Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful often ends up in the bathroom.
I’m always on the lookout for domestic thrillers with weird bodily fluid obsessions, so naturally the toilet fixation in Adrian Lyne’s 2002 film, Unfaithful, caught my attention. A remake of Claude Chabrol’s La femme infidele and Lyne’s last film to date, the film opens with a prolonged peeing shot and closes with a wet bed. In between, there are enough scenes shot in the WC to make anyone regret having chugged down a bottle of Aquafina before pushing play.
But then, this is a film about the emotional incontinence of the bourgeoisie. Connie Summers (Diane Lane) is a gorgeously middle-aged suburban housewife who begins an affair with young French Lothario Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez) after being literally swept into his arms while shopping on a blustery day. Lane’s superb, slow-burning performance earned her an Oscar nomination and several other screen-acting awards; her face, often shot in extreme close-up, is so sensitive and vulnerable that her jowly husband Edward (Richard Gere, who put on weight for the role at Lyne’s insistence) looks positively opaque by comparison. Midway through the film, the perspective shifts from Connie to Edward, and from one type of incontinence—Connie’s lust—to another—Edward’s rage, which erupts into violence. The melodrama becomes a domestic thriller, though a reluctant, murky one that focuses more on the crime’s emotional consequences than its legal ones.
In the New York Times, Stephen Holden praised the film’s nuanced portrayal of marriage but sniffed that Lyne’s glossy direction and moody natural lighting betrayed his background in advertising. (According to Lyne, Stanley Kubrick once cold-called him to offer him a job based on one of his milk commercials.) Holden’s right; the gothic windstorm that rips the bag of children’s party supplies out of Connie’s arms and scoots her into Paul’s arms is Dante’s Inferno by way of a perfume ad. If there’s anything Lyne the adman knows inside and out, it’s the dangerous sheen of fantasy that desire lays over the real. The narrative is dreamlike, the windstorm expressionistic, because Connie, whose perspective we follow for the first half of the film, wants desperately to believe in fate over accidents.
Which brings us back to bathrooms: as intimate in their way as bedrooms, they feature prominently in domestic thrillers. But just as Lyne’s Fatal Attraction subverted the erotic bubble-bath cliché by setting its final jump-scare in a tub, Unfaithful’s requisite bathtub scene is the least amorous seduction in the film, an unsuccessful come-on by Edward to his estranged wife. Meanwhile, toilets keep intruding on the dreamlike narrative, just as they do in actual dreams, when labyrinths of anxiety and desire suddenly dead-end in the banal abjection of the bathroom. In the opening sequence, Connie’s eight-year-old son, Joe, slams the toilet seat down midstream, making the first big mess of the day. Later that afternoon, after winding her way to the john through the stacks of books in Paul’s bohemian apartment, Connie accidentally knocks a pill bottle into the commode and stares at it in horror for a long moment before fishing it out. The two eventually make frantic love in a public-toilet stall. Toward the end of the film, after everything’s gone, as they say, into the crapper, little Joe tearfully reports a bed-wetting incident. Connie, newly chastened by her own experiences, says ruefully, “Everyone has accidents.”
And how. As if to highlight the childishness of the fantasy Lyne depicts, the murder weapon itself is a toy, a snow globe depicting a man and a woman on a windy day. Edward apparently brings these kitschy souvenirs back from his various business trips, as gifts for Connie; recognizing her meet-cute in miniature, she passes it on to Paul. If it’s hard to think of a less sexy gift from a husband to a wife, much less a woman to her lover, the fantasy ultimately proves more durable than the reality. At the end of the film, the snow globe, at least, is in one piece.
Amy Gentry is the author of the debut thriller Good as Gone, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in July 2016. Her writing on books and culture has appeared in Electric Literature, Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, Salon, Fusion, and the Chicago Tribune, among others. Amy holds a doctorate in English and lives in Austin, Texas.