Unhappily Ever After

Adrian Lynes fatal attractions

Adrian Lyne, the English television-commercial director turned Hollywood philosopher of the bedroom—and the freight elevator, the public restroom and the grubby stairwell—knows that sex not only sells, but it also freaks us out. But since seriously and deeply freaking the audience is one sure-fire way to commercial perdition, the box-office-savvy Lyne has become a master of the art of cinematic titillation. He has a gift for seduction, and he's particularly cunning when it comes to the sort of hot-button movie topics, adultery being a favorite trigger, that seem to invariably make the leap from screen to newspaper commentary page. He's expert at getting audiences where they live—and sometimes stray—and it's a measure of how deeply he scrapes against the collective unconscious, as well as testament to the integrity of his airbrushed style, that while he has directed just eight features, it feels as if he has a much larger body of work to his name. But if Lyne can be a brilliant tease, he's also a punishing, unforgiving one. He may enjoy making us feel good, getting our juices and thoughts flowing, but what he likes even better is making us feel really, really bad. With Adrian Lyne, no good time ever goes unpunished.

Before the fall, though, comes the fun—the vaguely sordid, slightly tacky stuff, the human sense and insensibility that make Lyne as irresistible as he is embarrassing. In Unfaithful, his third film about marital infidelity, it's also the stuff that works. The fun begins when married New York suburban mom Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) meets, then takes a tumble with, the younger Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a French bookseller living in Soho. Along with her husband, Edward (a fine Richard Gere), and 8-year-old son, Connie lives in upper-middle-class affluence in one of those sheltered Hudson River towns co-opted by city professionals. It's all rather soft-focus lovely, if about as full of life as a Martha Stewart Living get-together, but because middle-class comfort is its own sort of hell, at least at the movies, this is also the sort of town where the daily walk from the commuter train has the feel of a death march. The women here don't have much to do besides their nails, and Connie seems to have less to do than most. There's some talk about a charity auction, but other than servicing her lover and husband, along with preparing her son's lunch, Connie seems fairly useless—no wonder Edward calls her "Con."

Lyne isn't an especially personal filmmaker, but there is a facile integrity to his vision. His films have the anonymous, high-buffed gloss of costly professionalism, but an inevitable vulgarity clings to their edges. It isn't simply the way the director films women, though he never can resist pushing his camera down their blouses or under their skirts (from the evidence, he is a big-breast and leg man). It's the way he tarts up his style. He has a weakness for shock cuts—the kind that make us jump in our seats, as if we were watching a horror movie instead of a movie limned with horror—and a fondness for gauzy lighting. The irony is it's his vulgarity, this mixture of the gaudy and the glossy, that distinguishes Lyne, that makes his work identifiable and, when the story's right, such a guilty pleasure. The day that Connie falls from grace, she's running errands in Soho when a wind kicks up that's so violent you half expect Margaret Hamilton to fly by on her bicycle. Tossed about like mesclun greens, Connie stumbles over the cobblestones in her stilettos, struggling to hold on to the shopping bags clutched in both hands. As the wind shrieks into metaphor (there's a storm a-coming!), her skirt blows higher and higher until we get a peek-a-boo glimpse of panties, along with those miles of leg.

The whole thing is absurd, wildly so—the wind, the high heels, the forbidden Fruit of the Looms. It isn't just that the storm whips the story out of the register of the real, but that Lyne's insistence on underscoring, tweaking and eventually clobbering the moment—too many moments—leeches the narrative of its power and, unintentionally, its high-mindedness. He can't seem to help himself. Every time Lyne appears on the verge of taking his stories seriously, he veers into kitsch and the unbearable lightness of being Zalman King. Connie doesn't just fall from grace; the wind literally knocks her off her feet and on top of Paul, landing them both in an art-directed heap. Of course he's beautiful, of course he's French, and of course he has as many moves in his arsenal as Bobby Fischer. Her knees bloodied, Connie accepts Paul's invitation to recover upstairs, which is how, in between accepting his bandages and eyeballing his bed sheets, she ends up reading verse aloud amid the deshabille bohemianism of his loft. "Be happy for the moment," she says tenderly. "This moment is your life." Yes, well, at least until the husband or the wife finds out, the lover goes bonkers and boils up a bunny bouillabaisse, and it all goes straight to movie hell.

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