In 1987, Ted Bundy was on the verge of execution, Carroll Cole had recently been executed and Gary Ridgway was deep into the Green River murders – the most sustained serial killing in American history. Domestic violence, rape and assault against women was endemic and underreported, and the Reagan administration was clamping down on the advances made by feminists in the 1960s and 1970s. Nevertheless, one of the defining films of the decade was an account of female stalking – a lurid misogynistic fantasy that spawned the erotic thriller genre that became so popular in the early 1990s, when it converged with the burgeoning straight-to-video market. And Fatal Attraction remains Adrian Lyne’s definitive statement – one of the greatest thrillers of the decade in terms of craft, taking us through a perfectly paced slow build that escalates subliminally and seamlessly over two hours, with each scene calibrated for maximum impact, right down to the overflowing bath that paces out the finale.
Still, you can’t understand the craft, impact or legacy of Fatal Attraction outside of its profound anxieties about gender – and the bizarre ways that it chooses to enact and resolve them. These anxieties play out quite succinctly in the opening scenes, which introduce us to attorney Dan Gallagher, played by Michael Douglas, his wife Beth, played by Anne Archer, and his daughter Ellen, played by Ellen Hamilton Latzen. This trio is presented as a normal, healthy, functional family, but their rapport is slightly askew from the very outset, for the simple reason that Ellen presents as a boy, rather than a girl – in her clothing, in her haircut, and in the tacit way that the first scene, in particular, refrains from gendering her too discretely. There’s already a latent concern in place here that the current generation of mothers are not going to be able to feminise their daughters in the way they were feminised.
These concerns crystallise further in the next two scenes. First, we follow Dan and Beth as they attend a book launch for a self-help title based on Samurai discipline. They joke about the absurdity of this release, but there’s a deeper uneasiness around this absorption of traditional masculine codes into the more feminised world of the self-help industry. We then shift to Dan’s workplace, where he’s conducting a meeting with a group of men, and one woman, about an upcoming roman a clef by a woman who claims to have slept with a prominent senator. After cracking a joke about cunnilingus to put their female colleague in her place, the men question whether women can really be believed, or trusted, when it comes to sexual testimony – a question that resonates quite eerily in the present cultural climate.
The other main character in Fatal Attraction appears to materialise out of these opening anxieties. Dan first meets Alex Forrest, a publishing agent played by Glenn Close, at the book launch, and then finds her suddenly appearing in his meeting the next day as well. He quickly embarks on an affair with her, as if to contain the anxieties that she personifies, and this affair takes us through the abbreviated first act of the film. Here we see the first glimpse of the femme fatale of the erotic thriller, who is also in part the femme fatale of 80s neo-noir. As James Naremore has argued, the femme fatales of the 1940s emerged from the rise of female employment during World War II, and the anxieties returning soldiers experienced when they discovered that women had taken up occupations that previously belonged to them alone.
The erotic thriller had the artistic license and historical distance to deconstruct this situation further. What made the professional women so threatening, the erotic thriller suggests, was that professional autonomy ultimately means sexual autonomy. As soon as women were liberated from dependence on male work, they could also, theoretically, be sexually liberated as well, even if that process was still some decades away. By the time that Fatal Attraction was released, that possibility had become a reality, producing a genre that totally conflates professional and sexual autonomy – a genre driven by a primal fear of the woman who has enough time, leisure and independence to sexually objectify men. It’s no coincidence that Alex lives in the upcoming Meatpacking District, since she treats Dan as a piece of meat too.
Of course, the erotic thriller was also a product of relaxing censorship, and the growth of the softcore, straight-to-video market. Fatal Attraction is thus also foundational in the way it depicts sex – especially the way it establishes the erotic thriller as an oral genre, a program for consuming the female body in a new way. From hereon out, erotic thrillers would try to divest their male leads of their oral fixations on their mothers, only to double down again with lurid sex scenes that nearly always started with them gnawing at women’s breasts. Paired with the endless yuppie backdrops, the eroticism of the erotic thriller lay in this voracious compulsion to consume at all costs, rather than merely in explicit sexual content.
In other words, the erotic thriller was about capital, property and space – it eroticised space in the same way as the neo-noir films that preceded it. This is where Lyne’s craft is most resonant – from the very beginning, every mise-en-scene is blanketed in a tactile hush that mutes the palette into fifty shades of grey, brown and white. Everything subsists on an eerie ambient substrate, just above the threshold of audibility, while most scenes transition slowly, through gradual fades, to evoke a new sexual charge to the space the characters all inhabit. More specifically, Dan meets Alex just as he’s on the cusp of suburbanising. In fact, he can only spend time with her because his wife, Beth, has taken a trip to upstate to New York to check out a property that they’re thinking of purchasing, while also spending time with her parents, who live on a similarly palatial tract of land. The only bright colours in the film come during these country interludes – the green of the grass, and the blue of the river in particular.
