Trysts and turns

Diane Lane is terrific as a housewife whose fling puts her marriage and people's lives at risk in the seductive 'Unfaithful.'

May 10, 2002|By Michael Sragow | Michael Sragow,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

SUN SCORE

*** (three stars)

American movies are generally so skittish about sexuality that Adrian Lyne's appetite - and aptitude - for exploring it in Unfaithful is a relief.

In this variation on Claude Chabrol's ambiguously ironic La Femme Infidele, Lyne does the opposite of Chabrol: Lyne sensualizes everything, including an All-American family, so that watching this movie, at least for its first half, is like stretching out in a sauna set for different times at different temperatures: warm for the domestic scenes, hot-hot-hot for the illicit lovemaking.

Unfaithful is a feast of Lyne's negative and positive virtues. It has little of the glitz of 9 1/2 Weeks, the spurious moralizing of Fatal Attraction, the self-seriousness of his remake of Lolita. Stylistic tics in previous Lyne films included cutting between intimate gestures and associating homey feelings with sexual ones. Here, these tics help him knit jarring textures into the fiber of an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

For a while, the action registers as a series of pleasurable little pings. It helps that in Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr. the director has a couple of writers who can turn the mundane into merry, or melancholy, melodies. And in Diane Lane as the housewife, Richard Gere as her husband and Olivier Martinez as her French lover, Lyne has a cast willing to shed inhibitions.

What they capture is an eroticized realism, like an amorous novelette in the flesh. The story of Unfaithful is barely an anecdote. A suburban wife and mother burdened with shopping bags makes her way through New York City's SoHo district during a windstorm; she scrapes her knee and succumbs to the charms of the young, exotic man who helps her out. She grows untenably guilty; her husband suspects and investigates her, then snaps.

Yet Lyne fills the first hour with eloquent moments. Lane's son apes his father's regular-guy jokes, such as making flatulent sounds by flapping an arm against his side; this kiddy-see, kiddy-do activity both endears Gere to his wife and causes him to look childish in her eyes. And Gere's fumbling with a new digital camera while Lane wants to put their bed to better use epitomizes all our everyday distractions from erotic connection.

Gere adeptly conveys his character's evolution, starting with suspicion-streaked complacency and building to fear, doubt and rage. The movie, though, belongs to Lane, and she's magnificent. From whole cloth and a few asides from other characters (like two friends she meets for lunch), she creates a knockout of a woman who is genuinely sweet and "nice," but who also sees her fling with a French book-dealer as her last chance for an experience that is free and entirely hers. One of her lunch friends quips that her derriere is still where it was in college; at that moment, she is coupling with her lover in the restaurant restroom.

Her flirtation and first sexual bout with the Frenchman are a valiant threesome for the two actors and the director. The movie's psychology may be all on the surface, but there is a lot of it. Lane calls Martinez from a pay phone in Grand Central Station, with a coffee cup in her hand; she puts it on top of the phone booth when he suggests she come over for coffee. She wants there to be some necessity or rightness to her visit although she knows it's all wrong.

Martinez and Lyne give the Frenchman's approach to seduction danger and edge: He's nothing like the courtly lovers in defanged romantic comedies, who are so afraid of pushing their erotic advantage that you expect them to ask permission for a kiss. He may be too deft a bedroom psychologist - to break through Lane's resistance he asks her to pummel him - but the actors bring off their encounter. And Lyne cunningly intercuts it with Lane getting jazzed just thinking about it on the commuter train home.

The problem with Unfaithful is that there isn't enough of a story or set of character studies to support such a dense and evocative surface. Murder was intrinsic to Chabrol's movie; it clinched the film's ambivalence about celebrating or satirizing the strength of middle-class families. Lyne is locked into Chabrol's structure when all he wants is to suggest the enormous, chaos-creating power of extra-marital sex - and the risky and potent sensations of married love once jealousy and anger have rekindled it.

In Unfaithful, Lyne has gone beyond blood-soaked jeopardy but his material hasn't. And, as melodrama, the movie is feeble. Lyne leaves you wondering about fundamental questions, like how a guy with taste and manners as good as Gere's became the head of an armored-truck company. Solid supporting actors - Chad Lowe as Gere's business underling, who witnesses Lane with her lover, and Dominic Chianese of The Sopranos as Gere's private investigator - cannot fill the void.

The murder in this film is the aesthetic version of an armored truck: It's a piece of box office security. Because of it, the ads can promise carnage and suspense, but the movie would have been better and gutsier as a pure erotic flight, without the corpse.

Unfaithful

Starring Diane Lane, Richard Gere, and Olivier Martinez

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Rated R

Running time 126 minutes

Released by 20th-Century Fox

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