Unfaithful

A film by Adrian Lyne
written by Claude Chabrol, Alvin Sergent and William Broyles jr.



The new film from Adrian Lyne is a re-working of Claude Chabrol's 1969 Une Femme Infidelé (in fact, Chabrol gets first credit as the screenwriter, with Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr.). It is a successful adaptation that brings a new and interesting point of view to the subject of the film, an exploration of the upheaval that can grow out of both infidelity and fidelity. Rather than a slavish copy, Unfaithful takes the plot and characters of the original and reframes them as a new reflection, from a different cultural perspective, on the issues raised.

When European films are remade in the US - particularly by major Hollywood studios - they are often deprived of some of the complexity and ambiguity that made them interesting and successful in the first place. But occasionally, a remake will actually gain something in translation, in exchange for whatever may be lost.

A good example is another Richard Gere vehicle, 1983s Breathless. Directed by Jim McBride, it was a remake of Jean Luc Goddard's Á Bout de Souffle, one of the films that launched the "nouvelle vague" (new wave) cinema in France in the 1960s. McBride's adaptation added a particularly American spark, an emphasis on the alienation produced by the confusion of material representations of happiness with happiness itself - and the tragic side-effects such alienation can produce. Such changes can be seen as an illumination of the differences between the time frames of the two films, and also between the French/European consciousness and that of this country.

A similar transformation has taken place here. The narrative core of the film is the relationship between Edward Sumner (Richard Gere) and his wife Constance (Diane Lane). For reasons of which she is apparently unconscious, Constance is bored and dissatisfied in her marriage, in spite of the splendor of her surroundings and the apparently steadfast admiration of her successful husband. She is attracted to a younger book-dealer, Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez) who she meets accidentally and finds herself falling into a torrid sexual liaison with him.

The irrational force of her passion overwhelms her and renders her half-hearted attempts at discretion ineffective. Her husband suspects something almost immediately. He tries to deny it at first, then hires a private detective, who confirms his suspicions with specific names, times, places and even photographs. Edward goes to Martel's apartment to confront him, with disastrous results.

How those results then play out, how they affect the relationship between the spouses is the unresolved hook at the end of the film. It is more of a coda or an epilogue than part of the traditional dramatic structure. It is what furnishes the food for thought that carries the film beyond the trite and predictable and leaves the audience thinking about what has been raised.

There are many levels of relationship explored in the film. Lyne spends a lot of time on the sexual relationship between Connie and Paul. Some of the various mysteries of sexual attraction: why we are attracted to one person and not another; how sexual feelings can rise up and overpower an otherwise reasonable person; the intricacies of the connection between sexual expression and narcissism; are contemplated in an evocative, open-ended way.

This exploration of sexuality in relationships has been an ongoing theme with Lyne, who directed such controversial films as 91/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal and the 1997 version of Lolita. His treatment of the powerful attraction that develops between Paul and Constance is one of the most impressive elements of the film - believable but inexplicable, simultaneously joyous and profoundly destructive, a kind of transcendent but extremely dangerous madness.

In the aftermath, the unspoken commitment between the Sumners - their self-protective, sacrificial "faithfulness" towards one another - is a counterbalancing aspect to the exhilarating selfishness and risk-taking of the adulterous affair. Edward Sumner's egotistical, narcissistic jealousy culminates in a "loss of control" of his own that parallels that of his wife and creates another disturbing contrast.

The inextricable interweaving of rational and irrational elements, "noble" and "ignoble" impulses, within human relationships - and particularly those intensified by the power of physical sexuality - is a compelling topic that Lyne explores here with skill and sympathy. His ability to show the competing powers simultaneously, to imply a basis for moral judgement with out "moralizing" or proposing an over-arching conclusion, is what makes the film far more than just another "erotic thriller."

The script supports Lyne's efforts. In fact, it is so spare as to suggest that the contribution the two American screenwriters made to Chabrol's story was more in translation and editing than in the creation of original dialogue. Lyne tells a lot of the story in pure images and never lets the characters' explanation of what they are doing and why get in the way of what he wants us to see. Much of the most important points are subtly underlined by questions the characters ask that are left unanswered

Lyne is one of the few directors who can present sexuality on screen in a way that is raw without being graphic, who can believably depict the power of the erotic impulse without prurience. The ability serves him well in the context of this story. He avoids both voyeurism and documentary analysis, finding a narrative point-of-view that corresponds to the literary "omniscient observer," inviting the viewer to experience the action from the character's perspectives while still maintaining a degree of detachment and autonomy.

