Fifteen years after cementing the erotic thriller with Fatal Attraction, Adrian Lyne provided its elegy with Unfaithful. Between those two bookends, which trace out a long 1990s, the genre became a way for cinema to reckon with an imminent digital future. Against a world of digital dispersal, the erotic thriller insisted on the pleasures of grand cinematic spectacle, and the centrality of the classical male gaze, even if it had to reach to ever more perverse stories to do so. At the end of that cycle, Unfaithful signals the genre coming to terms with these digital textures, its enemy and horizon in the past, while embracing a more expansive and less paranoid eroticism as well. Among other things, that means that this is more of an erotic drama than an erotic thriller by the end, as well as the first film where Richard Gere played second fiddle to a younger and more potent man. Within Lyne’s career, this is also late work, the last film he would direct before returning, twenty years later, with Deep Water, an even later rendition of the erotic thriller mode. Yet where Deep Water has the perkiness of hindsight, Unfaithful is a more melancholy, moody and self-consciously “late” piece of work.
On the surface, there are many of the classical features of the erotic thriller here – the same glassy, pellucid, photographic style; the same oscillation between city and suburbia; the same fixation on real estate; and the same reliance on a perverse proposition, an indecent proposal, to drive the narrative. In some ways, Unfaithful picks up where Fatal Attraction left off, opening with a New York family who have successfully made the move to the suburbs – or the exurbs, since the film is partly set in the Hudson commuter towns that would become such an epicentre of white anxiety television in the new millennium, from Happyish to Divorce to The Jinx. Richard Gere and Diane Lane play the couple, Edward and Connie Summer, who appear to be in a relatively healthy marriage in the first few scenes. This, too, is one of the hallmarks of the lateness of Unfaithful – its inability to generate a plausible or organic crisis in a Boomer marriage; or, alternatively, to make that crisis feel exotic, erotic or transgressive.
From the outset, there’s also a different kind of eroticism at play here from that of the classical erotic thriller, which typically had a visual and oral fixation, elevating the male gaze until it was consuming the screen, and leading to scene after scene in which male protagonists gnawed at their female love interests. By contrast, Unfaithful is tactile, more attuned to a digital regime, and an incipient era of mobile digital devices, when sight and touch have converged more than ever before. The result is a more ambient sensuality, the frisson of feeling alive in public space, but also a movement away from penetrative sex, and its corollary in the penetrating pervasion of the male gaze. Throughout Unfaithful, the hand, rather than the phallus, is the main sensuous organ, a decision that somewhat equalises the exchange between men and women, while queering the film in the direction of what Michel Foucault described as full-body, post-penetrative sex, freed from conventional gendered distinctions.
This new tactile imperative manifests itself as the cyclonic wind that greets Edward and Connie when they first leave their house, and only intensifies when Connie arrives in New York, where it induces a heightened circumambient sensitivity, a proprioceptive delight in the nexus between skin and world. In a distant echo of Marilyn Monroe in The Seven Year Itch, but at a later stage in Hollywood eroticism, this windstorm propels Connie straight into the arms of Paul Martel, a young writer, played by Olivier Martinez, who lives nearby. By the time he invites her up to his apartment to regather, it feels like they’ve already had sex, so intense is their cyclonic collision on the street, so it’s natural that Paul becomes a canvas for Connie’s own seven-year itch, a way of playing out her own feelings about approaching middle age.
Before Paul and Connie touch again, however, they express their tactile communion with a shared interest in books. When Connie is blown into Paul, she makes first contact with a pile of books he is carrying, the only solid point in the midst of the storm, and soon discovers that he is a book dealer, and his apartment is cluttered from floor to ceiling with tomes. Paul is actually renting this flat from a famous sculptor who is currently in Paris, which imbues these books with a European exoticism, but also draws out their sculptural physicality, and their phallic potency. Later on, when Edward visits the apartment, the first thing he will notice is a punching-bag, but for Connie these books are the main totem of tactility, as she bonds with Paul over their shared love of literature. Finally, they touch again, as Paul ices her knee, like a slightly softer burst of wind, before combining literature, tactility and flirtation in an even more dramatic way – by telling Connie to close her eyes, and peruse a braille book with him. It turns out that Paul is completely fluent in braille, as he translates the textures of this book back into spoken language, giving Connie a direct tactile access to his words and thoughts.
