Actors are the most miraculous thing the movies have to offer us -- especially when the odds are stacked against them. Faster and more devastatingly than any special effect, actors who can be believable and authentic in a phony movie can reduce you to a state of wondering: "How did they do that?"
That's pretty much the state in which I watched Diane Lane's extraordinary performance in the new "Unfaithful." This drama of infidelity is exactly what you might expect from Adrian Lyne, the director of "9 1/2 Weeks," "Fatal Attraction" and "Indecent Proposal." The Cecil B. DeMille of our age, Lyne titillates with one hand and moralizes with the other. The audience gets the cheap thrills they came for, and they get to feel morally superior to those thrills at the same time. Lyne essentially makes tony exploitation films. Lane subverts him and his movie with a performance of unusual maturity and sexual honesty.
Diane Lane has been in the movies for more than 25 years now and she's never gotten the recognition she deserves. Part of the reason is that, after her stunning early work in Lamont Johnson's charming western "Cattle Annie and Little Britches" (a film that also marked the movie debut of Amanda Plummer), where she held her own against the likes of Burt Lancaster and Rod Steiger, Lane went through a period of mannered, forced acting. The movies she was making, Francis Ford Coppola follies like "The Outsiders," "Rumble Fish" and "The Cotton Club," didn't help. (She fared better in Walter Hill's 1984 "Streets of Fire," a slick apotheosis of rock 'n' roll movies -- and nearly every other type of B picture you'd care to name -- that's prime for rediscovery.)
At her best Lane seems both fastidious and utterly fresh, ripe and tentative at the same time. She brought all those qualities to the film that signaled her return as an actor, Stacy Cochran's 1992 "My New Gun" (one of the best movies American indie cinema has produced). Since then, Lane has only grown. She turned in wonderful performances as the '60s Jewish housewife who has an affair with a hippie in "A Walk on the Moon," and as the working-class woman waiting for her fisherman boyfriend to ride out a killer hurricane in "The Perfect Storm."
Reviews of that performance concentrated on the deficiencies of Lane's New England accent. But audiences and critics who are unduly impressed by accents often overlook the emotional realities of an actor's performance. That's why every well-spoken mediocre English actor who steps off the boat -- can you say Ralph Fiennes? -- is hailed as if he were the new Olivier.
In those movies, Lane displayed the sort of unprotected emotional openness that is really a mark of an actor's bravery. Lane's eyes and the surprisingly hard set of her delicate features can make her appear tough, as if she'd be perfect playing a noir femme fatale. She is affecting precisely because that aura stands in sharp contrast to her weatherbeaten vulnerability. She has a wary, almost bruised way of smiling that tells you that the women she plays have paid (or expect to pay) for every moment of happiness. So they sacrifice their security, even as the tremors of feeling that cross Lane's face tell you they expect the worst.
Sensational as she was in "My New Gun," "A Walk on the Moon" and "The Perfect Storm," those performances were a warm-up for what she does in "Unfaithful." Lane plays Connie Sumner, a Westchester housewife living an affluent suburban existence. There are suggestions that something is wrong. Her executive husband, Edward (Richard Gere), seems preoccupied with his work, and the movie drops hints that he has a jealous streak. But for Connie those are ephemeral irritations. The lines of communication are still open between Connie and Edward, and they've still got a sex life. It's a good marriage -- which only makes the dissatisfaction you sense gnawing at Connie all the more potent. So it's no surprise when Connie begins an affair with a 28-year-old European book dealer (Olivier Martinez) she runs into -- literally -- during a shopping trip to SoHo. If there's anything daring in "Unfaithful," it's the way Lane makes Connie's decision to risk her comfort and her security -- even for a guy we see is a shallow young stud -- seem reasonable.
Movies and, especially, contemporary fiction have made a near fetish of the woman who has subsumed her identity in the role of wife and mother. When you watch the way Connie goes about getting breakfast or cleaning the dishes or fussing over her young son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan), you feel as if she's afraid to waste a second. And yet Lane knows that those are easy explanations for Connie's affair, clichéd ones. She takes the role out of the realm of feminist case study. With no fuss, no big scenes or speeches, nothing more than the clouds that pass over her face when she's by herself, Lane suggests that Connie is acting out of an elemental human need.
Lane acts with an astonishing physicality. I don't think I've ever seen anything like Lane's first sex scene with Martinez. She's both turned on and terrified, trembling so that, when he touches her, you actually see her flesh vibrate. And Lane is utterly amazing when, after this first assignation, Connie rides home on the commuter train, disheveled and luxuriating in her memory of the afternoon, veering between smiling with pleasure at her own daring, and then suddenly drawing her body protectively inward in a way that lets you know she's thinking, "What have I done?" It's one of the fullest portrayals of sexual desire and pleasure and fear I've ever seen in a movie. Lane doesn't do anything you'd expect. Connie feels guilt and shame but Lane doesn't allow those emotions to dominate. And she doesn't pass judgment on Connie by making the affair a compulsion, and thus an aberration.
Infidelity is as touchy a subject in the movies as in real life. It's almost impossible to discuss rationally. When a marriage is undergoing a rocky phase (whether caused by infidelity or by something else) a couple can, in the midst of their own differences, unexpectedly find themselves bound together by the fear their troubles elicit in their other married friends. Couples often draw away from friends who are having marital troubles lest their own unions become contaminated. And it's that fear, I think, that causes people to be so automatically judgmental about fictional treatments of infidelity. (It's part of the reason that male philanderers are almost always presented as monsters, yet women who cheat are shown to be acting out of need.)
