Apart from Paul Verhoeven, no director was more associated with the erotic thriller than Adrian Lyne. He pioneered the genre with Fatal Attraction, released Indecent Proposal at its peak, and bookended it with 2002’s Unfaithful, which at the time felt like a very late instance of the mode. Twenty years later, and nearly forty years after Fatal Attraction, he’s returned with another erotic thriller, and the latest in the many adaptations of Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water. The film, like the novel, revolves around a man, Vic Van Allen, played by Ben Affleck, who permits his much younger wife, Melinda, played by Ana de Armas, to conduct a string of affairs with young men on the condition that she remain with him and their young daughter. When these young men start to turn up dead, suspicion quickly lights on Vic, who refuses to go out of his way to clear his name (and initially) confesses, deadpan, to the crimes.
Like most erotic thrillers, Deep Water exudes a smouldering sensuality, full of lingering gazes and tipsy, cruisy, promiscuous thresholds, as befits a film about an open marriage. Yet making an erotic thriller is a considerably harder task in 2022 than it was in 2002, let alone in 1992. In part, that’s because erotic transgression is much harder to pull off in a post-internet world where every possible sexual fixation or fetish can be visualised at a moment’s notice. At its peak, the erotic thriller was in competition with the emergence of online pornography, desperately insisting that cinema (or at least home video) could still provide the most titillating thrills. That moment and contest has well and truly passed by the time we reach Deep Water, which may explain why a film that is so obsessed with sex contains so little of it.
More generally, erotic thrillers were arguments for analog spectacle and cinema in the face of a rapidly digitising world. This conflict has also passed by the time of Deep Water, as Lyne and screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson acknowledge in the depiction of Vic’s character. We learn that Vic made his money by developing a computer chip for use in drone cameras, and that this chip has mainly been used to organise strikes in the Middle East. Whereas Vic’s sexual angst cries out for the cinematic extravagance of the classic erotic thriller, his invention inexorably embeds him in a digital economy in which big-screen spectacle no longer holds sway, at least for mid-budget adult-oriented films. The hegemony of the multiplex and home video was often the only thing preventing erotic thrillers from devolving into total inanity, partly because their preoccupation was with maintaining the multiplex and video store as the dominant sites of spectacle. Vic’s chip forms part of twenty years of warfare on this media ecology, leaving him without any stable language for his angst.
Vic’s compromise is to spend his free time working on Xenophon, an art photography magazine. Retreating from the world born by his drone chip, he runs a small studio where he develops analog photographs and curates photographs that are submitted by other enthusiasts. Appropriately, the film doesn’t focus too much on this side of Vic’s life (at least initially) since it’s an impotent and empty gesture, a desperate attempt to rewind time and pretend that digital media never overtook cinema and visual spectacle. Only towards the end of the story, when Vic resorts to extreme measures to reassert his control of the film’s mise-en-scenes, does this photography studio start to come into play and shape Lyne’s aesthetic.
Deep Water thus follows in the footsteps of earlier erotic thrillers by conflating erotic anxiety with medial anxiety. In Vic’s case, the eroticism stems from Melinda’s betrayal, although her sexual escapades are so overt and unapologetic that this is really more like modern polyamoury. Since Affleck is so much older than De Armas, their relationship plays out largely in generational terms, like the last monogamous generation seething in rage at the first properly polyamorous generation. Polyamoury also feels like the logical endpoint of the primal fear of the erotic thriller, which was also that of noir and neo-noir – that women might become sexually autonomous enough to treat men in the same way that men treat them. For much of Deep Water, Melinda plays the role of the “man” – she has the bigger sex drive, she’s bored by family and bourgeois life, and she’s only interested in traditional masculinity as a fetish, rather than a regular character trait, which deflates Affleck’s brooding before it begins.