This fusion of sight and touch translates the lush tableaux of the classical erotic thriller into moments of sublime tactile communion that Connie initially tries to channel back towards her husband – most notably, by visiting him unexpectedly at work, surprising him with the sheer texture of her presence, and then giving him a big hug and presenting him with a lush cashmere sweater. Lyne relishes the tactility of his mise-en-scene in the same way that Connie relishes the tactility of her relationship with Paul, producing the most textural and cinephilic of all his films, as he basks in the sensuality of everyday objects and spaces. When sex does finally occur in Unfaithful, it’s just as tactile, and insists on the same fusion of sight and touch, playing out in a haptic flurry that addresses the audience in kind, imprinting itself on the skin as much as commanding the eye. In the climax of this sequence, Paul runs his fingers across Connie’s eyes, rests it upon her groin, then traces a single finger along her stomach, and blows on her bare breasts, in yet another errant gust of wind from that opening encounter. Finally, he places his hands between her legs, she joins hands with him, and the tactility grows combative – she tries to push him as he asks her to hit him – as if to reprise the intensity of their cyclonic collision on the street, and translate wind directly into sensuous communion.
This sex scene cements the spatial scheme of Unfaithful, which takes us beyond the classical erotic thriller. Part of the glassiness of the genre stemmed from a need to contain eroticism, but here glassiness comes to stand for a more porous sense of space. On the train home, Connie thinks about Paul, and almost swoons while looking out the window, before Lyne shoots her station to emphasise its porosity and proximity to the Hudson. We then cut to Connie’s snowglobe collection, which fills an entire room, and imbues the glassy look of the erotic thriller with a new fragility – a sense that this perfectly appointed scheme can break at any time. Erotic thrillers loved “imagery” at its most lurid and absurd – big screen imagery – and these snowglobes are the last burst in the classic era, distantly foreshadowing the snail terraria of Dark Waters two decades later. This newfound porosity carries into Connie’s body language, which becomes looser and freer, leading to Edward’s first inchoate apprehension that she is cheating on him, or at least not fully bounded by him anymore: “Do you love me?”
Meanwhile, this porosity drives Connie and Paul into ever riskier acts of frottage, as they pursue what Lauren Berlant and Michael Werner described, three years before, as a program of sex in public – not a “wildness in need of derepression” so much as a fascination with “sex as it is mediated by publics” and in “the radical aspirations of queer culture-building.” This starts with them putting their hands down each other’s pants in a restaurant, and then drawing upon gay cruising, as Paul follows Connie to a lunch with her friends, makes eye contact, and then has sex with her in the toilet, without either of them speaking a word. When Connie returns to the table, her oblivious friends are discussing this very act as their own fantasy: “It would be something I just did for myself, to widen my horizon.” Both Connie and Paul seem tired of conventional private and phallic sexuality, using their hands, rather than their genitals, to negotiate a new nexus between sexual and public space, in the same way that snowglobes are designed to give an illusion of porosity that can still be held in the hand.
By contrast, Edward, and Gere, are a residue of the classical erotic thriller – a repository of the traditional male gaze, of old stately sightlines, of analog presence and prescience. Typically, Gere has the sharpest and most piercing gaze in any film where he appears, but it’s curiously impotent here, as if insisting so much on its own visual primacy that it can’t compute the visual-tactile synaesthesia that Connie and Paul share. We cut from the most tactile and kinaesthetic sex scene of the film to a long still shot of Edward gazing up at Paul’s apartment with a probing intensity that presumes great cinematic distances, especially between the audience and screen, that have already been foreclosed by Paul’s more tactile immediacy. It’s as if Paul and Connie are already having sex in a small-screen, hand-held, portable world, leaving Edward’s widescreen gaze to flounder and drown in its own widescreen aspirations. While Edward understands the mechanics of digital technology – he experiments with a camcorder in the first scene – he’s too old, or to conservative, to learn its its unique affects.
Edward thus personifies the latent fear of the erotic thriller – that conventional structures of desire will slacken, and permit a more polymorphous, more phallic and less public mode of eroticism that both exposes the perversity of the male gaze and leaves heterosexual men behind. For all its edginess, the erotic thriller is primarily interested in foreclosing or absorbing this new erotic horizon, if only by rendering its own male gazes more perverse than any future movement possible could, or by shifting this perversion to a contrived and complicated erotic arrangement. The inability of Unfaithful to achieve this in its third act is what makes it late work, as is its difficulty attributing Connie’s affair to any particular problem in her marriage. Instead, Lyne glimpses a world where women don’t have to be especially upset with their husbands to experience a spontaneous sexual outpouring, and don’t have to feel any guilt about it either. In his efforts to forestall this world, Edward increasingly seems like the pervert, as he hires a private investigator to reinstate the boundaries between public and private space. Aptly, he meets this investigator at the remains of the East Side Pier, a prominent gay cruising site in the 70s, as if unconsciously trying to rein in Connie’s neo-cruisiness as well.