What Lane does in "Unfaithful" isn't going to be balm for anyone's comfort zone. She doesn't play Connie's affair as a rejection of her marriage but as something separate from it. It's not that Lane is using the role to say that an affair is a good thing. But her performance implies the uncomfortable truth that an affair needn't be the end of a marriage, that sexual need can exist outside the bonds of matrimony. She's at her most alluring when she gives a dirty little smile of surprise as Martinez slides his hand down the back of her jeans while they linger over lunch in a SoHo cafe or, at his place, when she slides her own hand down the front to masturbate in front of him.
In one scene, Martinez ventures into a restaurant where Lane is having coffee with some girlfriends and the two of them have a quickie in the bathroom. A few minutes later, in his apartment, she asks: "Did you really just fuck me back there?" She's so alive with sensual pride in her own adventurousness that only a prude would attempt to deny her pleasure.
Yet Lane plays her scenes opposite Gere with only a slight distance between them, no revulsion and (with the exception of one scene where she leaves him in the bath after he's slid in with her), no pulling away. And when she begins to pull away from Martinez, she doesn't play it as if Connie had learned her lesson but as if she has moved on, as if she has found the affair wanting in something she has in her marriage. In some basic way, Lane's performance honors the one irreducible truth about marriage -- that no one outside a union can possibly know, or judge, what goes on inside it.
If Lyne and his screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr. had been as brave as their actress, the movie might be remarkable. But this is, after all, a Lyne movie. You know what's coming when the talk among Connie and her friends turns to affairs and one of them (Kate Burton) says something like, "It always winds up causing trouble." We know that Lyne is putting as much distance between himself and the truths of Lane's performance as he can and making a beeline back to the reassuring ground on which adultery can be judged rather than understood. While Connie isn't the raging psycho Glenn Close was in Lyne's "Fatal Attraction" (a movie that's practically a brief for right-wing notions of sexuality and family values), she is still a woman engaged in an adulterous affair and thus, for Lyne, a catalyst for disaster.
In the second half of "Unfaithful" (which is loosely based on Claude Chabrol's 1969 "La Femme Infidèle"), the point of view shifts to Gere's Edward as he finds out about the affair. He's the good man driven to extremes, and we're meant to understand that it's Connie who's placed him in that position. As the movie shifts into its thriller mode, replete with a pair of dogged, menacing cops (played by Zeljko Ivanek and Gary Basaraba), Connie becomes the movie's Pandora, and Lane works hard to maintain the ground she's gained in the first half. It's about as thankless a position as a Planned Parenthood official appearing on Fox News.
From the start, Lyne is up to his old tricks. The movie opens with tinkly piano music over a montage of a child's bike, a decorative wind chime springing into life, autumn leaves blowing around a yard. It's a fetishization of suburban affluence in the "Ordinary People" mode (co-writer Sargent scripted that film). When Gere describes the advantages of the suburbs that caused him and Connie to leave New York, you wonder what he's talking about. The whole damn movie, shot by Peter Biziou and designed by Brian Morris, is in dour earth tones. It looks as if Restoration Hardware had turned its collection over to a depressive. The real difference between Lane and Gere's comfy showplace and Martinez's SoHo walk-up is that they've got a cleaning woman. The shabbiness of the apartment, defined by the unmade postcoital bed, is meant to stand for the squalidness of the affair.
As a filmmaker, Lyne is a whore posing as a moralist. He uses his hot topics to lure audiences in and then casts stones. "Unfaithful" picks up on a trick he used in "Fatal Attraction": When he wants to convey a disapproval of sex, he stages it to look physically uncomfortable. He has no feel for sensuality, which is a good thing for him since he's a sexual reactionary. We're conscious of the tease of the sex scenes, the way they're cut off by Anne V. Coates' jagged editing, the coy almost-nudity. Instead of just letting the encounters play out (the way Catherine Breillat did in "Romance" and "Fat Girl"), Lyne chops them up. You half expect to pick up the soundtrack and find a track listed as "Adultery Montage."
Lyne even screws up what should be the most daring scenes, like the one where Lane bends over and dares Martinez to fuck her on the landing outside his apartment. A disapproving air hovers over the glimpses of their encounters, like the shot of them fooling around in a theater during a Jacques Tati festival. (What else can you do at a Tati movie? Watch it?) Instead of dovetailing Martinez's espresso-bar Lothario ("Zere are no meestake. Zere ees only what yew do and what yew do not do!") with the hard realities of Lane's performance -- in other words, making it clear that this relationship is about sex -- Lyne has made him the Euro-sleaze who's a must to avoid. (I found it more alarming that when we first see him, he's carrying a Herman Wouk novel.)
I wish Lane's performance could have subverted the entire movie. But she's working against the preconceptions about a woman who cheats, and Lyne, in both his point of view and visual presentation, is working to reinforce them. It's a remarkably grown-up performance in a movie that can stand for the infantile way Hollywood talks down to moviegoers about sex. Gere, who has settled into middle age very comfortably and has recently shown an appealing relaxation in comedy, reverts to the forced, phony acting he did in his years as a young hot shot. With all his anguished thrashing about, he becomes the moral standard-bearer for the boys behind the camera. You want to tell them to watch the hard-won truths of Lane's performance and grow up.