(originally published in The Outreach Connection in June 2002)
Sometimes, if I can manage it, I try to take off a little early on Friday afternoons to catch a movie. It’s not much of a transgression because I usually come back into the office on the way home and end up just about making up the time. Even if that wasn’t the case, it still isn’t much of a transgression: colleagues know I do this and no one thinks anything of it. But the other week, sitting there by myself around 5 p.m., I started to feel distinctly guilty and uneasy. And this tells you about the success of the film I was watching – Unfaithful.
The movie is being positioned as an “adult” alternative to the big summer blockbusters, but it belongs there with them – it’s a theme park ride through the mythic landscape of adultery. It has the accidental meeting, the initial attraction, the deepening flirtation, the sudden capitulation, the enveloping passion, the public sex, the obsessiveness, the anger at catching him flirting with another woman, etc. Adrian Lyne directs with an atmospheric, composed eye; he never lets a plain shot pass through the camera.
In a nutshell, Diane Lane plays a seemingly happily married suburban wife, living prosperously and affectionately with husband Richard Gere. One day, struggling against a movie-strength wind, she literally bumps into a charismatic Frenchman (Olivier Martinez) outside his apartment. He invites her in to clean up. She comes back another day, then another, and they’re soon in the sack. After that she rapidly loses it, neglecting the kid, getting cold on Gere, and getting sloppy in her cover stories.
The film’s biggest asset by far is Lane’s performance. She perfectly conveys the character’s loss of control. It’s one of the best examples of sexual acting in memory – sometimes surpassing Halle Berry’s Oscar-winning work in Monster’s Ball – and she’s the primary reason why the film is often so unsettling. Actually, Lane must be an early favourite for this year’s award. The biggest problem is that her performance isn’t sustained – in the latter part of the film she recedes from us, becoming blander and more inscrutable.
But that’s the film’s fault – not hers. The film takes the logic of the affair to its nerve-wracking peak, in the process bringing Gere to the edge of a breakdown in what may be one of his own best scenes ever. Then it abruptly changes direction, and surrenders to much more mundane mechanics. Later on it coalesces somewhat, but Unfaithful runs distinctly out of steam. I liked the inconclusive climax more than many reviewers have, but there’s no doubt it’s rooted more in mild artistic desperation than in a coherent vision of where the movie’s going. I read that Lyne shot six different versions of the ending, which I suppose will be a selling point for the DVD around Christmas time.
I’m not sure the conception of the lover works for the best either. Olivier Martinez is so alluring he could make straight men turn gay, but he’s barely realistic – he hangs round with supreme pouty self-confidence, always saying the right thing, pushing all the right buttons. And Lyne’s trademark soft-focus style too often blunts the material. Still, at its best I found the film more striking than, say, In the Bedroom.
Kirsten Dunst in Spider-Man (and by the way, I saw this one on my own time) is no Diane Lane, but she’s probably the most alluring challenge to a superhero’s fidelity to duty since Margot Kidder in Superman. This sums up the course of mainstream cinema over the intervening 24 years – Dunst now is ten years younger than Kidder was then. Everything about Spider-Man seems young – even the token old timers look artificially aged, and Willem Dafoe sheds all his gravity in his role as the villain. Dunst aside, the film’s greatest asset is probably Tobey Maguire, who keeps his performance nicely nuanced and grounded. Maybe too grounded, for the film always seems interesting rather than actually dramatic. That’s partly because Maguire’s plausibility has the effect of pitching everything at the same level of excitement as a slightly diverting homework assignment. Also, the plot about the Green Goblin is unspeakably lame.
To me, the best part of the movie was Danny Elfman’s opening theme music, accompanying an elegant title design. Elfman’s music was also the best part of Planet of the Apes, and probably of more other movies than I can remember. His Spider-Man theme has an insinuating power and drama that the film seems uninterested in matching. Maybe Elfman was actually a bad choice, and the film would have been better served by something lighter and jauntier. Some have found the film’s computer-generated effects a bit much – Roger Ebert for instance commented on how the scenes of Spiderman swinging from one skyscraper to the next didn’t evoke a real person. But I liked the idea of a man transformed into almost abstract energy and movement. If you’re going to watch something created on a computer screen, zip and panache help. Anyway, I think the ideal superhero movie has yet to be made, Maybe Ang Lee’s forthcoming Incredible Hulk film will be the one.
Son of the Bride
The day after watching Spider-Man (i.e. still on the weekend) I watched the Argentinean Son of the Bride, which was a surprisingly similar experience. It’s pleasant and diverting, but never deeply engages, and the main attraction is again the hero’s lively girlfriend. It’s another story of an early mid-life crisis, except this time it’s a man who gets tired of his cellphone-hugging life running the family restaurant, and tries to strike out in a new direction. The new direction looks little different from the old one, which would be a nice touch in a more subtle film. As it is, the movie meanders incredibly for two hours before reaching an utterly predictable outcome.
The movie was nominated this year for a foreign-language film Oscar which, given the submitted films that weren’t nominated, may be the best recent evidence that it’s true what they say about the Oscars. The character’s mother has Alzheimer’s, but her long-time husband remains devoted to her, accepting all her problems with serene equanimity. The film’s attitude on the condition seems much more lazy than it does liberal, but it’s consistent with how the movie avoids showing real pain or hardship (when he has a near-fatal heart attack, it’s glossed over so quickly that I’m not sure his condition gets mentioned by name). For that matter, I wonder how plausible it is that a film set in Argentina can so consistently turn its back on economic hardship? Assuming you want the film to which you sneak from work to be an easier experience than just remaining at your desk, Son of the Bride would have been a better candidate than Unfaithful for an early departure.