Unfaithful

Published on: March 23rd, 2004

UNFAITHFUL

6/10

USA 2002 : Adrian Lyne : 124 mins

Unfaithful is a slow-burning adultery drama that takes a jolting but effective turn into thriller territory at the two-thirds stage. Though flawed by Lyne’s over-egged direction, it’s a welcome showcase for the perennially under-utilised talents of star Diane Lane – there are few actresses who, while not especially well known to the public, are so highly regarded by their peers. But it’s Claude Chabrol emerges from Unfaithful with most credit – the film updates his 1969 La Femme Infidele, and screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr show a wise (if perhaps ironic) degree of fidelity to what’s essentially a simple, strong story.

Connie Sumner (Lane), still stunning at fortyish, is apparently happily married to wealthy truck-firm magnate Edward (Richard Gere). The couple live in an opulent riverside mansion in leafy New York State with their cute-but-not-too-cute eight-year-old son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan). But one day in lower Manhattan, she literally bumps into Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a darkly beautiful, doe-eyed French book-dealer. After much guilty hesitation on Connie’s part, the pair embark on a torrid, full-blown affair. Inevitably (otherwise there’d be no movie) Edward finds out. Trouble ensues.

Director Lyne does his best to ‘cheese up’ proceedings, shooting the Connie-Paul trysts like something out of a fashion magazine. The floppy-haired, Aquascutum-coated Paul resides in an ostentatiously photogenic (borrowed) apartment, with old books, ornaments and sculptures stuffed from floor to ceiling, a vintage punchbag and an ancient Angel Heart style elevator – like most of the film’s interiors, the flat is an unfeasibly dark, smoky and shadowy environment. When the Sumners have a birthday meal for Charlie, the scene is lit like a conspiratorial meeting out of The X-Files – and when Connie and Edward finally have their big confrontation, it’s takes place in almost complete darkness.

The lighting indicates, of course, the sunny atmosphere of this ‘perfect’ couple gradually darkening as both sink into their own moral quagmires, but in Lyne’s hands such stylistic nuances feel more like basic-issue movie-bullshit cliches. The clunkiest giveaway come when Edward hires a private eye to spy on Connie – the detective snaps the guilty couple on a date, and there’s a click-whirr on the soundtrack as the image momentarily freezes, just like in every film and TV show you’ve ever seen. And when we’re shown the incriminating photographs, they’re in black and white, for no other reason than that’s the way things are done in the movies.

Lyne’s over-familiar approach – and the plot’s recurring reliance on contrivance and coincidence – are what finally prevent the intriguing Unfaithful from approaching the glacial heights of the best recent examination of NYC-commuter-belt infidelity, Ang Lee’s The Ice Storm, which gained in depth and impact by widening its social and psychological scope far beyond its central roundelay of cheating couples. Instead, Unfaithful is closer in tone to Robert Zemeckis’s overcooked What Lies Beneath with its absurdly grand waterfront house and ‘straight-arrow’ husband who reveals unexpected depths. It’s a stretch for Gere, who, despite dying his hair since Mothman Prophecies, has never looked so old, worn and Al Pacino-ish on screen. For once he isn’t able to coast on his usual affable cockiness – he has to deliver a proper performance, and, while Paul remains an attractive cipher, personification of the ‘exotic’ city as opposed to the dull ‘burbs, it’s sweater-wearing Edward who finally emerges as the fully-formed, three-dimensional character.

Gere, in fact, takes the burden of ‘carrying’ the movie from Lane in the latter stretches as the emphasis shifts from drama to thriller, just as Tom Wilkinson supplants Sissy Spacek as the moral focus of In The Bedroom. And while Bedroom is ostensibly a more ‘serious’ examination of psychology and issues than Unfaithful, Lyne’s film is perhaps the more successful movie – it certainly doesn’t feel quite so didactic or rigged, and the final moments are no less mature in their ambiguity. Though they do drag on a bit – while La Femme Infidele clocked in at a nippy 96 minutes, you feel ever second of Unfaithful‘s two-hours-plus.

28th May 2002
(seen same day at Warner Village, Newcastle)

by Neil Young
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