Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Unfaithful (20th Century-Fox/Regency/Epsilon, 2002)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I watched a 2002 movie called Unfaithful that I had recorded off Lifetime on June 24 (just one day after John Primavera, my friend and home-care client of nearly 30 years, died suddenly) starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane, who reunited for a much better film called Nights in Rodanthe just six years later. Unfaithful was a U.S. remake of a 1969 French movie called La Femme Infidèle (“The Unfaithful Wife”), written by Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr. from the original French screenplay by Claude Chabrol (who also directed the French version); this one was directed by Adrian Lyne, who despite his réclame from having made Fatal Attraction in 1987 hasn’t directed a film in the 10 years since Unfaithful (though his page lists something called Back Roads as being in pre-production). It’s the sort of movie that’s so evidently trying for Seriousness with a capital “S” that it’s heartbreaking to see it go awry at almost every turn. After a prologue of boringly banal suburban domesticity, it starts in New York City on a windy day (which makes it rather appropriate watching in the wake of  Hurricane or Superstorm or whatchamacallit Sandy), in which suburban housewife Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) takes a bad fall on the street and is rescued by Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), who runs a seedy little used bookstore and apparently lives in a flat above the store in the same building, and takes a lot of his stock home with him since the place is virtually filled with bookshelves containing such treasures as a first-edition copy of Jack London’s White Fang with the original dust jacket (did they have dust jackets back then?) which he proudly tells her he bought for $1.50 and is worth $4,000. Paul is your typical movie French seducer with the bad accent — he fractures English even worse than Charles Boyer (whom he’s obviously mimicking) ever did — and Connie is inexplicably drawn to his combination of gorgeous looks and bad attitude.

We’ve already seen the suburban domesticity she’s longing for an escape from — hubby Ed (Richard Gere) and 10-year-old son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan) in a big, sterile house — and Ed’s having career problems which are never quite explained (at least in the Lifetime version — it’s clear some major surgery was done on this movie to make it fit for basic cable: the “memorable quotes” section on includes Ed chewing out Connie with the F-word after he’s discovered her affair with Paul — “How you fucked him over and over and over? You lied to me over and over and over. … You threw it all away like it was nothing. For what? To a fucking kid!” — which of course we heard neither hide nor hair of in this bowdlerized Lifetime version) but we’re told briefly that he owns a fleet of trucks and he’s recently bought 200 more of them but he can’t run them because some authority has imposed a “suspension” on him that he’s having to fight in court. Maybe the original French version was better (though it’s not like I’m actively going to seek it out) but the U.S. one is all too soaked in America’s peculiarly mixed attitude towards sex, in which we’re at once titillated by and condemnatory of those who “cheat” (itself an awfully loaded term for something that’s often a simple, basic expression of our humanity!), resulting in a movie like this in which the guilt feelings of the characters (the American ones, at any rate) are part of the plot. About the one thing Lyne, Sargent and Broyles get right is the clash between the French and the American attitudes towards extra-relational sex: Paul thinks it’s no big deal and nobody’s business but his and his partners’ whom he has sex with; Ed not only guesses his wife is having an affair but hires a private detective to tail her and take surveillance photos of her and Paul together; and even Connie gets ridiculously possessive and flails at Paul and his alternate girlfriend (Murielle Arden) when she catches them necking in between the shelves in his bookstore.

The movie rambles on for about half its running time with Connie making more and more preposterous excuses for getting away to be with Paul, building up the suspense over how Ed is going to find out for sure about the affair and what’s going to happen when the two men confront each other — which finally occurs in Paul’s upstairs apartment, where Lyne’s camera gives us a shot from Ed’s point of view as his gaze travels through the studio room, alights on the bed where his wife made love with that person, then notices a crystal snow-globe, picks it up and says, “Rosebud” — oops, wrong movie. Ed recognizes the snow-globe, asks Paul where he got it, and when Paul says, “Your wife gave it to me,” Ed gets furious, says, “I gave it to her!,” picks it up and clobbers Paul in the head with it (and of course Lyne can’t resist copping Orson Welles’ famous shot of the snow-globe hitting the floor and rolling towards the camera in extreme close-up, though this time it doesn’t shatter — it has to remain intact to set up one last plot twist towards the end). It’s the sort of movie assault where it looks like Paul just suffered a light tap on the head, enough to draw blood but hardly life-threatening, but we’re told the blow was instantly fatal — and, as in Gere’s star-making film, American Gigolo, the mid-film murder blasts this movie from the realm of the merely mediocre to the out-and-out campy-bad. We’re rooting (at least I was!) for Ed to come to his senses and call 911 — obviously he’s better off being charged with assault than ultimately arrested for murder — and he actually picks up Paul’s phone, presses the “9” and then the “1,” but idiotically draws back from pressing “1” again and instead starts wiping every surface he’s touched to avoid leaving fingerprints. He wraps Paul’s body up in a carpet, seals it with duct tape (he’s beginning to look as if he’s auditioning for America’s Stupidest Criminals), and drags it into the building’s elevator — which sticks — and when he finally gets himself and the body out of the building he’s accosted by a passer-by (a witness!). He packs the body into the trunk of his car and eventually disposes of it in what looks like either a construction site or a dump — only it’s found and the police start investigating. The film ends with Ed and Connie having been brought back together by her husband’s murdering her lover; they’re sitting in their car (with their son in the back seat, maybe asleep, maybe awake) and as the film ends they talk about relocating to an island, assuming other identities, and hiding out for the rest of their lives — an annoyingly inconclusive ending which Lyne insisted on.

The studio (20th Century-Fox, producing in partnership with companies called Regency and Epsilon — that’s right, this isn’t a “B”-movie, it’s an “E”-movie!) wanted it to end with Ed getting out of the car — which is parked in front of a police station — and turning himself in, which would have made a lot more sense both dramatically and morally; for once a studio was right about a movie and its director was wrong! There’s certainly some novelty value in Unfaithful, if only because we expect that in a movie about adultery with Richard Gere as the star he’s going to be the cuckolder instead of the cuckoldee, but the moral attitudes of the story are all wrong, Olivier Martinez’s English accent is a thing of ugliness and a horror to behear, and Adrian Lyne could give the usual Lifetime hacks lessons in how to ruin a movie by overdirection: in one scene Ed is shown getting off the commuter train at Grand Central Station, and there’s none of the pushing and shoving and jockeying for position we’ve seen in just about every other movie showing this sort of scene. Instead, the passengers, all virtually identically dressed males in ugly suits, get off the train in unison with the smooth, well-rehearsed precision of a Busby Berkeley chorus line. What’s most interesting in Unfaithful is how its moral attitudes exemplify the sexual counter-revolution: in the 1930’s a plot like this would mostly likely have ended with the woman (not her husband!) killing the lover and suffering picturesquely before she’s taken away and punished in the final reels; in the 1970’s movies like An Unfinished Woman took this basic situation and presented adultery as a form of women’s liberation from the stultifying reality of a suburban marriage; by 2002 the pendulum had swung again and the story is once again ridden with guilt and angst (in what Sargent and Broyles obviously thought was irony, Ed kills Paul just before Connie leaves a message on Paul’s phone, which Ed hears, saying she’s going to break off the affair because “I just can’t do this anymore”) and, despite his murderous overreaction, our sympathies are clearly with the husband.