2002 rewatch: Unfaithful brought sex to the summer movie season, before the superheroes took over
Every week, Entertainment Weekly is looking back at the biggest movies of the summer of 2002. As audiences struggled to understand the new post-9/11 world order, Hollywood found itself in a moment of transition, with upcoming stars and soon-to-be-forever franchises playing alongside startling new visions and fading remnants of the old normal. Join us for a rewatch of the first true summer of Hollywood's strange new millennium. This week: Critics Leah Greenblatt and Darren Franich take the commuter train to Unfaithful. Last week: Spider-Man launches the age of the superhero megahit. Next week: The clones attack.
LEAH: Darren, it feels only fair that we honor the seven-and-a-half week anniversary of our favorite spicy snail opus, Deep Water, by looking back at another Adrian Lyne project, Unfaithful. Can you believe it's been 20 years since Diane Lane forsook her safe suburban housewifery for bathroom coitus in lower-Manhattan bistros with a dreamy French bookseller?
There's no one quite like Lyne when it comes to hot sex followed immediately by harsh moral judgment (see: Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, 9 ½ Weeks); I mean, this is the guy who chose to retell Lolita in the year of our Lord 1997. Unfaithful is freely adapted from a 1969 French film, La Femme Infidèle, though the basics of the plot are pretty much the same: Edward (Richard Gere) and Connie (Lane) have their bucolic Westchester life with a son and a dog; he does something mogul-ish with a trucking company, while she mostly stays busy doing rich-mom things.
Clearly not busy enough: A chance encounter in Manhattan with Paul (Olivier Martinez), a Parisian expat with impossible bone structure and a seemingly unlimited capacity for afternoon delight, leads to a passionate affair. And spoiler, Edward quickly starts to suspect something is amiss. It's all steeped in peak early 2000s erotic-thriller style — Lane earned a well-deserved Oscar nod for the role — though I have to admit I'm one of those psychopaths who enjoys the first golden hour of things much more than the half with the consequences (hence why I always drop off a little bit after Jude Law's Dickie dies in The Talented Mr. Ripley). Are you a better human than me, hopefully?
DARREN: Only Nixon could go to China, and only Adrian Lyne could make Unfaithful. At his apex as a purveyor of flesh-peddling grandiosity, he delivered a carnal frenzy about marital ennui, with a focus on female complexity and an emotional delicacy most erotic thrillers never attempted. Like you, I love the first hour, which enraptures Connie in a have-it-both-ways fantasia. A biblical wind pushes her towards the dreamy Frenchman, who lives in a sexy SoHo library. That's just a short train ride away from her awesome house, where her genial hubby and goofy son wait patiently. (They have a personal dock!) Diane Lane does three careers' worth of acting in the scene where Connie takes the train home from the first hook-up. Her face cycles through excitement, embarrassment, fear, and desire. (Can you believe she lost the Oscar to Nicole Kidman's bad prosthetic nose in the historically bland The Hours?)
One subtle twist is that nothing really seems wrong with Connie's marriage. You always get the sense that she loves Edward, while she never really learns anything about Paul. The affair is pure lust, and Unfaithful isn't even a proper thriller until the 70-minute mark. Even then, the machinations of violence and paranoia are notably subdued. I'm one of those married psychopaths who enjoys scar-tissue portraits of marriage gone wrong, so I was pleasantly surprised on this rewatch to remember how sharp Gere and Lane are as a couple. Their relatable issues supercharge the melodrama. Circa 2002, I thought Unfaithful was the start of a thoughtful new chapter for Lyne. That didn't happen. In fact, the entire erotic thriller genre basically ended.
I'm curious, Leah, do you think Unfaithful plays any differently today, given how completely this kind of film disappeared in the decade that followed? Also, was 2002 the very last moment when a main character (in this case Connie) could believably never use a cell phone?
LEAH: Diane melting into the phone booth in Grand Central when le garçon tells her to come over! You don't get that on a T-Mobile plan. I think it's more than fair to say that films like this were part of the last gasp of adult dramas at the multiplex; as we well know, Unfaithful came out only a week after the first Spider-Man, though no one could have guessed at the time what a zero-sum game that would eventually be.
I will beg to differ on one point: I think Edward is kind of a creep here. Yes, he's handsome and wealthy and Richard Gere, but the unctuousness of his character, his utter devotion to Connie, also reads weirdly possessive and sort of performative. He thinks it's cute that she has her little auctions and errands to run, but is he really filling up her cup, emotionally? Which is not to say she was remotely justified in running off to eff a Frenchman. But as a married couple they often feel like a relic of a much earlier time — something straight out of Cheever country, this Mad Men world where a wealthy, well-educated wife and mother in her thirties is so adrift that she'll burn a whole day just buying party favors for a child's birthday party. At least in 2022, she'd have a mommy blog or something: Connie the Influencer.
I do wonder if technology played a bigger part in the general decline of films like these than we give it credit for. Or at least whatever made them cinematic; watching movie stars fiendishly scroll through the cloud for evidence of infidelity just doesn't carry the same frisson as hiring a private detective (we see you, Uncle Junior!) to take artfully framed black-and-white shots of your own cuckolding. Still, Connie chooses her family when it counts; I remember that Lyne said he made the actors come back to reshoot the ending to make it more ambiguous, that bit where she's begging Edward to just run away and start a new life and then it pans out to the police station. What's your take on that final scene — did Edward turn himself in, or do they learn to live with what he's done? And more importantly, how many married people who chose this movie for date night came home and surreptitiously moved any stray snow globes down to the basement?
DARREN: Man, did 21st century technology just make the whole world less cinematic? I'll ponder that question while I consider the ending, which changes every time I watch it. When I saw the movie in theaters, I thought Unfaithful wrapped with a jangled ode to, well, faithfulness: The Sumners healing their rift by sharing an unspeakable sin. They would never mention the whole sex-and-murder thing again; they would spend happy years watching little Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan) grow up to pursue his career as a professional singing bunny. This go-round, Gere's steadily-more-unglued performance made me think conscience nudges Edward into that police station. Either path is bittersweet: a marriage rebuilt via homicide, a murder solved by separation.
I suspect any spouses hunting for a May 2002 date night probably opted for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. Unfaithful made back its budget domestically and did decently abroad, but the business was already changing. The film landed between a Spider-Man and a Star Wars, franchises that still dominate the landscape decades after their origin point. We live among relics, is what I'm saying, so that Cheever quality you're pinpointing doesn't seem too retro to me. Edward might be a bit vacant, but he pays enough attention to catch Connie's lies right away. And Gere plays his cuckold with zero smoothness — even his act of killing seems like a helpless tantrum.
He suffers, though poor Paul certainly suffers much more. Martinez' presence is already a bit of an artifact: Are there still Parisian sculptors who let their rare-book-dealing friends live in downtown lofts? But it's precisely that lush quality — SoHo at its most boho — that gives Unfaithful its surprising edge. Like Connie, we get trapped in an evocative fantasy. (Leah, the soundtrack has instrumental Radiohead!) The first hour builds a sexy snow globe for the audience. The second hour bashes our head in. That makes Unfaithful an artful send-off, both for a director going on a two-decade furlough and a genre that still hasn't recovered its old prominence. Never forget how deftly the script (credited to Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr.) subverts the usual archetypes. Usually, the nice townsfolk get corrupted by the big city. Here, a genial Manhattanite runs afoul of Westchester's finest, and winds up dead in — horrors! — the suburbs.