This deflation of Vic (and Affleck) is a problem for the erotic thriller, which was typically built around contentious or provocative propositions – indecent proposals that tested the limit of public discourse. Since any and all of Vic’s erotic provocations are pre-empted and punctured by Melinda, he reaches instead for a deadpan insistence that he murdered Martin McRae, her previous lover. He first “confesses” this crime to Joel Dash (Brendan C. Miller), her lover as the story begins, before retracting and confirming the story to several people, until it’s impossible to read his sincerity by the time the next murder happens, midway through the script. Apparently Highsmith’s novel was a major influence on Gillian Flynn, and you can see traces of Gone Girl here, as Vic’s utterances become the subject of widespread speculation, and eventually turn into a sort of miniature media event. Both here and in Gone Girl, this situates him at the precarious cusp between public and private disclosure that formed the erotic charge and kernel of the erotic thriller – what made it erotic – except that here the erotic content is almost entirely subsumed into this threshold, rather than relying on sex acts.
Deep Water thus speaks to an era in which eroticism has shifted from the depiction of discrete object choices to queasy cusps between public and private space. Lyne captures that shift by presenting the film as an unregulated and undifferentiated sensual field, in which every shot drowns in a thick sensuous murk – the deep water of the title – that makes it difficult to extricate any one erotic relationship. The narrative is less interested in what acts we might draw out of this sensuous field than what lengths Vic might go to contain and control it, a question that crystallises round the most fluid scene in the film – a pool party that Lyne escalates with liquid camera work, tendrils of mist that creep across the water, and finally a rain storm that confounds all distinction between the pool and the bodies in and around it. The body of Charlie De Lisle (Jacob Elordi), Melinda’s current lover (at this point) emerges lifeless from this peak fluidity, begging the question of whether Vic deliberately drowned him.
For most of the second act, Lyne doesn’t answer this question, instead collapsing the ambiguity of Vic’s involvement (he was the last person in the pool with Charlie) into the defiant public-private incohesion of his earlier confessions. The question of whether Vic committed the crime is now absorbed into a broader erotic reworking of his relation to domestic space, which starts with the way he relates to his own house. From the opening scenes, Vic is never in control of even his most intimate spaces, and tends to be sidelined by occluded perspectives that see him glimpsing stuff through doors, stairwells and curtains. He frequently feels like a stranger in his own house, partly because it’s difficult to differentiate his house from the other homes in the film, so fluid and provisional is Lyne’s vision of place.
In addition, the action unfolds in New Orleans, amongst houses that capture the Southern style at its most porous and fluid. The promiscuous spatiality and musicality of the Big Easy see us move incidentally and indiscriminately from one spontaneous gathering to another, all of which feel like they’re unfolding beneath the water table, in a semi-submerged state that corresponds to the sensuous murk that enthickens Vic. In one final devolution of bourgeois space, Melinda’s last boyfriend, Tony Cameron (Finn Witrock), reveals that he is building sustainable open-place housing in Brazil, and encourages her to join him. New Orleans feels entirely porous with South America during this proposition, as the last residues of the middle-class American home collapse into a more collective and promiscuous sexual configuration.
Within that sensuous murk, only two spaces retain the traces of an older bourgeous insularity. The first is Vic and Melinda’s car, the most contained space we see in the film, which suggests that the middle-class home can now only exist in transit, as a line of flight from its own fantasies of itself. As the erotic crisis of the film escalates, Vic goes to ever more extreme lengths to claim the inside of their car as his own. In one of the earliest scenes, just after our first introduction to their open marriage, Melinda goes down on Vic as he’s in the front seat, and bites him, almost causing him to crash. For a while, that emasculation makes it impossible to discern what’s outside during car trips, which mainly take place at night, and are shot so as to occlude any sense of the surrounding suburban topography. However, as soon as we discover Vic was indeed involved in the drowning, Lyne cuts to side-on shots of the car, and clear reflections of the streetscape, as if disposing of Melinda’s latest lover has permitted him to embed the monadic car back in a more realistic and recognisable bourgeous topography.
