After the contretemps over his reverential, almost chaste adaptation of Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita” (1997), Adrian Lyne has licked his wounds and returned to his metier: slick, steamy smut served up in a series of scenes framed like Rembrandt paintings, with a soupcon of phony meaningfulness on the side. “Unfaithful” is an adaptation, too–of Claude Chabrol’s “La Femme Infidele” (1968)–and if you’re fortunate enough to have seen the sharp, knowing original, you’d be well advised to savor your memories of it and skip this far inferior take on the subject. Like so much of Lyne’s work, it’s all surface sheen and no substance.
The narrative is extraordinarily simple. Affluent housewife Connie Sumner (Diane Lane) has an adoring husband in Edward (Richard Gere), the owner of an armored-car business, a sweet son named Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan, who plays Dewey on “Malcolm in the Middle”), a beautiful suburban home and apparently unlimited shopping opportunities, but after literally bumping into Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a suave and handsome bookdealer with a seductive French accent, in the street, she launches into a decidedly athletic affair with him; for a time the movie turns into a series of soft-core sex sequences periodically interrupted by moments of banal dialogue and insipid domestic action. Before long, however, Edward gets suspicious, goes ballistic and confronts Martel, with dire results. The last act of the plot tries to generate suspense about what’s going to happen to the couple as a result of hubby’s rage, but it’s hard to work up any concern about the fate of such shallow, vapid people; after all, before tragedy strikes, “Unfaithful” has played rather like an extended episode of “Lifestyles of the Rich and Extremely Stupid.”
The essential problem with Lyne’s picture is that it lacks Chabrol’s acuity of observation and his Gallic sense of irony. “LA Femme Infidele” was observant and textured; “Unfaithful” has little going for it beyond its glossy exterior. To be sure the picture looks gorgeous, with rich and atmospheric cinematography by Peter Biziou (who also worked with Lyne on the similarly erotic “9½ Weeks”), but in the uninspired hands of the director and co-writers Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr., it’s really nothing more than soap opera rubbish, even though it’s clear we’re supposed to discern some deep meaning behind all the moaning and grief-stricken glances. The fact is that this plot would have been old-hat even when Fannie Hurst was beginning her writing career; and while a brilliant filmmaker like Chabrol can give it resonance, Lyne’s treatment remains utterly superficial.
The cast try their best, but can’t help but come off looking ill-at-ease. Gere tries to get by on his occasional smile and generalized angst, but his performance is curiously lethargic. Martinez struts about well enough, but the sort of continental heartthrob he’s playing seems now to be an antediluvian cliche–a modern-day version of Charles Boyer. Of the leads Lane is surely the strongest; though it’s very hard to sympathize with a woman who has everything and puts it in jeopardy so recklessly, she at least suggests levels within Connie–something that an actress like Lana Turner, who would probably have gotten the part a few decades back (most likely in an equally lush Ross Hunter production), wouldn’t have managed. None of the supporting players is particularly good: Chad Lowe and the usually reliable Zejko Ivanek overact–obviously at Lyne’s behest–as (respectively) one of Edward’s employees and a NYC cop, and Kate Burton has the singularly unpleasant task of spoon-feeding the audience the message of the picture as an acquaintance of Connie’s who warns her–unsuccessfully–of the dangers of infidelity. As for Sullivan, he’s certainly a cute tyke who can put over even the often lame material he’s given here (a school show in which he portrays a singing bunny rabbit is a distinct low point), but there are moments you might wish he could summon up the spirit he controlled in the recent “Wendigo” to put a stop of what’s happening on the screen.
One wonders whether “Unfaithful” will have a broad enough appeal to cover what was apparently a considerable production cost. Older women who might be drawn to it for its daytime-television plotline will probably find the sex scenes too explicit for their taste, while others lusting after the skin-revealing moments may decide there’s not enough of them to make it worthwhile. The majority of us will just decide that the whole thing is a dreary bore and hope that Lyne, despite the disappointment he must still feel over “Lolita,” will be willing to take a few more artistic risks the next time around rather than settling again for this sort of tired formula.