Slick, sleek and genteelly erotic, “Unfaithful” is a high-gloss morality play from the Architectural Digest School of Infidelity, where the handsome furnishings arouse as much emotion as the protagonists’ tangled lives. With one key exception.
Diane Lane, an actress since she was 6 and in movies from “A Little Romance” through “A Walk on the Moon” since she was 12, gives her most completely realized performance as the suburban goddess who betrays husband Richard Gere with paramour Olivier Martinez. Lane’s finely emotional presentation is the film’s convincer, one of the few things about it that feel recognizably real.
Otherwise “Unfaithful’s” message of “you stray, you pay,” efficiently delivered though it is by director Adrian Lyne and screenwriters Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr., is as familiar to modern audiences as miracle plays like “Everyman” and “Wakefield Mysteries” were to medieval ones. Audiences went to those dramas, as we go to this one, not to be surprised but to exult in the familiar, to see comforting morals played out again and again.
In this case it means watching prosperous beautiful people have glamorous sex and irredeemably mess up their lives in the process, proving once again, as one of the characters emphatically states, “it will end disastrously. They always end disastrously.” Lyne, the veteran of “Fatal Attraction,” “91/2 Weeks,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Lolita,” is one of the movies’ last moralists, an expert at using taste and decorum to elevate soap opera material. His is the world of amour fou, mad love, where people are so rip-their-clothes-off crazy for each other we never have to expend the effort to wonder exactly what the attraction is.
Certainly Constance Sumner (Lane) and her husband Edward (Gere) seem like a classic loving couple who have it all, down to a swell house in White Plains, a cute dog and an even cuter kid (the wonderfully solemn Erik Per Sullivan of “The Cider House Rules,” “Wendigo” and TV’s “Malcolm in the Middle.”) But, on the other hand, having been married for 11 years, the Sumners are well past the having-hot-sex-in-restaurant-restrooms stage of their relationship (if they ever had that stage in the first place.) The badly named Constance’s life has grown comfortable. Maybe too comfortable.
Shopping in Manhattan’s SoHo on one of the windiest days in movie history, Constance literally gets blown into Paul Martel (French actor Martinez), quite possibly the sexiest antiquarian book dealer in the entire United States. Fashionably unshaven, with a shock of black hair, an artistic scarf and a come-hither look, Paul is the picture of sexy insouciance, the kind of casually hip guy who probably knew who soundtrack musician Ali Farke Toure was even before he partnered with Ry Cooder.
The sidewalk collision has badly scraped Constance’s knees, and Paul invites her up to his loft for a quick bandage. “I am not an ax murderer,” he says in his best Left Bank accent. “I promise.”
Ever the practiced seducer, Paul offers his guest hot tea and a few lines from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam: “Be happy for this moment. This moment is your life.” Knowing a come-on when she hears it, Constance hastily retreats to White Plains, where husband Edward’s idea of excitement is wearing his sweaters inside out and calling their son “kiddo.”
Not surprisingly--there would- n’t be any film if she could--Constance can"t get the more dashing Paul out of her mind. Soon she is finding reasons to sneak into the city, and though she fears having an affair will be a mistake, Paul trumps her by insisting there is no such thing. “There is what you do and what you don’t do.” You don’t have to have seen Claude Chabrol’s classic “La Femme Infidele,” the basis for the current venture, to know how this is going to turn out.
Though it is difficult to take “Unfaithful” as seriously as it takes itself, on its own terms it’s quite well done. A director for more than 20 years, Lyne practically invented R-rated sexual encounters; Sargent and Broyles are top-flight writers; and Martinez and Gere, who 20 years ago might have played the Martinez role himself, do everything right, albeit in a bloodless kind of way.
The only performer who manages to get inside her character is Lane. Whether it’s her initial half-distrustful tentativeness, her later sensual abandon or her never-ending ambivalence, Lane’s Constance seems to be actually living the role in a way no one else matches, a way we can all connect to. Her reality is the only thing that makes this artificial world worth inhabiting.
MPAA rating: R, for sexuality, language and a scene of violence. Times guidelines: The sexuality is of the late-night cable TV variety.
Diane Lane...Constance Sumner
Richard Gere...Edward Sumner
Olivier Martinez...Paul Martel
Erik Per Sullivan...Charlie Sumner
A Fox 2000 Pictures and Regency Enterprises presentation, released by 20th Century Fox. Director Adrian Lyne. Producers Adrian Lyne, G. Mac Brown. Executive producers Pierre-Richard Muller, Lawrence Steven Meyers, Arnon Milchan. Screenplay Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr. Cinematographer Peter Biziou. Editor Anne V. Coates. Costumes Ellen Mirojnick. Music Jan A.P. Kaczmarek. Production design Brian Morris. Art director John Kasarda. Set decorator Susan Tyson. Running time: 2 hours, 3 minutes.
In general release.