This devolution of the third act starts with the scene when Edward and Paul finally meet. On the brink of a new tactile erotic regime, Edward doubles down on his analog gaze, greeting Paul with a heightened scrutiny, assuming a lofty distance, and asking for details as if he’s grilling his private investigator. That fantasy collapses, however, when Edward discovers one of Connie’s snowglobes on Paul’s bed, bringing us to the crisis point of the film, the nexus between containment and porosity, the glassy climax of the entire erotic thriller genre, as Edward realises that, by collecting snowglobes, Connie has been yearning for this affair for years. The back catalogue of erotic thrillers now becomes so many snowglobes, so many ways of anticipating this moment, which Edward can only repress by using the snowglobe itself as a weapon, and striking Paul fatally on the head, before momentarily absorbing all his tactility in a more morbid and minor key, as blood oozes off the shattered glass and onto his hands.
This fluidity is short-lived, however, since by killing Paul, and disrupting the visual-tactile continuum, Edward paves the way for a third act that is as grating and ungainly as the first two are cruisey and circumambient. It starts with Edward’s egress from Paul’s apartment – the elevator jolts, staggers and shudders to a halt, forcing Edward to manually haul it up until he can squeeze through the narrow gap back to the apartment. From there, he lumbers Paul’s body into the trunk of his car, in the driving rain, heads to a prior family engagement, and bangs the lid of the trunk down over and over again when a well-meaning neighbour tries to help him secure it. Finally, Edward dumps the body in one of his own building sites, high enough to bring back the wind that started it all, which again reaches near-cyclonic proportions, dissociating the film’s images into a glitchiness so visceral that it almost anticipates torture porn. Burying Paul is an effort to repress this tactile sensuality, but only embeds it deeper in the film, just as every mechanical process is now gratingly magnified, until it collapses into the film’s new kinaesthetic regime, rather than containing it, culminating with a brutal and visceral close-up of Edward slicing pizza as local police arrive at his house.
The last part of the film thus plays out as a tortuous effort to contain this erotic wind with measures that end up enhancing it. At one point, Connie swerves around suddenly on the highway, in the rain, popping all the lane markers as she goes, in an effort to generate enough slipstream to restore her rapport with Paul. Later, Edward holds her hand tenderly for the first time, leaning into her tactile communion with Paul, only for Lyne to cut back to the building site, where a vortex of seagulls visualises the wind’s patterns as they swirl over Paul’s grave. Finally, Connie realises that the snowglobe she took to Paul’s place has been returned. Upon inspecting it, she makes a second discovery – that the base of the snowglobe has a hidden compartment in which Edward has placed a message in anticipation of a future anniversary. In the last iteration of the snowglobe, we realise Edward tried to double down on it as an investment against a porous erotic future, but failed, much as the erotic thriller has failed to shore up sufficient resources against the next horizon of sexual liberation, which has now eclipsed the radicality of Boomers entirely. In that compartment within the snowglobe lies the paranoia and perversion of the genre, its compulsion to evoke ever more porous and public erotic futures only to restrain them under the sign of Boomer marriage.
And Lyne is forced to acknowledge that bind, the impossibility of that project, more than ever before, bringing the classical erotic thriller cycle to a close as Edward and Connie end in a liminal space, sitting at traffic lights, considering whether to go to the police station, and turn in the whole genre, or leave America for another country, and a new threshold in eroticism. In the end, Lyne would do both, withdrawing entirely from the digital revolution of the next twenty years, before returning with the extreme lateness of Dark Waters to reflect on that period. Just as Fatal Attraction and Unfaithful bookend the long 90s, so Unfaithful and Dark Waters bookend a different kind of long 00s, turning this particular film into a remarkably resonant and emergent emblem for those of us who lived through this strange period in time – a Foucauldian incitement to discourse, to further and future erotic exploration, that simultaneously acknowledges that the classical erotic thriller is the worst vehicle for this task.