"Adore" is a twisted sexual drama about misguided affections between older women and younger men, which wouldn't be all that outrageous if not for the dicey details, so let's get right to it.
The sons are of age, with college on the horizon. The boys, not the mothers, are the seducers. It's all very civilized, but still ... They really are still boys. And the affairs begin at a time in life when the kind of men they will become is still in flux.
In a country hyper-sensitive to sexual relations in virtually any form, "Adore" is built on a kind of line-crossing that doesn't rest so easily. Which is to say, it's a challenging film, but maybe not as challenging as it should be.
Everywhere the camera turns — even the painful parts — is gorgeous, gauzy, idyllic, as if the images, like the lovers, are in denial too.
Perhaps the film, based on Doris Lessing's novella, "The Grandmothers," about two best friends in Britain, may play differently in Europe where attitudes are looser, less puritanical.
Certainly "Adore's" slighter, warmer title suits its stars and its handling of the subject better. And its director. Anne Fontaine usually applies a light touch to tawdry tales. "Dangerous Liaisons'" screenwriter Christopher Hampton, who collaborated with the writer-director on 2009's "Coco Before Chanel," worked with her to adapt the complex sexual alliances Lessing toys with.
There is a sort of natural progression at work in "Adore," an explanation for why and how the entanglements happen.
Lil and Roz, Watts and Wright respectively, have grown up together, married and live in houses only a stone's throw apart. They each have a son, Ian and Tom, who have become best friends too.
The families do everything together, and are blended so completely it is hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. It's true when Lil's son Ian (Xavier Samuel) says that Roz is like a second mother. Until one night ...
In the heat of that night, Ian grabs Roz in a passionate embrace that soon leads to wild abandon. The shock of the scene, caught in a glimpse, drives her son Tom (James Frecheville) next door and into Lil's arms. The complications and complicity of what follows are where the movie spends most of its time.
The film opens years earlier with Lil and Roz as young girls swimming madly toward a wooden float anchored off shore, a place where secrets are shared. The girls are barely dry before they are young mothers with husbands and sons. A funeral quickly removes Lil's spouse; a top university job in Sydney, Australia, will soon dispense with Roz's. Harold (Ben Mendelsohn) fears that Roz and Tom won't join him, setting the stage for moral dilemmas to come.
The ocean and the float are images the film returns to many times. Water is for transitions. The boys hit the waves with their surfboards and return full-grown. The float is where we discover the current state of affairs. Who is lying next to whom will tell us a lot.
There is a bit of resistance at the beginning, when Ian makes that first move. Doubts do flash across Roz's face. But a weird everydayness sets in. Roz and Ian, Lil and Tom, always together. Dinners shared, life looks virtually the same through the lens of director of photography Christophe Beaucarne, one of Europe's rising stars, who also shot "Coco" for Fontaine.
The women do become grandmothers and this is when the film's story feels most real. The pain of the breakups is almost unbearable, giving their lovers over to other women a sacrifice made for the sake of their sons, for "family" harmony.
And yet, setting the premise aside for a moment, it is far easier to buy Wright and Watts as younger women moving into middle-age. Grandmother territory is a stretch, especially since both wear the bikinis they spend much of the movie in so well.
Falls from grace fueled by sexual urges are Fontaine's sweet spot. But like the French director's 2003's "Natalie," more typically high-end prostitutes are pushing the buttons, not refined mums. The very casualness about the specific sexual slide in "Adore" weakens the film. The choices come with a cost, but they weather it too easily.
There are no echoes of Watt's fiercely protective mother in "The Impossible," which earned the actress her second Oscar nomination earlier this year. Her quandaries are wrapped up in sexual need and her childhood friendship rather than any damage to the boys. But Wright holds something back even as Roz gives in, and in doing so saves her character and nearly rescues the film.
The actress only grows more brilliant with time, her current run as a savvy political wife on the Netflix series "House of Cards" is stunning. As such, it would be easy for her to overshadow the film, but Wright is a generous actress and Samuel, in particular, is a standout opposite her. He's made Ian so sensual, so insistent and yet so wounded by his father's death and his all-consuming love for Roz, that you can almost understand, if not forgive, all that "Adore" lays bare.
MPAA rating: R for sexual content and language
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
Playing: In select theaters