With this all established in the first act, the second shifts to Alex’s reaction when Dan calls off their brief affair. As soon as the three-day tryst ends, she becomes hysterical, and goes from independent to deranged in a heartbeat. This transition is the ideological kernel of the film, suggesting, as it does, that a woman simply can’t have casual sex, because even (or especially) the most liberated women are emotionally needy at heart. Every liberated woman hides a hysteric, Fatal Attraction cautions us, presenting Alex as a total psycho the moment she refuses to let Dan conduct the relationship entirely on his terms. In a perverse twist, the film attributes the rise of the male mid-life crisis, as a boomer category, to the oversexualisation of women, effectively exempting Dan from any agency in the drama that now starts to unfold.
This is very different from James Dearden’s novel Diversion, upon which the film was based, which presents Dan in a much more ambivalent light, while engendering more sympathy for Alex as well. Statistically speaking, it was far more likely, in this time and place, that a man would try to kill a woman for not sleeping with him, than a woman would resort to these extreme measures. Conversely, it’s perverse, in the extreme, to present a woman as the embodiment of stalking in this way, although perhaps that’s also the only way stalking could resonate as a cinematic trope at the time. Any reader of true crime will know that male stalking was utterly naturalised during the 70s and 80s (it’s the reason so many serial killers escalated), so perhaps it took a female stalker for men to see that stalking actually existed. Even so, it’s a pretty disingenuous formulation, suggesting that Dan’s bourgeois family structure is simply being violated from the outside, rather than as a result of his own actions.
The most visceral moment, in that respect, comes when Alex turns Dan’s invocation of family values back upon him by claiming that she is pregnant with his child. Whether or not she is actually pregnant is beside the point, since this announcement provides her with the ammunition she needs to call out his hypocrisy in advocating abortion even as he lectures her on the sanctity of family. It’s the only weapon she has in her arsenal to refuse being treated as an adjunct to the nuclear family, as single women, or childless women, so often are – and it throws Dan into a rage by taking away the one moral high ground he thought that he had.
You can imagine this turn – reflecting Dan’s own rhetoric of family values – was what produced so much odium amongst male viewers, and what led to the legendary abuse that was hurled at the screen from male viewers during the film’s theatrical run. For Alex doesn’t simply mirror Dan’s disingenuous resort to family values, but denatures it, turning the very idea of family into a monstrous propostion that involutes his self-appointed role as protector of hearth and home: “Part of you is growing inside of me – I feel you, I taste you, I think you.”
This means that Alex also disrupts Dan’s project of consolidating his family through suburbanisation, by refusing to allow him to seamlessly transition from his New York apartment to his property upstate. He arrives home one day to find her ensconced in this apartment, in conversation with his wife, under the guise of being a potential buyer. Similarly, her first act of vandalism is destroying his car, the main conduit between city and country, and then giving him a tape to play in the car he rents. In all three of these situations, Alex imprints herself on the very flight from the inner city that is supposed to dispel her presence, eventually setting her sights on the Gallagher’s bunny rabbit – the kitsch guardian spirit of their country house, and the emblem of everything they came to the country to experience.
By the third act, which takes place entirely in upstate New York, Fatal Attraction has almost become a slasher film, as Alex dissolves into a series of sightlines that unsettle Dan as he tries to consolidate his family in this new setting. Even as Dan and Beth try to feminise Ellen by co-opting her to deliver their best friend’s marriage proposal, Alex assumes parenthood and property as her right in ever more overt and aggressive ways. First, she takes Ellen for a drive after school, and then she appears in Beth’s bathroom, asking what she is doing in her house, and framing her as the intruder, as Dan locks the doors and windows downstairs before bed.
During these final scenes, the suspense crests perfectly into a full-blown slasher conclusion, and yet the suspense of the film ultimately works against its own message. For the suspense is so palpable, from the start, that Alex is present as a potential within the family before she ever materialises. Rather than being a “real” character on her own terms, she embodies the fragility of the nuclear family, and the fragility of the gender politics of the 80s – she’s a blind spot made corporeal, which again explains the incredible hatred she’s garnered from male viewers over the years. In that sense, there’s a parallel between Alex and Beth, between Dan’s mistress and Dan’s daughter, since neither of them are ever quite feminised in the right way.
In other words, Alex is an ambience – or she’s coterminous with the film’s own ambience – as diffuse as the clouds in the opening credits, the fog that settles on Dan’s house in the third act, and the steam from which she emerges to confront Beth in the final scene. Watching her, I realised that Damages is in some sense a late corrective to Fatal Attraction – a vision of what this powerful figure might have become if she’d been permitted to develop into a character, rather than morphing into a hysteric archetype the moment that Dan and the film were done with her. As brilliant as it is, then, the film’s very ambience and craft is finally complicit in this most lurid of 80s misogynist fantasies, which resonated so dramatically into the early 1990s.