LOS ANGELES, Dec. 17 (UPI) -- "Unfaithful," a heartbreaking thriller featuring career performances by Richard Gere and Diane Lane, is the masterpiece of director Adrian Lyne's spectacular but underrated career. It's now available in DVD ($27.98 list) and VHS (rental only), which should boost Lane's shot at the Oscar. Yesterday, she won the New York Film Critics best actress award.
This film is so strong, so artistically mature, that it's time to reassess Lyne, a critically despised but aesthetically gifted visualizer.
Lyne is frequently denounced for making hits that embody cresting social trends. He symbolized the aerobic exercise craze in 1983's "Flashdance;" the demise of the Sexual Revolution in 1987's "Fatal Attraction;" and the dying out of Anita Hill-era hysteria over sexual harassment in 1993's "Indecent Proposal."
Yet, Lyne is also routinely slammed for directing other films that flop because they are out of touch with their times. He has not had a movie released in the United States in nine years. His 1997 "Lolita" could not even find a distributor here. Although Vladimir Nabokov's 1958 book was voted the second-best novel of the 20th century, "Lolita" is still the story of a child molester, which isn't exactly prime subject matter these days.
Similarly, Lyne shot "9 1/2 Weeks" in 1983, but couldn't get it in theaters for three years because it was thought too erotic for a market growing more conservative about sex. It eventually tanked at the box office in 1986.
Yet, Lyne enjoyed the last laugh when "9 1/2 Weeks" took off on home video. It launched an entire genre of "couples' erotica."
Although "Unfaithful" includes almost as much sex as "9 1/2 Weeks," I didn't find either movie arousing. That's because Lyne portrayed neither Lane in "Unfaithful" nor Kim Basinger in "9 1/2" as sex objects. Instead, the actresses play the subjects with whom Lyne invites the audience, even the men, to identify.
The simplest explanation for Lyne's up-and-down career is that he is an artist who, when financially possible, does whatever he wants.
And what a visual artist he is! Beginning with his lyrical 1983 Diet Pepsi commercials, he's shown he has the Nabokovian eye. He reliably finds the one exquisite detail in an otherwise mundane setting, the obscure but evocative little object or action that illuminates webs of memory and desire.
The problem with Lyne's movies, though, has been their preposterousness. "Flashdance," for instance, is a delirious fantasy about a young woman who welds in a steel mill all day and dances in some kind of futuristic nightclub all night.
With "Unfaithful," Lyne finally has the classic, time-tested plot he's lacked. He responds by keeping his show-offy side under careful control.
The story might seem clichéd, at least before the tragic complications erupt. A beautiful woman (Lane) has a wealthy, loving, and handsome older husband (Gere) and a funny-looking but appealing little boy (Erik Per Sullivan, who plays Dewey on "Malcolm in the Middle"). Yet, she risks all this when she falls hard for a young French rake (Olivier Martinez of "Before Night Falls").
This seems like the stuff of a million straight-to-cable erotic thrillers. Yet, remember that adulterous love triangles are also at the heart of many of Western civilization's archetypal stories, from the tale of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot down to "Casablanca."
"Unfaithful" was adapted from "La Femme Infidèle," the French New Wave director Claude Chabrol's celebrated 1969 anti-morality tale about how following bourgeois conventions leads to violence.
Lyne's ace screenwriters -- double Oscar-winner Alvin Sargent ("Ordinary People" and "Julia") and William Broyles ("Apollo 13" and "Cast Away") -- retain many of the well-crafted mechanics of the original thriller's plot. But they reverse the moral of Chabrol's story. In "Unfaithful," social rules against adultery aren't what drive people to bloodshed. As in "Fatal Attraction," it is violating bourgeois morality that opens the gates to primordial anarchy.
Both Lane and Gere enjoy dream roles. They play wealthy, well-organized people who think they can keep their clandestine passions hidden from each other, but can't.
Gere's natural gloominess, which caused him to look as if he despised even being seen in "Pretty Woman" with perky Julia Roberts, makes him ideal in the role of a decent man who senses that his world is collapsing.
Lane was a sensation as a beautiful 14-year-old in 1979's "A Little Romance." Yet, she then foundered for two decades before starring in "A Perfect Storm." With the dread age of 40 rapidly approaching, she was running out of chances to deliver a great lead performance. Like Barry Bonds hitting 73 home runs at the same age, Lane has come through in the clutch.
"Unfaithful" took in $122 million worldwide, with most coming overseas.
Rated "R" for sexuality, language and a scene of violence. It's for grown-ups.