Adore looks like porn produced by Architectural Digest. Set in a picturesque Australian beach town, Anne Fontaine’s film offers such bright sun and visual clarity (courtesy of cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne) that its focus on secrets and betrayals seems almost an afterthought. We might be watching a travel brochure or a makeup ad, the scenery exquisite and vaguely Edenic.
This seductive, absurd fantasy must collapse, of course, but before it does, it’s nearly saved by the two gorgeous, glorious actresses at its center. In Adore, opening in select theaters and available on VOD 6 September, Robin Wright and Naomi Watts are, for a time, provocative in their apparent placidity, together a portrait of easy female intimacy and power. They’re like sisters, twins, maybe even the same person, interchangeably confident and knowing. It’s a perfection of sameness that lingers even after the differences in their personalities emerge and cause their oddly tender fall from grace.
That fall is generated by startlingly paired decisions, when these two mothers sleep with each other’s sons. It’s a premise that falls outside what’s acceptable, drawn from the movie’s source, Doris Lessing’s novella “The Grandmothers”. The movie provides the premise with a sugary gloss that makes it go down almost too easily and makes you wonder whose fantasy you might be watching, the women’s or the men’s, or maybe both and neither. Though the audacious plot eventually descends into the mundane, this turn is especially disappointing because for a moment, the movie seems poised to abandon such pop-psychological baggage for notions more possibly sublime.
Roz (Wright) and Lil (Watts) have grown up side by side by the beach, achieving such a close bond that that Roz’s husband Harold (Ben Mendelsohn) openly suspects them of being lesbians. Each has a model son; watching the boys surf on the beach, Roz asks, “Did we do that?” and Lil replies, “They’re like young gods.” If the point of their pride is obvious, it’s also a little disconcerting for viewers who might want to remember that fathers had roles in these creations.
Lil’s husband is actually recently dead, and when Harold jets off to Sydney for a couple of weeks, it takes about five minutes of screen time for the first transgression to occur, when Lil’s son Ian (Xavier Samuel) kisses Roz, and even less time for the second, namely, the decision by Roz’s son Tom (James Frecheville) to engage Lil, as a sort of revenge that’s quickly abandoned for other pleasures. While the four lovers exist briefly as a blissful, paradisiacal unit almost completely devoid of any real eroticism, the film provides plenty of prettiness, blond and beachy.
The sons are pretty in their own ways, embodying the women’s mutually appreciated completions and validations. Even in the film’s latter half, which takes place two years into the mother-son relationships and concerns itself primarily with their disintegration, can be seen as a continuation of the fantasy, by now transformed into a reproach to the women, as each refuses to recognize the other as the true object of her desire.
When their sons begin to stray, first one and then the other, they are such perfect male objects that it hardly seems like their fault: the mothers have done their work too well. It’s no surprise that the sons are attracted to women who match them in paradigmatic beauty. Mary (Jessica Tovey) is a theater performer who sings Gershwin, Hannah (Sophie Lowe) a bridesmaid in a white dress.
You know these relationships won’t last, and so this portion of the narrative is comprised of even less tension than the rest. Ian and Tom have grown up by the womblike sea—Tom is more or less reborn from the ocean after he discovers his mother’s initial transgression, waking up shirtless in the surf and the dawn—and so they must return there. The women follow their own trajectories, mythic and not: when Roz sits with Lil in the darkness and admits that this all might be her fault, the movie doesn’t so much set up a reckoning as it poses a question.
When Adore does deliver its reckoning, it’s less compelling than what comes before, the scenes in which Roz and Lil discuss what they have done, admitting the extent of their satisfaction and blurring the lines between decorum and desire with a mix of security and lightness that remains the most astonishing aspect of the film. In another setting, or according to another sensibility, the women’s sense of freedom might become an appalling burden. But for a few moments in Adore, their rejection of expectations allows them to share a reverie that is unbelievably whole.