Director: Adrian Lyne
Writers: Alvin Sargent, William Broyles Jr. (from Claude Chabrol’s book)
Starring: Diane Lane, Richard Gere, Olivier Martinez
Unfaithful charts the fortunes of another well-to-do New York couple, in this case Edward (Richard Gere) and Connie (Diane Lane) Sumner, when the latter strays from the conjugal bed. Lane’s Oscar-nominated performance—raunchy by mainstream Hollywood standards—caused a minor furore on the film’s release but has since sunk into the great morass of cinematic mediocrity. Judging from reviews on the Internet Movie Database, the general public either enjoyed Lane’s bravura or failed to understand why her character wades into the turbulent waters of adultery. Nonetheless, the film highlights deep-seated beliefs about the sexual sanctity of marriage and the extent to which it is permissible to punish those who disrespect that sanctity.
The film opens with a typically languid Lynian scene set in upmarket Westchester, home to Edward, Connie and their cute-but-can’t-someone-strangle-him son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan from the TV series Malcolm in the Middle). Edward owns an armoured car business which has provided the Sumners with a sumptuous lakeside home and left Connie with no greater responsibilities than being the perfect hostess, doing a bit of school fundraising and wiping up wayward droplets of Charlie’s pee. But trouble’s afoot in the Sumner’s version of the American Dream: a shifting breeze wafts through the garden, spinning a weathervane and unsettling the lady of the house’s moral compass.
The breeze follows Connie as she trains into NYC on some inconsequential errand. By the time she reaches SoHo, a trendy cultural melting pot in Manhattan, it swells into a windstorm that whips open her coat and skirt, exposing her long legs to the hilt. Unstoppable yellow cabs hurtle past. Garbage billows through the air. In this disorienting maelstrom Connie collides with Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), heading past with a load of old bollocks—sorry, books. Connie skins her knees as she sprawls on top of Paul in a supposedly accidental simulation of the sex act (reverse missionary position). It’s a graze with fatal consequences.
When Connie and Paul disentangle themselves and re-establish propriety, she learns that he’s a hunky but sensitive Frenchman who lives nearby. Paul notes Connie’s grazed knees and invites her back to his apartment for coffee and Band-Aids. There’s a moment of electricity between them as they read a book together—Paul, a rare book dealer, is well-versed in existentialist prose—but then Connie’s gone, back to her staid Westchester life. (By making Paul charming, handsome, emotionally sensitive and suavely French, the writers have joined the dots in creating a stereotype of the perfect lover, trying to make Connie’s breach of fidelity easier to empathise with.)
Feeling frisky after her encounter with Paul, that night Connie cosies up to Ed. He’s more interested in his new video camera and begins filming Connie in her negligee; the writers resist the temptation of making Ed a closet pornographer and eventually he attends to Connie, spouting a goofy grin as he clenches her tit. After all, Edward is the Good Husband and convention dictates that his character be spotless, which actually makes him rather boring. But before Ed can satisfy Connie their son wakes up; the coitus interruptus adds fuel to Connie’s illicit desire for Paul. On her next visit to NYC, Connie hesitates but finally plucks up the courage to visit him. Paul touches her hand—wedding ring prominently in shot—but nothing more. Connie, feeling that same flush of guilt that has troubled various characters in Sexcatraz, buys Ed a sweater. When asked what she’s doing in the city Connie tells her first lie. Stupidly, it’s a lie that can be exposed, as Ed will later do.
During Connie’s next visit to Paul they dance closely. She strokes his chest then loops her arm around his neck, violating her own sexual boundaries. Her shame kicks in—feelings of guilt, a sense of wrongness, that disorienting nausea—and she breaks off: “I can’t do this.” Like Elena’s initial rejection of Fernando in À Ma Soeur!, the covenants win—for now. Connie strides out but—forgetting her coat in the heat of her shame—quickly returns. Paul grabs her in a fair approximation of a fireman’s lift and hauls her into bed.
