Indecent Proposal was Adrian Lyne’s spiritual sequel to Fatal Attraction – and it’s a fascinating benchmark for how the erotic thriller had shifted in the previous six years. The genre moved so rapidly, and converged with the straight-to-video market so dramatically, that by 1993 it was already in its final throes – at least as a genre that was meant to be consumed in cinemas. Indecent Proposal charts this decline with quite a schizoid structure, devoting its first half to a preposterous premise that holds its own with the very best erotic thrillers, before shifting, in its second half, to a more conventional and sentimental resolution that seems designed to differentiate it from the softcore, straight-to-video viewers that now dominated the market.
In fact, the first half hyperbolises the basic beats of the erotic thriller, effectively forming a deconstruction of its key fantasies and attributes. The fixation on property, and the erotic capital of property, is foregrounded from the very first scene, which introduces us to David Murphy, played by Woody Harrelson, and his wife Diana Murphy, played by Demi Moore. David is an architect, Diana is in real estate, their courtship began by looking at architecture together, and they’re in the midst of planning their dream home when they film begins. They’ve bought their dream lot, a property overlooking the water in Santa Barbara, but they don’t have the money – yet – to begin constructing what promises to be a massive mansion.
At the same time, this first half forms a pinnacle of early 90s erotic style. As with so many erotic thrillers, sex and consumption are fused to form an oral fixation. Every sex scene starts with David gnawing at Diana’s breasts, while their bodies are nearly always covered with a patina of sweat that they lick off, or else compound with further drooling. The body has here become a kind of liquid surface for consumption, culminating with the last major sex scene of the film, which sees Diana frolic around on a waterbed before John covers her in a wad of cash, and fondles her and the greenback at the same time, until her body is clad with notes.
This sex scene occurs on a holiday to Las Vegas, which both accentuates the opening aesthetic of the film and sets the main narrative premise in place. In Vegas, Lyne floods his mise-en-scenes with sensuous monetary objects and ciphers that take on the main erotic burden for the rest of the film. The casino is the perfect backdrop for this process, since the circulation of money is so tangible and sensual here. We start with extreme close-ups of the gambling tables, which emphasise the clink and chink of roulette balls and gambling chips, then we shift to a series of other objects – most notably a plate of chocolates, in an upscale boutique, that Diana erotically fondles and caresses, before slipping them surreptitiously into her handbag.
While she’s doing this, she notices that she’s being watched, by a middle-aged man who turns out to be John Gage, a wealthy business magnate played by Robert Redford. Rather than chastise Diana for stealing the chocolates, John responds to her fetishistic enjoyment of them, providing her with a series of other monetary surrogates to whet her appetite for the pleasures he might be able to provide. Shortly after, he bets a one million coin, and, seeing Diana near the gambling table, asks her to roll the dice for him, drawing her into sensuous proximity with the coin, the dice, and the chips that he ends up collecting once they both win.
Through John, then, the film turns the chink of coins into a fetishistic prospect, thanks in part to its spectacular sound design, which takes the trademark hush of the erotic thriller, and brokers it to contour the moments when cash-like ciphers clink and mingle. Eroticism, here, lies with small objects in sensuous collision, so it makes sense that John delivers the indecent proposal of the title during a game of billiards. As the balls click and ricochet off each other, he promises to pay the Murphys ten million dollars if he can spend the night alone with Diana.
After much discussion, Diana and David agree to the proposal, bringing in a lawyer to draw up the contract before John whisks Diana away for their night together. We never see what they actually do, or what John actually demands, but in a way that’s irrelevant, since the whole point of the exercise is to demonstrate his command of erotic space, rather than satisfy his particular peccadillos. No sooner does David regret the contract, than he finds that John has taken Diana, by helicopter, back to Los Angeles, where he sets her up for the night in his lavish yacht, which commands the view of the Santa Barbara coast that the Murphy’s dream property was meant to assume. No surprise, then, that John ends up using a real estate loophole to purchase their lot as well, absorbing the sightlines that were meant to be theirs.
From here, the style of the film totally dissociates, as John absorbs all the serene erotic energy of the first half, but without actually doing anything explicitly sexual. Rather, he continues to serenade Diana, when they all return to Los Angeles, through property, taking her on a tour of the city’s most extravagant homes, and cementing their burgeoning romance by showing her his own palatial estate. The boat where they spend their fateful night together becomes the progenitor for a real estate empire that effectively contains the film’s own erotic energy, leaving David in a strange, schizoid situation outside the spatial logic of the film. As Diana and John make love on the boat, David runs in a manic rage, and loses himself in the endless reticulations of Vegas, finally catching his breath in front of an enormous bank of television screens that reflect his fractured psyche. For the rest of the film, he barely emerges from the same manic state, which draws him even further towards the televisions, and the televisual obsession, that was the province of the straight-to-video, softcore erotic market at this time.
In other words, the different trajectories of John and David, and the way Diana is torn between them, allegorises the dissociation of the erotic thriller itself at this moment in history. Whereas John stands for cinematic legitimacy, David embodies tortured television obsession, meaning that the film itself can only continue by finding a way to broker John’s cinematic sheen to restore David’s relationship with Diana. This is a pretty absurd prospect, given John’s proposal. To satisfy it, Lyne turns John into a continuation of Jay Gatsby – Gatsby in his fifties – smothering John’s predatory instincts beneath an erotic remove and melancholy distance that eventually helps bring David and Diana’s marriage back from the brink. In a final double twist, John tells Diana that she’s merely one of many women he has tested with his indecent proposal, sending her back to David. But he then reveals, to his chauffeur, that she was the one, that this time – this time only – he fell in love with his quarry.
While the film does manage to retain a cinematic legitimacy that would be untenable on a straight-to-video release, the collateral damage is that it stops being an erotic thriller in the process, effectively and reflexively signalling the end of the (cinematic) erotic thriller despite itself. Ironically, that doesn’t prevent it being as preposterous – or more preposterous – than your average erotic thriller, since the more that it tries to repress its ludicrous premise, the more that premise returns in bizarrely refracted ways. You would never have guessed, from the opening scenes, that the denouement would take place against a sub-par Billy Connolly stand-up set, or revolve around a home video of hippos feeding, but that’s how it turns out.
The second half of Indecent Proposal is thus an apology for its softcore first half – an attempt to differentiate it from the straight-to-video market with big-screen legitimacy. This wasn’t an issue when Lyne made Fatal Attraction, so this doesn’t represent a decline in quality so much as a shift in milieu. Over the second half, we glimpse several possible endings, some of them quite true to the first half, but in the end Lyne goes for the only conclusion that wouldn’t be tenable in a more overt softcore release. For someone who initially makes such an extreme proposal, John turns out to be a nothing character, while the final scene is neither erotic nor thrilling – just Diana and David renewing their vows in the cheesiest way possible. To be sure, Fatal Attraction ended with a similar resolution of the family structure, but the minor key refrain and cursory ending (we only saw a photograph of the restored family, rather than the family themselves) offset the kind of moral seriousness that is on display this time around.
Yet the very kickback in the second half simply reiterates what is so clear in the first – that the real subject matter of the erotic thriller was erotic capital, rather than sexually explicit content per se. In the end, Indecent Proposal tackles this in a remarkably reflexive way, shifting restlessly in its second half to try and maintain its own erotic capital, along with the erotic capital of the erotic thriller as a cinematic mode. And that’s what the erotic thriller was finally all about – reiterating the erotic stock of cinema, and the theatrical experience, at a time when video, gaming and digital technology were creating new kinds of intimate immersion.