UNFAITHFUL (Adrian Lyne, 2002)

There are any number of reasons why an authentic filmmaker might wish to redo or revise something already done by another authentic filmmaker. Later artists may wish to test their abilities against the earlier artists’ achievement, or they may wish to relocate or update the narrative (or both) in order to see whether these changes will transform the material by reflecting different values and cultural ideas. The remake may simply be a way of declaring one’s love or admiration for another artist and for what the other artist achieved. But why would an inferior artist, really, a commercial entertainer who has few legitimate abilities, negligible interest in context of any sort, and probably no capacity for love or admiration beyond his own narcissism, endeavor to remake such a classic film as Claude Chabrol’s 1968 La femme infidèle? The answer came to me while watching Adrian Lyne’s hollow, sensational and slick Unfaithful: envy—an inferior soul’s unmitigated envy of the formal beauty and depth of intellectual inquiry that such an artist as Chabrol achieved with roughly the same material. (You will find my essay on Chabrol’s film elsewhere on this site.)

There would be no reason for anyone to patronize the sordid trash that Lyne has concocted here were it not for a particular performance. I regret to say so good is this performance, so tenacious and adventurous an exploration of the soul, that the film, while having little else to commend it, begs to be seen. I regret to say I myself will be watching the damn thing again for the depth of humanity this performance discloses. But more about that in due course.

Chabrol’s The Unfaithful Wife is a complex study of a bourgeois marriage. In a discussion of the film to which both of them have contributed, Robin Wood and Michael Walker thus describe the marriage of Hélène and Charles Desvallées: “In their materialistic prison, surrounded by a society characteri[z]ed by casual and cynical attitudes to love, the couple find no means by which they can express their need for each other.” Hélène takes a lover, and Charles finds out; “the importance of Hélène to [Charles] (not obvious at the start, where she seems merely one ingredient in the existence to which he is habituated) becomes evident as the passion that drives him to kill her lover is slowly and subtly revealed, to Charles as well as to us.” And, in time, to Hélène. Wood and Walker conclude, “The tragic implications of the film arise from the fact that husband and wife begin to understand themselves and each other only when it is too late, the revelations coming through actions that are disastrous and irrecoverable.” At the end of the film, there is a subjective shot that has become legendary; as the police cart him away, Charles looks back at wife and son, at all he loves and is losing, and Chabrol applies a zoom-in while the camera itself is physically withdrawn. (Hitchcock invented this combination for Vertigo ten years earlier.) Thus the camera, moved back, correlates to the movement of the police car, that is, to Charles’s physical separation from family while the zooming in simultaneously—achingly—correlates to his deepest emotion, his desire to hold onto his wife forever. Devastating.

Chabrol drew a splendid performance from Maurice Ronet as Hélène’s lover, Victor. From Michel Bouquet, Chabrol drew an agonizingly touching performance—the performance of Bouquet’s career. Stéphane Audran, Chabrol’s wife at the time, is Hélène.

By comparison, Lyne’s film is all painless. There are harsh words, but the well-heeled suburban New York couple remain intact. The police do nothing to the businessman-husband, now called Edward Sumner. At the end, he and his wife, Constance (some joke, eh?), are parked outside the police station as Edward considers turning himself in. The roll of end-credits pointlessly obscures the action, whipping up an artificial ambiguity, but Edward never seems to emerge from the car. Out of tragic material, with his greedy eye on nothing but profits, Lyne manages as happy an ending as his trace of shame will allow.

Long before this revolting conclusion, let me assure you, the film is mired in Lynear depravity, forsaking nearly all consideration of the three personalities involved for numerous gratuitous scenes of riproaring sexual intercourse (including in a bar restroom stall). By and large (or, for all I know, by and small), Connie isn’t especially deprived of sex at home; Edward, unlike Charles in Chabrol’s film, is demonstrative. Indeed, there is no motivation for her adulterous affair after eleven years of marriage, and it comes as a shock when she ends the affair, for as far as we can tell she wasn’t much bothered by it (although the logistics of her duplicity were shown as taking a toll). Moreover, her lover is (it appears) little more than a child; “. . . and with a kid!” Edward hurls at her—a point confused by the casting, for the wife and her lover seem about the same age, while the husband appears ten or fifteen years older. It’s possible that the two men are somehow linked in Connie’s mind; we learn, after all, that they both keep vodka in the refrigerator. Perhaps the only difference, then, is that the younger man is a bit spryer and rougher, and of course far less humane. The whole thing makes little sense, is an utter mess.

Two of the three lead performances do not help. As swarthy French heartthrob Olivier Martinez plays him, the boy, a city bookseller named Paul Martel, is a cipher—just a kid out for a good time. Diane Lane, who began as a child actress, is dreadful. Emotionally, she is still a juvenile; only her body says “woman.” I don’t know when I’ve seen such an artificial lot of acting—mere emoting, without any psychological coordinates plotted, without the faintest rhyme or reason. In family scenes, Lane truly acts as though she has forgotten that her character is having an affair. Lane is the kind of actor, apparently, who doesn’t think anything through—or can’t; she plays histrionic scenes without any attempt to shape these into a coherent and evolving character. Not everyone would apply this harsh assessment, however. Both the National Society of Film Critics and the New York Film Critics’ Circle named her 2002’s best actress.

Richard Gere excels as Edward Sumner, giving his one profound performance since Internal Affairs (Mike Figgis, 1990). After thirty-five years of our familiarity with him, Gere in this instance is somehow able to lose himself sufficiently in the part so that we rarely, if ever, think “Richard Gere.” An economy of effort—this is a clean, sharp, unfussy performance—yields a real and riveting, and occasionally heartrending, result. Moreover, Gere’s physicality in one scene, where he is stuck in an elevator with a rug-wrapped corpse, amazes: an electrifying recall of Ronet stuck in an elevator after having murdered his boss and lover’s spouse in Louis Malle’s Elevator to the Gallows (Frantic, 1957). Lyne, it would appear, has New Wave French cinema on the brain.

The good supporting cast includes Chad Lowe as someone who works for Sumner (whom Sumner discharges for disloyalty), and Kate Burton and Margaret Colin as two of Connie’s friends. Peter Biziou created the moody color cinematography, and Anne V. Coates edited. The authors of the script are Alvin Sargent—remember The Sterile Cuckoo (Alan J. Pakula, 1969)?—and William Broyles Jr.

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