Alvin Sargent died on Thursday at the grand age of 92, which makes him sound like some doddering survivor from the golden age. In fact, he was very much of the current era, playing a big part in the original Spider-Man trilogy of the oughts and then in the 2012 franchise reboot. I'm not sure why a man who won Best Screenplay Oscars for Julia and Ordinary People should find himself ending his days as a master of superhero "franchises" and their attendant "reboots", especially when he's barely twenty minutes younger than Stan Lee. But it surely had something to do with his long relationship with the much younger studio exec Laura Ziskin - which always reminds me of the old saw about the actress so dumb she slept with the writer. Miss Ziskin was a blonde who slept with the writer, but she was smart and powerful, and one consequence was that Alvin didn't get consigned to the scrap heap by the usual twelve-year-old studio vice-presidents. Nevertheless, I thought we'd mark his passing with a film that came out the same year as the first Spider-Man but is perhaps more typical of Sargent at his solid professional best. It was co-written with William Broyles (sometime spouse of our pal Linda Purl).
In 2002 Unfaithful divided American audiences. Some thought it just Adrian Lyne's usual slick, shallow multiplex soft-core'n'soft furnishings formula. Others thought Diane Lane gave a performance of blistering intensity and reckoned the sex was really hot (mainly female moviegoers d'un certain âge, as I recall). I find myself falling somewhere in between. Miss Lane makes the film real. But I can't say I cared for the sex, much of which seems to be some sort of vaudevillian novelty act in which her lover's penis demonstrates its ability to suspend Miss Lane for hours on end halfway up the wall of the apartment stairwell, a public toilet, etc. I was once on a ferris wheel that got stuck with me at the top but kept jerking mechanically, so perhaps I'm just being triggered. But at any rate once you're up there you're going to be up there a long time. It doesn't help that, for most of us chaps, the guy the penis is attached to is a complete tosser.
Unfaithful is a loose adaptation of Claude Chabrol's La Femme infidele (with the fabulous Stéphane Audran). That's to say, it's the adaptation that's loose, not the woman, who's really quite proper. Critics moaned that she's a cipher, but I think that's a deliberate tactic. She's a Mrs Everywoman: you don't need the details of her life, you understand it immediately, from the opening scene. She's getting her little boy ready for school, and he's taking a leak, and she calls down the hall to remind him to put the seat back down, and he slams it down through his cascade of urine before she can add, "...when you're finished". This is her life: intimacy means pee and poop and pets, and wiping down and cleaning up. Her husband is Edward Sumner (Richard Gere), who's affectionate and rueful and self-deprecating. They live in a detached abode in the New York suburbs, in the Hudson Valley, where the morning sun dapples the kitchen so tastefully it's almost like the house has a central room-dappling control unit in the boiler room. The mood here is contentment: Constance, as her name suggests, is good for the long haul — she loves her husband, her child, their home. She is happy. Lyne establishes all this in an unobtrusive shorthand.
The shorthand for lover boy is less adroit. On a trip up to town one day, Connie is literally blown off her feet by a Wizard of Oz-style twister that dumps her in the arms of Paul Martel, and instantly she knows she's not in White Plains anymore. Paul is played by Olivier Martinez, a Gailic stud whose main purpose in the movie seems to be to see how many of the lamest clichés the chicks'll still fall for. He has designer stubble! He knows poetry! He has a tat, but small and tasteful! He quotes Omar Khayyam, and nobody laughs! He's an antiquarian bookseller, and all his lines are extremely well-worn. Think Fabio with George Michael's facial hair, Antoine de Caunes' accent, and Bill Clinton's snake oil. But, instead of grabbing at her hooters, he sends her to the far end of the room, way down the aisle, and instructs her to find a certain book on a certain shelf and turn to a certain page, on which it is written: "Be happy for this moment, for this moment is your life." Gee, it's almost like he's done this before.
Women go for this stuff? Apparently so. Paul is a master at passing off legover pitches as deep thoughts: "There's no such thing as a mistake. There's what you do, and what you don't do." But it doesn't matter that his routine's a bigger stinker than a ten-year old camembert. It doesn't even matter that the principal object of his affection is very obviously himself. He fills an absence in Connie's life, not of love, but of falling in love — the thrill of the first meeting, the first tentative exchanges, the first touch, the first time; all the things that in a placid happy marriage recede further and further into the past. On the commuter train afterwards, all possible emotions — passion, disgust, exhilaration, fear, joy, self-loathing — pass across Connie's face as she relives the afternoon. Indeed, Diane Lane's facial expressions in this picture are a full supporting cast all by themselves.
Miss Lane anchors the movie: she plays real and she looks real, with just enough lines and hints of wrinkles; a beautiful woman who's been distracted by too many school runs and charity committees. But a word should also be said for Richard Gere, an American gigolo playing against type and one of the great narcissists of contemporary Hollywood here eschewing all his usual tics. He knows her too well, loves her too much not to notice, and the big confrontation scene is affecting because it turns on the heart of the dilemma: a man who loves you so much he wants to grow old with you versus a man who exists entirely in the present.
What follows in the movie's third act is less satisfactory — lame thriller coincidences in which anything mechanical that can jam will jam. But the ending redeems the picture, and makes you appreciate just how odd it is for contemporary tastes: sex is not just a passing fancy, but profoundly disruptive, not life enhancing but life shattering, and what's broken cannot be remade. The fling cannot be unflung.
~Mark will return in a few hours with a seasonal special for this Mother's Day weekend.
There'll be plenty of movie talk on the Second Annual Mark Steyn Club Cruise, sailing up the Alaska coast in early September. Among Mark's guests will be Dennis Miller, star of Disclosure, The Net, What Happens in Vegas and, of course, Bordello of Blood, as well as Phelim McAleer and Ann McElhinney, producers of last year's Gosnell. And Kathy Shaidle, who covered for Steyn in Mark at the Movies last summer, will also be aboard. Cabins are going spectacularly fast - and we're all but sold out. If your preferred accommodations are showing up online as unavailable, do call or email Cindy, our excellent cruise manager, and she might be able to pull a few strings: If you're dialing from beyond North America, it's +1 (770) 952-1959; if you're calling from Canada or the US, it's 1-800-707-1634. Or you can email your query here.
This week was the second anniversary of The Mark Steyn Club. If you're one of our First Week Founding Members, we thank you for your support these last twenty-four months, and are thrilled you've decided to re-up for another twelve. Club membership isn't for everybody, but it helps keep all our content out there for everybody, in print, audio, video, on everything from civilizational collapse to our Saturday movie dates. And we're proud to say that this site now offers more free content than ever before in its sixteen-year history.
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