Lyne's cast does some fine work here. Diane Lane - a long under-rated actress - gives life to a complicated, contradictory, fragmented character that is held together only by Lane's convincing emotional continuity. She manages to convey the intense welter of conflicting emotions Constance is experiencing through a range of small inconsistencies in her behavior that clearly have a depth far greater than their superficial appearance.

The cumulative effect of these minor contradictions is to build a convincing portrait of a woman whose personality is under extreme stress - whose conscious and unconscious impulses are colliding with explosive results. Lane accomplishes this not through obvious dramatic pyrotechnics, but rather through a delicate and grounded performance that keeps the character real and accessible.

Olivier Martinez, as the handsome, amoral Paul Martel, walks a delicate line with precision and grace. The character is something of a cipher - an icon adopted by both Constance's and Edward's projections without much regard for his own personality. It is a shock at the end of the film when some of the details of his personal life that lie outside of the Sumner's story are suddenly revealed.

His good looks and easy, superficial charm support both Constance's attraction, and her ultimate recognition of his narcissism and - in another variation on the theme - infidelity. Martinez makes the character likeable and Constance's attraction believable without ever giving us more than the most superficial basis on which to make a judgement about what motivates him. That Martinez is able to make Paul both appealing and disappointing, while keeping his personality quite indefinite is a credit to his grasp of the intricacies of character and story.

Ironically, the whole project stumbles a little bit on the performance of its main "drawing card," Richard Gere. Gere's strength as a "screen presence" (I won't say "actor") lies mainly in exploiting the contrast between his superficial charm and good looks and his lack of emotional range, which can come across effectively as alienation or detachment. This was most successfully exploited in films like American Gigolo and Breathless. It serves him again here, up to a point, but his character could have been even more effective if he could have communicated real turmoil.

As it happens, the least convincing moment in the film is the point where Gere tries to persuade us that he is undergoing some sort of emotional melt-down. The limits of his performance actually could have added another layer of ambiguity to the plot - as in the Chabrol version, where the corresponding character acts quite cold-bloodedly. But it is clear here that Gere is supposed to be conveying real psychological torment and he is not up to it.

Lane's performance and Lyne's effective use of what Gere actually can do, thankfully minimize these shortcomings. The combination of attractive facade and sterile affect he personifies offers Lane an effective foil for suggesting what at least some of the basis of Constance's frustration and dissatisfaction might be. His lack of feeling in the face of the circumstances that evolve is represented as a reaction that heightens his already analytical and withdrawn nature.

The production values of the film meet a high standard of professionalism. There is an almost fairy-tale romanticism to the sets. From the Sumner's beautiful pond-side, suburban colonial, to Martel's artily-cluttered, bohemian pied-a-terre, even to the color-saturated, steaming, undulating dump Edward visits, there is a continuity of vision that reflects the vivid world of the characters' imaginations while providing a grounding for the images.

The cinematography, by Peter Biziou, mixes fluid, hand-held steadicam movement with strongly established static set-ups and movement shots in a way that helps shift the audience between individual character reference points and the narrative overview. It also helps establish a visual rhythm that moves the story along. With Lyne, he manages to include the audience in the action - including the more sexually explicit scenes - in a way that is intimate, but never feels invasive or exploitative of the characters. The innovative use of digital video in one sequence to create a "movie within a movie" is an effectively disorienting visual technique that also reinforces another interesting subtext of the story - the confusion between self-as-observer and self-as-participant.

Adrian Lyne is a director whose films are always interesting to watch - if somewhat disturbing. His frank approach to sexuality and his willingness to investigate difficult questions without providing comforting answers has made him a somewhat controversial figure. It is characteristic of his work - as of the best in any art - that the more one examines it, the more interesting it becomes. In Unfaithful he has added another very well-crafted, thought-provoking volume to his body of work.

But that's just my opinion. What's yours? Let me know.