Adrian Lyne takes an uncharacteristically cool approach to adultery in “Unfaithful,” a precision-tooled, moody study in the wages of betrayal. This refitting of Claude Chabrol’s 1968 classic “La Femme Infidele” is less concerned with suspense and dramatic fireworks than is the usual American “erotic thriller,” and much more devoted to nuances and the minutiae of how men and women behave, pretend and lie in duplicitous situations. As such, it may somewhat disappoint Lyne fans expecting another “9½ Weeks” or “Fatal Attraction,” even as it signals further maturity and refinement in the director’s work, post-“Lolita.” Given the subject matter and Richard Gere-Diane Lane star combo, Fox should expect lively, if not sizzling, B.O. sparks to fly from the film it’s releasing six days before the next “Star Wars” pic.
Just as he did with “Lolita” five years ago, Lyne again dares to pit his own work against that of a highly regarded filmmaker, albeit one not so familiar to the general public as Stanley Kubrick. All the same, “La Femme Infidele” is a superb picture, one of Chabrol’s two or three best and one Lyne acknowledges having been deeply impressed by upon its release. Although “Unfaithful” retains a Gallic connection in the casting of Olivier Martinez as the handsome young stranger who induces an upscale New York housewife to stray, it has a very American character of its own, one defined by sedate suburban homes, kid-oriented social activities and becalmed emotional lives.
Whereas Gere used to play the kind of tomcat who got women to do things against their better judgment, here he’s Edward Sumner, the straight-arrow head of an armored truck company who rather unaccountably is able to live in a large and gorgeous 19th-century home on several acres in Westchester County near the Hudson River. His wife of 11 years, Connie (Lane), is even more gorgeous and remains interested enough in her very fit husband to be the initiator of hanky-panky, even if their intimate time is sorely limited by the habitual interruptions of their almost 9-year-old son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan).
From the opening shots of the title sequence, Lyne suggests the imminent arrival of ill winds, which shortly assume virtual gale force when Connie is running errands in Soho and literally bumps into Paul Martel (Martinez), a long-haired, gentle-voiced Frenchman of equal parts insouciance and politesse who invites her up to his borrowed Mercer Street loft to tend to her scraped knee. Connie makes a quick exit to escape the disturbing undercurrents, and even mentions the encounter to Edward, but nevertheless visits Paul again the next time she’s in the city. With considerably more difficulty, she once again resists temptation.
But the third time’s the charm, or the curse, as one would have it, as Connie finally gives in to the persistent and excitingly rough Frenchman. Lyne presents this first encounter not with the flashy fetishism that marked his earlier erotica, but very effectively as a blazing memory for the deeply affected Connie as she’s riding back home on the train; she convulsively remembers moments, impressionistically conveyed, as she trembled and literally shook before Paul obliterated her barriers.
In the thrall of her glorious and illicit affair, which is conducted in Paul’s dark book-and-sculpture-lined loft, Connie naturally thinks she can get away with it, that she can be smart and discreet and that nothing bad will come of it. Without her remotely suspecting it, however, cracks begin appearing in the protective cocoon of her amorous adventure: A restaurant dalliance between the two lovers is noticed by one of Edward’s employees; a sated Connie puts her husband off when he slips into the bath with her, meaningfully saying, “I’m cold,” and Paul, provocatively showing up at a cafe when he knows Connie will be there with two women, lures her into a quickie in the bathroom, within a few feet of her friends.
Edward receives proof of his wife’s infidelity an hour into the film, and second half is devoted to how he deals with Paul, and how Edward and Connie deal with the former’s dramatic actions. Moral considerations that supercede Connie’s extramarital wanderings come into play, in much the same understated way as they did in the Chabrol original.
For a film dedicated to the close observation of powerful urges and emotions, “Unfaithful” has a relatively low pulse, a symptom underlined by the muted color schemes, long pauses in the dialogue exchanges and low-key turbulence of Jan A.P. Kaczmarek’s effective score. While beautifully lit and densely photographed by Peter Biziou, pic is dominated by its dark combinations of blacks, blues, browns and greens, as well as by the many moments of silence while characters wonder what others might be thinking or what they will do.
Structurally, screenplay by Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr. is deftly sculpted, and as a director Lyne has progressed to the point where he knows how to emphasize what’s important without overdoing it; time and again, small visual details are economically utilized to reflect larger points, and cheap sentimentality about emotional loss is sidestepped.
What’s missing is any psychological depth to the principal characters, especially the married couple. Nothing is revealed about their backgrounds, romantic histories and tendencies, remaining desires for their already well-appointed lives, or the circumstances of their having hooked up in the first place. Although Connie doesn’t seem the type who was always destined to be a housewife, nothing is offered as to what she might have done before or whether she feels she gave up anything important for domesticity’s sake. Even without any backgrounding, however, Lane serves up a compulsively watchable performance, adroitly suggesting the void in Connie’s life that the character herself would never have admitted existed.
Physically altogether different from the mousy Michel Bouquet in Chabrol’s film, Gere is the picture of the genial and attentive husband and father. Character might have assumed a greater and more paradoxical level of complexity, however, had the actor’s own reputation been called into service to suggest that Edward might once have been exactly the kind of man with whom his wife now is philandering; how the ex-stud would have confronted the current edition might have added some unusual frissons to the man-to-man showdown.
Martinez, making his mainstream American debut after having been noticed in such pics as “The Horseman on the Roof,” “The Chambermaid on the Titanic” and “Before Night Falls,” is smoothly convincing as the unattached beautiful Frenchman having a high old time in Gotham.
Brian Morris’ production design is richly detailed in its opposition of well-upholstered suburban life and downtown chic. Although they contain a sprinkling of nudity, sex scenes are relatively restrained and don’t begin to push hard R frontiers.