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Wednesday, Jan. 15, 2003

So you think your marriage is perfect?


Rating: * * * * (out of 5)
Director: Adrian Lyne
Running time: 124 minutes
Language: English
Now showing

I have a sneaking suspicion that filmmaker Adrian Lyne doesn't get invited to parties that much. He's too complex, too difficult, even preachy. He seems to get his kicks out of first titillating you to near-frenzy, then hosing you down with cold water. I'm not saying that he's not brilliant; it's just that he's not the kind of guy you'd want to meet at the cheese buffet.

News photo
Diane Lane and Richard Gere in "Unfaithful"

The great moralist of cinema, Lyne has warned that sexual pleasure never lasts ("9 1/2 Weeks"), straying from marriage ends in disaster ("Fatal Attraction"), one's wife may willingly sell her sexual favors if enough cash were involved ("Indecent Proposal"). And now, the crowning achievement of his art comes in the form of the aptly titled "Unfaithful."

"Unfaithful" pairs Richard Gere with Diane Lane as a well-off married couple in Westchester, New York. And it's not Gere's character who steps out of line (though, with "Dr. T and His Women" still fresh in our minds,you would expect him to). It's Lane's character, Constance (a rather unfortunate name) who does the straying -- and pays dearly for it. Her sizzling, gutsy portrayal of a woman who goes off the deep end with her first extramarital adventure has pushed her name onto the list of Oscar candidates. But then "Unfaithful" draws top-notch performances from the entire cast.

Perhaps for the first time in his career, Gere is playing not the ardent lover but a middle-aged, cuckolded husband with an expanding waistline, and he does so with a deceptive naturalness. And all the qualities we've associated with Gere in the past, like effortless sexual charm and cocky irreverence, he passes onto France's Stud-in-Residence Olivier Martinez, who plays Constance's lover. If there's such a thing as "a husband's worst nightmare," Martinez is it.

On an windy afternoon in downtown New York, Constance Sumner, happily married to Edward (Gere) for 11 years and mother of 9-year-old Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan), is literally blown into the arms of French rare-books dealer Paul (Martinez). Constance's knee is injured in her fall and Paul gallantly invites her back to his Soho apartment for Band-Aids ("I assure you, I'm not an ax murderer," he says, with a melting smile). Constance wavers, then gives in. Paul's apartment is huge, artsy and appropriately bohemian. He gives her a book as a gift whereupon she becomes flustered and hastily returns to the safety of Westchester.

That night, his number flutters out from between the pages. Thus begins a torrid affair that transforms Constance from devoted homemaker to sexually obsessed woman who cries to her lover: "Will I ever be tired of you? Oh God, please let me be tired of you because right now I can't have enough of you." Oh boy.

And so Constance starts pulling a double shift: After spending a delirious few hours in Soho, she tears back to her suburban home duties. In the meantime, Edward notices a change in his wife and puts a detective on her trail. The discovery shocks him out of his Westchester complacency. Almost in a trance, he visits Paul's apartment and consequently witnesses the bed with telltale rumpled sheets.

Lyne's story makes sure the fault rests entirely with Constance. Her husband is financially successful, attentive, loving and a wonderful father -- designed to make male audiences ask with indignation: "What more is a man supposed to do, huh?" But infidelity often has no connection to how good or bad the marriage is, and this is what Lane brings home with her performance.

The sudden and desperate need Constance feels for Paul is totally separate from her home life. It's as if she is two different people, each oblivious to the actions of the other. One minute she's packing lunch for her son and kissing her husband goodbye, in the next, she's draping a bare leg over the shoulder of her lover. Interestingly, it's only when her desire becomes uncontrollable that she wakes up to the enormity of the risks she's taking, and the consequences.

As for Edward, he's supposedly beyond all blame. Even when he gets psychotic, the film draws him as a man pushed beyond endurance. A symbolic incident is when Edward finds on Paul's table a snow dome that he had given to Constance years ago. The sentiment attached to the snow dome had no effect on Constance; she merely wanted to give Paul something from her private belongings, so she did. For Edward, it's an act of vicious betrayal that does far more damage than the sight of the unmade bed.

But what makes "Unfaithful" a masterpiece is that underneath the moralizing, there's an undercurrent of cynicism. Infidelity, lies and violence destroy the fabric of a comfortable marriage, but in the end, it's exactly these things that deepen Constance and Edward's bond, and revive that spark and passion marriage counselors are always talking about.

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