The second of these older bourgeous spaces is the snail house that Vic keeps in the back garden. In a house and neighbourhood that seems to collapse into the porosity of Melinda’s sexual appetite, this is the only part of his home that Vic can definitively call his own, so it’s a major transgression when Tony casually suggests that he and Melinda eat some of the snails for breakfast. As Vic retorts, “the snails are not for eating, they’re for nothing” – they’re an empty signifier of heterosexuality that grows perverse and twisted when it’s got no point of reference other than itself. We learn, in time, that Vic dumps his victim’s possessions into the terraria, and gets his biggest erotic thrill from watching the snails trail over them, and fondling them after they do so. Rather than representing a retreat to a traditional heteronormative space, the snail house reveals that traditional heternormativity was always a perversion, but a perversion that has been so exposed and denaturalised that Vic can now only indulge in it with total immunity in the snail house, the last residue of his older middle-class masculinity.
Of course, the snail house is also a classic erotic thriller conceit, with its lurid terraria, neon lights and bursts of mist. Yet it marks a shift from the traditional erotic thriller, which nearly always culminated with lurid lesbianism as the most transgressive cinematic spectacle, to a new era that reaches instead for a lesbian critique of heterosexuality to envisage the erotic future. Highsmith was known for preferring animals to people, and particularly snails, which she would bring to parties, and introduce alternatively as her spouse or children, puncturing the rhetoric of reproductive futurity by collapsing it into perversion, abjection and slime. Something of that critique continues here, making it impossible (again, as in Gone Girl) to envisage any version of the present in which Vic’s character recentres his masculine brooding.
This may explain why some critics found the film slow, repetitive or anticlimactic. However, I thought there was a fascinating impotence to Vic’s efforts to turn the car and snail house into a bulwark against the erotic fluidity of Lyne’s world. Having mastered the early, classic and late erotic thriller, Lyne uses the third act of Deep Water to reflect on what makes the genre untenable in 2022, much as we might still feel deeply attached to its lush atmospherics. This last part of the film is driven by two trajectories, or two versions of the same trajectory. On the one hand, Vic propels his enemies more penetratively towards more overtly vaginal bodies of water, culminating with two drownings at a local gorge. He cements the disposal of Tony in the gorge by returning the next day, and presenting Melinda with a photo-essay. Most of the images repeat the occluded perspectives of the film, but the last is a full body shot of her, at the same gorge, when she was eight months pregnant. For the briefest of moments, Vic seems to have gathered the film’s digital-erotic fluidity back into his own analog art photography, while reframing it as his proprietorial relationship to his wife’s amniotic fluid.
No sooner has he achieved this precarious analog-erotic containment, however, than the body of Tony re-emerges from the gorge. Vic manages to hurry Melinda and his daughter away before they see it, but when he returns for a third time, he’s pursued by Don Wilson (Tracy Letts), a neighbour who has suspected him all along. In a peak erotic thriller climax, he chases Don, who is driving a Land Rover, on his mountain bike, eventually forcing him off the road and through the woods, before he careens into open space and crashes into a quarry further upstream. Placing Vic on a bike is a wonderfully absurd premise, but the bike-car chase isn’t just about the absurdity of the erotic thriller genre. By deliberately biking, rather than driving, to dispose of the body in the gorge, and then chasing Don on that same bike, Vic extends the provisional domesticity of the car to a broader (if still precarious) control over the space (just) outside. This inside-outside cusp leads to the film’s ending, as Vic reunites with Melinda on the cusp of their house, which also turns out to be the cusp of the film, since we now realise that this reunion was also the opening scene, bringing the narrative full circle.
Upon learning that Vic killed Tony, Melinda becomes attracted to him again, and tacitly promises to both end her affairs and not tell the police. It’s a totally implausible ending, but it has a kind of deranged genius in its projection of the key fears of the erotic thriller twenty years later. In one final touch, Lyne rolls the credits over a sustained sequence of Vic and Melinda’s daughter singing “You Make Me Feel Like Dancing” in the back seat of their car. In another context, this would be a feel-good home video, but it’s incredibly eerie in the context of what has gone before. It seems that Tony has indeed reclaimed control of the bourgeois sphere, and normalised that car-home into a broader domestic serenity, but that very normality brims with the lurid extravagance of the erotic thriller, which has been repressed but not traversed, and is perhaps most resonant, in 2022, as precisely this perverse normality.