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by Shari L. Rosenblum

Appearances aside, Unfaithful, Adrian Lyne's most recent dalliance with the filmic fulminations of sexual impropriety, is neither distaff counterpart to his own infamous Fatal Attraction nor unworthy New World remake of Claude Chabrol's respected New Wave oeuvre, La Femme Infidele. Though not completely liberated from the casuistic pretensions of the former, and inextricably mired in the plot irrelevancies of the latter, it offers the grown-up audience a better-than-anyone-has-any-right-to-expect character study different from both, that from unbelievable moment to moment gets it absolutely right.

In these best moments, the script (by Alvin Sargent and William Broyles, Jr.) tells the story of the ironically named Constance Sumner (Diane Lane), contented wife and mother living in unspoiled suburban satisfaction, who literally loses her balance one windy day, falls, scrapes off just a bit of her perfect veneer (bloodied knee, and all), and succumbs to the temptations of sex and the city. (If the film's symbolism and allusiveness is remarkably unsubtle, up to and including a tongue-in-cheek rabbit at risk midway through, it nonetheless serves as sustainable shorthand for the otherwise intolerably trite moral underpinnings upon which the narrative relies, and preserves us from the exhaustion of exhaustive expository dialogue.)

In its lesser unfolding, along the Chabrolian plotline, the movie takes us through the discovery of Connie's deception by her husband, Edward (Richard Gere), a businessman whose success rests in security (armored trucks), who then takes it upon himself to take on the Lothario who carried his wife away (Olivier Martinez, wooden as Paul Martel, thrice significant play on the French for "hammer"/"marteau") - an impermissibly mouth-watering Gallic profligate who luxuriates in an overexpanse of poetry, art, and sensual pleasures. This, of course, leads to a series of events that replaces one moral crisis with another, weighing petite mort against grande one in the scheme of sin and forgiveness, and opens the door for the conclusorily unimaginative interpretation that adultery isn't pretty, no matter how nice it is to watch.

Inspired by the cold Chabrol, which was itself a claimed retelling of Madame Bovary, Lyne's offering is surprisingly the most generous of the three toward its faithless female subject. Despite consistency with the Lyne tradition of finding causal connection between female sexuality and male world devastation, his Connie is not a bored housewife (tool of bourgeois critique) looking for a backbone-cum-erection in her man, nor a spoiled brat looking for the romance novel ideal and inky blue self-sacrifice. She is a an adult and sexual being caught up in the kind of passion that reason comes too late to conquer - the kind that is not wrong because she is married and mother, but because it rubs her soul raw.

It is a credit to the film, too, that while the possession of the character by passion is inexorable, her realization of its hold on her is slow, allowing her (and us) the illusion, the delusion, that each step is minor, each act reversible, so that she almost does not know how far in she's fallen even as she lifts her feet to let the ground disappear beneath them. We watch her play each moment as a separate choice - whether letting a taxi pass or placing her coffee on a payphone - always divided, but never truly in doubt.

The depth and adultness of Connie, however, may well be more due to the utterly stunning performance of Diane Lane than to the Sargent/Broyles script or Lyne's direction. If she is not a sweet-tuned Mary MacGregor sympathetically torn between two lovers, nor a mere symbol suffering from some conflict in consciousness between order and recklessness, it is first and foremost because Diane Lane imbues her with womanly reality. And if Adrian Lyne can capture on his subject/victim's face the flickers of a thousand feelings passing through her conscience and her memory, it is because Diane Lane can make her character tremble believably with fear and desire, regret and compulsion, all at once as the actor who plays her lover caresses her.

The film loses steam (all puns, alas, intended) when the narrative focus moves from Connie to Edward, despite the fact that Edward's self- indulgence with the Frenchman matches his wife's, and that Lyne films the husband's treatment of the lover's body with the same delectation he accords to Connie's. If only more had been made of the parallels...if only the better film had been carried through. But while the actors are up to it (Gere's performance is measured and effective, the actor's trademark cockiness convincingly disengaged), the script and director seem not to be. Once the sex is done and over with, the morality play takes over and the narrative unravels with a dullness undeserved by the characters into which it had previously breathed life.

So it is that in the end, what is meant to be left as ambiguous - in a scene overwhelmed with symbols as choices - comes off as standard melodramatic close.

Reviewers of Unfaithful seem torn between trashing the film entirely or honoring it as a guilty pleasure, but I find myself somewhere else completely. I embrace it as an actor's triumph - and recommend it as an insightful slice of the real - a womanly voiced real - inserted into the unreality of a film that would otherwise have been just more of the same.

©2002 Shari L. Rosenblum