of Double Indemnity and The Thomas Crown Affair, both of which are more erotic as well. If conveyances are key, the rail commuter affairs of Falling In Love (Meryl Streep/Robert De Niro) and Brief Encounter (Celia Johnson/Trevor Howard) offer genuine characterizations. The redemptive tone Lyne captured in his Lolita remake, merely by supplying car and hill for Humbert Humbert's concluding voice-over, are incontrovertible evidence of his cynical and illiterate bonnes murs contrivance here.
Bookless this time, Unfaithful instead cribs openly from film literature: La femme infidèle, Claude Chabrol's provocative 1968 love triangle, the runner-up (along with Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider, They Shoot Horses, Don't They? and If) for the New York Film Critics Award won by the Costa Gravas film, Z. Attempting to resurf Chabrol's vieille vague trans-Atlantic nearly thirty-five years later, Lyne's wipe-out should have been filler for The Shipping News.
Take off your clothes
Baigne-toi dans cette eau noire
Bathe in this black water
Tu n'as rien à craindre
You have nothing to fear
Tu l'as déjà fait
You've done it before.