It’s a very windy day. A very windy day. Still, Connie Sumner (Diane Lane), a happy-enough Westchester County housewife is determined to go into the city in order to do her errands. Teetering on her high heels, loaded with packages, she’s struggling to get a cab when boom, she runs smack into a young man, Paul (Olivier Martinez), who is carrying a stack of old books. Both go down. They exchange looks. His hair blows across his face. Her smile flutters. And you have once again entered the bizarre realm where director Adrian Lyne holds sway, where all relationships are simultaneously broadly metaphorical, oddly abstract, and excruciatingly literal.
Connie takes respite from the wind inside Paul’s huge Soho apartment, where she introduces herself to the beautiful, 28-year-old French bookseller as “Constance,” because, you know, the film is called Unfaithful and she will not be constant at all. Paul is apparently irresistible, casting his sleepy eyes in her direction and offering her a book off the many in his collection. In fact, he directs her to the precise tome of poems that will win her heart, or at least get her attention, telling her which row, which shelf, which number of books from the left, and which page she needs to be reading. Oh my, he seems to know her so well, after only a minute of dialogue. She blushes and scurries from the apartment. Smitten.
She doesn’t mean to be. Connie would really rather head home to the suburbs, kiss her little kid, and find another, less self-destructive way to distract herself from her sense that husband Edward (Richard Gere) is vaguely-but-not-horribly obsessed with his work and less focused on her than he may once have been. But no, poor Connie is the female protagonist in an Adrian Lyne movie, and so, she must suffer.
Though Connie loves Edward and son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan, Malcolm in the Middle‘s Dewey), she can’t stop thinking about Paul. As soon as she walks in the door at home, her knees become a prominent emblem of her infidelity to come. First, the maid takes note, proffering a bag of frozen peas. Then Charlie espies them, celebrating their bloodiness and snapping photos to show off in class. Even workaholic Edward pays attention, nodding at her story of how they came about, asking innocently if the young man who helped her was “good looking.” Most insistently, the camera offers repeated close-ups of Connie’s knees, band-aided or raw, so as to let you know what’s on her mind.
Loosely adapted by Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr. from Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidèle, Unfaithful revisits familiar Lynian themes: much like 9 1/2 Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, and Lolita, the new film examines the trouble men get into when women behave too passionately. Lyne also brings to bear his trademark symbolism (pots boiling, rain pelting windshields, dogs placidly observing human foibles) and filtered light (and, as the New York Times reported on 7 May 2002, he can’t just use filtered lenses like everyone else; he has to pump smoke onto the set, to the point that Diane Lane had to have oxygen between takes). This isn’t to say that perfectionism is a bad thing. It is to say that Lyne has one trick he likes and for which he has been rewarded. And he does it again and again.
That trick here is by turns intriguingly complex and irritatingly reductive. Against her better judgment, Connie (or Con, as Edward so ominously calls her) lurches into an affair with Paul. Her first gesture is tentative, her nervousness palpable—she takes the train into town, then calls Paul from a Grand Central payphone, agreeing to come over “for coffee.” He doesn’t press her, letting her scurry off a couple of more times before they actually do the deed, as he sweeps her off her feet and carries her into the bedroom. (In one seeming twist, the elevator in Paul’s building doesn’t work, so you’re not subjected to another of those slam-around-in-the-elevator scenes for which Lyne is famous.)
Their first tryst appears on screen in fragments, as Connie recalls it during her train ride back home. She’s thrilled, afraid, and angry, remembering that, when Paul instructed her to hit him, she did, leading directly to orgasmic frenzy. Back on the train, she’s simultaneously weepy and elated, her hands fluttering to her flushed face, wiping away tears, as bits of the afternoon flash for you. The scene is moving, not only because Connie is so manifestly undone by the experience, so suddenly aware of her own hunger and desire, but also because she is so manifestly alone in this awareness. Boy-toy will never match her excitement or ingenuity. That is, you get the feeling here that this is not the beginning of a relationship, but the first step in a building catastrophe, for which Connie will feel wholly responsible.
But of course, she doesn’t know this yet. And the first part of the film carefully traces Connie’s roller-coaster emotions, punctuated by reckless decisions to go to restaurants where she might be spotted (most devastatingly, by one of Paul’s rancorous employees, installed just for this plot-devicey function). Her lack of vision exacerbates your anxiety, because you know where this is headed, but it makes her sympathetic in a way that most girls in Lyne’s movies are not.
Moreover, he plays games: when she calls him one afternoon after being waylaid outside his apartment by a couple of acquaintances (Kate Burton and Margaret Colin), he comes to the café where they’re having coffee. Paul tousles his hair, absorbs the ladies’ admiring looks, then saunters past their table into the bathroom, where Connie meets him and they share a fast, ardent stall-encounter. She returns to the table with one button undone. Oblivious of her breathlessness, the women proceed to discuss the possibilities of “affairs.” One warns that they always end disastrously, and Connie bites her lip.
Soon she’s confessing to Paul that he’s the first thing she thinks of when she wakes up each morning. Well, uh, he likes her too, though maybe not so much; you won’t be surprised (like she is) that he has other girlfriends. Still, your sympathy gets stretched when Connie starts behaving like a crazy person, or more accurately, a character in an Adrian Lyne movie. She almost crashes her SUV in the rain while zooming to NYC (bad driver!), forgets to pick up little Charlie at school (bad mom!), and then gives Paul a gift that Edward once gave her (bad wife, and not so bright, either!).
It could be that these ill-advised moves indicate Connie’s general conflict over the affair. The film thickly underlines her capacity for duplicity and also compassion in a montage that intercuts happy-Connie at Charlie’s sunny outdoor birthday party, and happy-Connie in Paul’s dark and sultry bedroom, arranged in stylish sexual tableaux, sumptuously filmed by Peter Biziou.
All good things must end. As Connie’s actions become increasingly inexplicable and Edward catches a clue, Unfaithful abandons her point of view for his. This is very too bad, because his point of view is odd, to say the least, and in making this shift, the film appears to equate two very unequal acts (adultery, and what Edward does). He hires a detective, a decision that, as Gere pointed out on the Today show, indicates serious, pre-Paul problems in the marriage: Edward would rather go to this extreme than have a conversation with his wife.
On learning the “truth,” Edward decides to confront Paul (who sort of resembles Gere in his more insolent American Gigolo days), whereupon his jealousy literally makes him ill, at which point, the film resorts to a very cheap trick (and it’s not even Lyne’s usual), taking Edward’s unfocused, flailing perspective (“I. Feel. Ill.”). Such visual gimmickry doesn’t really make up for what follows, doesn’t make what Edward does next look plausible, and doesn’t excuse sending Connie off to the edges of the film. Unfaithful quickly descends into a murky moral relativity, where obsession substitutes for love and women forgive all.