Feeling Cheated 

Unfaithful (R)
20th Century Fox

The problem with infidelity is that there are no neat moral solutions. It's a messy business that shakes or kills trust and almost always leaves scars. But infidelity is as uniquely human as fidelity -- witness the number of fallen Baptist ministers and evangelicals who have succumbed to the lure of a female congregant if you doubt it.

Cheating-obsessed film director Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal) must have an infidel or an infidelity in his past that he's never been able to reconcile, else why would he continue stalking the demon as in his most recent release, Unfaithful? For Lyne, a rare Hollywood moralist, infidelity signals sure disaster with no exceptions.

Unfaithful is modeled vaguely after Claude Chabrol's 1969 La Femme Infidele, in which the spurned husband kills his wife's lover, bringing the couple mysteriously closer. No judgment, just inexplicable human lust, loyalty and desire. In Lyne's film, scripted by Alvin Sargent (Ordinary People) and Williams Broyles Jr., the plot is simplified into two distinct acts -- the affair and what happens after the affair, the act and the judgment from on high.

Diane Lane (Walk on the Moon) delivers the most accomplished, nuanced performance of her long career as Connie Sumner, a well-heeled Westchester housewife who spends her days taking care of her quirky little son, Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan of TV's Malcolm in the Middle), and doting on her husband Ed (Richard Gere).

Ed's a straight-up guy, owner of an armored vehicle company in New York City, who has orchestrated the perfect upper-middle-class life for his family -- swanky country day school for the kid, a storybook suburban house with a dock and a boat and a knock-out wardrobe for his wife, and the promise of no messy problems for himself. Gere plays against his usual type-cast swaggering lady's man with solid, middle-aged certainty and maturity. Ed's a nice enough guy, but ultimately he bores us with his good-natured blandness and sends Connie scurrying to the city in search of carnal adventure.

On a portentously windy day, she literally crashes into Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a sexy SoHo book dealer who will soon become her paramour. Their affair and her enraptured horror at what she has become in the throes of erotic passion compose Act One of the film.

Unfortunately, Act One eclipses Act Two by a mile. Lane's simultaneous ecstasy and anguish are played out in an astonishing solo scene on the train home where she wiggles in her seat, recalling her first tryst with Paul, acting with only facial expressions. This affair is not a fling; it's a stumbling block to hard-won maturity, a rite of passage that sizzles and stings. Lane is compelling in every scene and Martinez is intriguing as her lover -- attentive, smart, gorgeous and composed -- even when confronted by Connie's confused, heartbroken, outraged husband.

But Lyne wants us to hate Connie and Paul's affair -- all of it -- so he sets us up for the inevitable disaster. We are supposed to accept that the infidels deserve Ed's wrath, no matter how extreme. Ed is not left to wrestle with the moral and emotional complications of infidelity; he simply acts. He hires a private investigator, realizes he has been cuckolded, pouts and sniffs around the house and ultimately confronts Paul. The rest of the movie plays, weakly, off of that confrontation. Lane is resigned to the role of guilty wife, unaware of how far her husband has gone in seeking revenge.

Basically, as it plays out, the first half of Unfaithful is unflinchingly adult and complicated and the second half attempts to wrap it all up in a neat, little moralizing package. The result is both frustrating and unsatisfying.

Lyne's visual style speaks volumes. We see the wind whipping through the Sumner's idyllic Long Island home, hundreds of anonymous commuters emptying out of the train at the end of the day, a boxing bag hanging amid the rows and rows of dusty vintage books in Paul's apartment. Had the director exercised the same kind of tasteful restraint in getting his message across instead of bludgeoning us with a single plot twist, perhaps we would walk away feeling as if we'd learned something about the human state of affairs. Instead, we walk away feeling slapped on the hand, wondering exactly how far-reaching the need for revenge extends. Lane's character, Connie, has grown, but the film traps her in its judgment -- attraction outside of marriage is fatal, no matter what.

-- Kathryn Eastburn


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