Screenplay : Alvin Sargent & William Broyles, Jr.
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2002
Stars : Diane Lane (Connie Sumner), Richard Gere (Edward Sumner), Olivier Martinez (Paul Martel), Erik Per Sullivan (Charlie), Myra Lucretia Taylor (Gloria), Michelle Monaghan (Lindsay), Chad Lowe (Bill Stone), Erich Anderson (Bob Gaylord)
Following the immense difficulties of getting his last film, the beautifully provocative and unfairly maligned adaptation of Lolita (1997), distributed, it has been five years since Adrian Lyne directed a film. Perhaps it is because the commercial failure of Lolita shook his confidence, but with Unfaithful, Lyne has returned to his favorite subject, that which has provided him both box office gold and cultural cachet in the form of heated after-movie discussions: marital infidelity.
After scaring an entire generation of men into being faithful to their wives with the entertaining histrionics of Fatal Attraction (1987) and then asking what the price tag of fidelity might be with the million-dollar question in Indecent Proposal (1993), Lyne has amazingly enough found more to say about the topic. And, in Unfaithful, he digs deeper and unearths more rich emotional texture than in his previous films. And, of course, as his previous explorations of the topic ultimately boiled down to the severe price exacted by marital infidelity, it should be of no surprise that Unfaithful ultimately has the same message.
Diane Lane, in what is surely her strongest performance in a decades-long career, stars as Connie Sumner, a contented suburban housewife married 11 years to Edward (Richard Gere), a business owner who has the (un)fortunate blessing of being stable and slightly boring. Connie loves Edward and has no plans for an affair, but one windy day in New York City she literally runs into (and falls down on top of) Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez, Before Night Falls), a handsome stud of a book dealer with an alluring French accent and a hip wardrobe (Edward, on the other hand, prefers sweater vests and is absent-minded enough to come downstairs with his sweatshirt inside-out one morning).
Planned or not, Connie allows herself to indulge in a steamy affair with Paul. She is not in love with him; although there are suggestions that they talk, all we really see them doing is flirting and having sex in Paul's loft apartment (and in the hallways of the apartment building ... and in a bathroom at a coffee shop ... and in a movie theater ...). Connie becomes so enamored of this nonstop barrage of carnal indulgence that her duties to her family, particularly her eight-year-old son, Charlie (Malcolm in the Middle's Erik Per Sullivan), begin to slip.
Edward may be a bit foppish and absent-minded, but he's not stupid. Once he catches on to a few of Connie's small white lies and takes notice of her many recent purchases at Victoria's Secret, he begins to get suspicious and has Connie followed. Once he has proof in hand, Edward confronts Paul, which leads to a series of plot developments that might be viewed as narratively excessive, but are so well-handled by Lyne's direction and the script by Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People) and William Broyles, Jr. (Cast Away), that we forgive the violent melodrama.
When Unfaithful is at its best is when it focuses on Connie, not only because of Diane Lane's superb performance, but because it offers a rare opportunity (in movies, at any rate) to explore a woman's sexuality and the tear she feels between devotion to her family and her need to feel sensual. According to the film, what Connie does is wrong—it's selfish and ultimately destructive—but it never condescends to her or makes her out to be a villain. Rather, it allows us to understand why she would do (and continue to do) such a thing without providing specific rationales or excuses.
Her first sexual encounter with Paul is played via flashback as Connie rides the train back from the city to the suburbs, and it is a masterful moment of eroticism, guilt, and exhilaration all rolled together so that none of them are discreet. Lane's performance blurs the line between "I can't believe I just did that" thrill and "I can't believe I just did that" guilt, both of which produce the same tears and the same clenched facial expressions.
Nearly two-thirds of the way through the film, the narrative shifts and focuses on Edward. Given the story arc, this was unavoidable, but the scenes with Gere are not nearly as powerful as when Lane commands the screen. That said, Gere turns in one of his best performances, as well, particularly since he is playing against type, the one-time American Gigolo now a slightly rumpled suburban dad who must endure rejection from a wife who he has perhaps taken for granted and who has found something better.
Unfaithful could have gone wrong in so many ways, yet Lyne holds it together, his by-now recognizable cinematic style underscoring the severity of the characters' emotions. He uses cross-cutting and match cuts beautifully, as well as an evocative use of darkness during scenes of great confrontation and lap dissolves to make connections among the various characters and what they are doing. And, when the story turns suddenly violent, he plays it seriously, rather than for cheap thrills, and he manages to find a nearly perfect final image that conveys the existential dilemma that is really at the heart of the heated moments that filled the film's two hours. Lyne has certainly mined this territory before, but he's never done it better.
Copyright © 2002 James Kendrick