The film cuts straight to Connie on the train afterwards, reflecting on what has just passed. The formal train shots—mid-shot then close-up—interpolate with loose, hand-held close-ups of Paul violating Ed’s sexual access rights to Connie: tracing around her belly button, pressing his hand against her pubic mound, sliding his finger under the hem of her panties. Lane’s reaction shots on the train account for a good deal of her Oscar nomination: guilt, fear, nausea, horror, self-disgust: the roll call of symptoms of shame repeatedly seen in Sexcatraz. The physical, mental and emotional symptoms invoked by Connie’s breach of Ed’s sexual access rights are all there; it’s a fabulous piece of acting. Her acting during the interpolated sex scene is no less impressive: her abdomen twitches with fear as Paul teasingly works his way towards her sex. “This is wrong,” she bleats, clinging to the mast of society’s sexual covenants even as the lowering of her white panties signals unconditional surrender.
Connie later wonders why the hell she took such a risk. A good part of the audience does too, when she seemingly has it all: a good husband, a cute son, a beautiful house and enough money to never worry about working another day. And there lies the clue to the one thing missing from Connie’s life: uncertainty. We spend our lives striving hard for all the stability that Connie has, yet there is still a part of us willing to throw it all away, like Alice and the naval officer in Eyes Wide Shut, and live life on a precipice—which is where Connie now finds herself. As the train rattles towards the Westchester stop, she staggers into the toilet and cleans herself up, trying to paper over the enormity of her transgression and return her life to an even keel.
It doesn’t. Like Stella Raphael in Asylum, Connie’s sexual encounters with Paul become increasingly brazen. In a swanky French diner he blatantly shoves his hand down the back of her jeans, publicly demonstrating his sexual access to her. Connie gasps as a frisson arcs up her spine, simultaneously making a mental note to pop her panties in the wash. While Connie indulges in a post-coital nap Paul draws a felt pen arrow aimed at her vagina; once again it signals his unrestricted access to Connie’s body. The arrow almost leads Ed to the truth as he nearly catches sight of it while she has a bath. Is it carelessness or, like Stella, does Connie hunger to be caught?
For Connie has now been split in two. On the one hand she has the transporting delight of her transgressive affair with Paul, on the other a relatively monotonous life in the suburbs with Ed, Charlie and the school fundraising committee. Between the two lies an emotional wasteland of guilt and self-disgust—an externalised representation of the sexual-spiritual split within her psyche. Connie distances herself from Ed and the lies pile up until even the cuckolded Good Husband knows something’s up. One phone call proves that Connie lied. Edward hires a private eye who takes some shots of Connie and Paul arm-in-arm in SoHo. Ed’s response is muted. The word ‘strangely’ tries to interject itself into that sentence, but no, denial is a valid response to discovering sexual transgression. Ed knows the truth but it’s so awful he unconsciously refuses to take the emotional hit—for now.
Oblivious of Ed’s discovery, Connie continues to pursue Paul who roughly shafts her on his apartment landing in Unfaithful’s rawest scene. This is the same animal fucking that Stella found so fulfilling in Asylum, but this time the encroaching male will pay. Ed arrives at Paul’s apartment soon after Connie’s departure. This should be a moment of high tension but it’s strangely flat. (Ah, that’s where the adjective belongs!) Ed peers myopically at the man who has been screwing his wife, his demeanour almost apologetic. Paul, only recently uncoupled from Connie, is equally anaemic in the presence of his lover’s husband. He presses a glass of vodka on Ed, as if soothing a neighbour whose cat has just been run over. The scene drags until the vodka kicks in, releasing Ed from denial. He is hit by the same barrage of emotions—nausea; ridicule; humiliation—previously experienced by a litany of characters from John Lotter and Tom Nissen to Erica Kohut and Connie herself on the Westchester train. Ed seizes one of those cheesy glass globes that swirl with fake snow and bashes in Paul’s head. Paul stands for a long time with blood running down his face before collapsing. (It must be an Adrian Lyne thing; Humbert Humbert’s killing of Clare Quilty in Lolita is equally protracted.) Ed wraps Paul’s body in a carpet and erases all traces of his presence from the apartment. He removes the body via a rickety old lift that jams between floors as Unfaithful unconvincingly shifts genres from erotic melodrama to thriller.
