A couple of decades back, in Francis Coppola’s ambitious dud The Cotton Club, Richard Gere and Diane Lane engaged in forbidden passion but forgot the passion. Lane was only eighteen at the time, barely a step or two removed from the surly teen she’d played in Ladies and Gentlemen, The Fabulous Stains. Now she and Gere are reunited in Unfaithful, and this time Lane is all woman. After many early years of closing herself off from the camera — maybe she was too self-conscious to give more of herself — Lane has become, in her late thirties, an open and vulnerable actress. She is more than enough reason to see Unfaithful, and this time the lack of sparks between her and Gere is part of the movie’s core.
Connie (Lane) and Edward (Gere) are comfortably married, with an eight-year-old son (Erik Per Sullivan) and a nice house in the New York suburbs. There’s really nothing wrong with their marriage; there’s just not much excitement left in it, though Connie isn’t bored, exactly — perhaps just pining for the intensity and uncertainty of a new relationship. She gets it in spades when she runs into Paul (Olivier Martinez), a darkly handsome book dealer. Director Adrian Lyne and screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr., reworking an old Claude Chabrol film, don’t give us any obvious signs that Connie is doing anything terribly right or terribly wrong. Edward isn’t a jerk, Paul isn’t a sleazy sex hound, and Connie’s life isn’t awful enough to run away from. There is no logical reason for Connie to fall into bed with Paul (and then return obsessively for more), but since when has the libido obeyed logic?
Up to a point, Unfaithful is a distaff bookend piece to Adrian Lyne’s 1987 sensation Fatal Attraction, in which Michael Douglas also had no compelling reason to cheat on Anne Archer with Glenn Close other than the simple fact that Glenn Close rang his bells loudly. Unfaithful isn’t the manipulative hot-button potboiler that Fatal Attraction was; Lyne is interested in the dynamics of sexual obsession and its emotional fallout, as he was in 1993’s Indecent Proposal and his Lolita remake. There’s a wonderful line in Laurell K. Hamilton’s novel A Kiss of Shadows in which a man remarks to the female narrator that she’s looking at him as if he were something to eat. Connie looks at Paul as if he were a buffet table of glorious fattening dishes, after years of marital fruits and vegetables.
Something happens about an hour in — like A Kiss Before Dying, this is a twist-in-the-middle film. Lyne and the actors go about it expertly, and then set about addressing the aftermath. The movie becomes a bit broody and poky, but Diane Lane keeps us plugged into the emotions of the piece even when she’s not around as much. She has a personal-best moment on the train ride home from Connie’s first sex with Paul; you can’t tell whether Connie is laughing or crying — maybe both at once, maybe alternately. You can see why she goes back for more: Paul might screw up her life, but she’s never been this excitingly screwed up before. Lane also brings out the best in Olivier Martinez, whose scenes with her have an ardent tenderness shading into hot roughness, and even Richard Gere, who bestirs himself enough to give a living, breathing performance as a good, solicitous man as bewildered by his own emotional swings as Connie is by hers.
Lyne takes all of this seriously; he has always, I think, been a serious director, though sometimes a bit too smitten with his own stylistic perfume (he’s another Brit in the Ridley Scott/Alan Parker mold).Unfaithful is a better film than the compromised Fatal Attraction (with its egregious bunny-boiling and bathtub-death ending) and leagues better than Lyne’s foolish 9 1/2 Weeks. Lyne doesn’t hype the eroticism here, he just lets it bubble out of Diane Lane’s performance. He gives the film (even in its more lurid moments) a steady, contemplative pulse that earns respect. And he ends it all on an appropriately ambiguous note, a suggestion of escape fantasy that, like the other fantasies in the film, will likely end badly. This is possibly the closest thing to a true adult drama you’re going to see from this talented stylist; as such, it should be looked at as if it were something to eat.