Ed finally escapes with Paul’s body in the boot of his car and, with the headlights on, dumps it at the local tip. It’s the most unbelievable moment in a film increasingly littered with illogical events. Paul’s death destroys the love triangle at the heart of Unfaithful and with it the film’s dynamic. His body surfaces; the Keystone Cops interview the Sumners but nothing comes of it. (Somehow all that hanky-panky in Paul’s apartment didn’t leave a trace of Connie’s DNA; perhaps Paul wasn’t that accomplished after all?) The audience is left in the unsatisfactory position of rooting for an adulterer, a murderer, or the ‘off’ button. Were it not for the film’s usefulness in the current context the latter would easily win.
Paul’s demise clears the way for an emotional showdown between Ed and Connie but there’s only a brief, inconclusive argument about Ed giving everything for the family while Connie throws it away. Like Bill in Eyes Wide Shut, here Ed belatedly reminds Connie of their marriage vows: he has given her lifelong financial security; she, in return, should bestow her sexual favours solely on him. The same shame that silenced Max Raphael in Asylum now prevents Ed from asking why Connie slept with another man. The implication, abhorrent to the male ego, that Ed is incapable of satisfying Connie can only be avoided through silence. In common with Eyes Wide Shut there’s no exploration of the impulse to infidelity, only the slavish expectation that it should not occur. Unfaithful fails to debate its own subject matter and simply upholds society’s default sexual programming.
In common with Eyes Wide Shut there’s no exploration of the impulse to infidelity, only the slavish expectation that it should not occur. Unfaithful fails to debate its own subject matter and simply upholds society’s default sexual programming.
Just as Bill redeemed himself in Eyes Wide Shut by forsaking his interest in other women, Connie diminishes herself to fit back into the family frame and becomes aware of her overwhelming love for Ed. They go out driving one night, once again the perfect family, with Charlie slumbering in the back seat. They stop at a red light outside a police station and talk about moving to Mexico to start again. The film ends inconclusively, with Connie and Ed’s SUV stopped at the lights long after they turn green. Did Ed hand himself in to the police? Did he put his foot down all the way to Yucatan? You decide.
Tellingly, the DVD offers an alternate ending: Ed steps out of the SUV, enters the police station and confesses. This is the ending that the film studio planned. However, Lyne and the main cast members argued in favour of the more ambiguous ending actually seen in the theatrical release; either their sympathies lay with Ed or at least they wanted the audience to have that choice. Here can be glimpsed just how powerful the sense of ownership and violence associated with our sexual access rights is. The ambiguous ending suggests that the filmmakers regard Paul’s murder as justified; in other words, punishing an adulterer is above the law. Unfaithful may be über-softcore cinematic candyfloss, but the rift between Lyne and the studio shows that this interpretation was ultimately green-lit. The studio gauged its audience, too: on the film’s release, there was indignation about Lane’s raw sex scenes but not about the implication that Ed was morally entitled to murder Paul. The underlying belief that adultery justifies violence—including fatal violence—retains widespread currency.
The last two films portray situations where married couples unconsciously embark on a monogamous life only for one or both partners to be tempted by extramarital sex, resulting in emotional distress and a threat to the marriage. But what happens when a couple consciously grants sexual access rights to a third party? Are the emotionally destructive convulsions seen in Eyes Wide Shut and Unfaithful avoided? Indecent Proposal, again directed by Adrian Lyne, explores this scenario.