Diane Lane Stumbles, Smolders-Richard Gere Plays the Square

Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful , from the screenplay by Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr., loosely based on Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidèle , brings to mind Vittorio De Sica’s crypto-Marxist, anti-”white telephone,” pre-neorealist aphorism to the effect that adultery is the only drama of the middle class. Mr. Lyne is no stranger to adultery and other forms of illicit sex on the screen; throughout his career, he has stopped considerably short of outright pornography, but gone well beyond traditional inhibitions against explicit carnal expression. The critical verdict on previous Lyne leer-fests like 911/42 Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987) and Indecent Proposal (1993) has been, at best, very mixed. And, of course, his provocative 1997 treatment of Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita took full advantage of the relaxation of censorship since Stanley Kubrick’s 1962 version, in which the verbal virtuosity of Peter Sellers served as a comic diversion from the nitty-gritty of nymphet worship.

Unfaithful is ideally cast for defiantly unmotivated fun and games. Diane Lane, especially, is a spectacular revelation as the contented, married suburban housewife Connie Sumner, who literally stumbles into a Soho affair with messily bohemian Paul Martel, played with convincing charm by the young French star Olivier Martinez. To complete the film’s casting coups, Connie’s cuckolded husband Edward Sumner is played by Richard Gere without any of the cocky, kinky trademarks of most of his previous roles. Mr. Gere’s Edward, owner of an armored-car company, is clean-shaven and square to the point of Cubism, though never neglectful or unloving toward his wife and their little boy Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan).

At the big theater screening of Unfaithful , I could sense a slightly giggly buzz in the audience, as if to ask what was Connie’s problem with such an idyllic life and marriage? I can’t recall anyone asking that question when Michael Douglas’ happily married husband and father indulged in a one-night stand with Glenn Close’s hot-to-trot career woman in Fatal Attraction . Ah, the good old double standard rides again.

In my view, however, the sheer pleasure and passion manifested by Connie both at the moment of being willingly seduced by her lover, and afterward in her lascivious memories, releases a physical and emotional explosiveness in Ms. Lane’s acting that I can’t recall in her otherwise admirable, but comparatively restrained, past performances. Truth to tell, Ms. Lane has been around such a long time-with film credits stretching back to 1979-that one would think she was well into her 40′s or beyond. But having started her film career in her early teens with A Little Romance , she is now only in her late 30′s, with a fully developed maternal-but not matronly-beauty.

Still, the mechanics of audience manipulation in mainstream movies being what they are, Mr. Lyne has taken a big risk in making Connie enjoy her outings with her unkempt lover without displaying any guilt or remorse over the betrayal of her marriage vows, and indeed with little fear of being caught. We have come a long way from Celia Johnson’s aborted adultery with Trevor Howard in David Lean and Noël Coward’s Brief Encounter (1946), and even Max Ophüls’ and Louise de Vilmorin’s Madame de … (1953). In those benighted times for cheating wives, the female sinners tended to suffer guilt without sex. Not so in Unfaithful , in which the sex scenes erupt from every angle to provide a cinematic equivalence for the heroine’s orgasmic ecstasy. The first meeting of Connie and Paul is more caused than accompanied by an unnaturally swirling wind, an almost blindingly papery turbulence. The future lovers crash into each other and onto the sidewalk-an act of fate, or perhaps a way of getting Connie off the hook with a more casual pick-up. She does have a chance to walk away, a chance she ruefully recalls when it is much too late.

As in Fatal Attraction , Mr. Lyne has a problem finding an ending for an adulterous relationship that eventually explodes into violence. Mr. Lyne wants to have it both ways: problematically acrobatic sex scenes and a baroque retribution that reassures a hypocritically puritanical audience that the wages of sin is death for someone, though not necessarily the sinner. Yet the audience doesn’t want the marriage to be shattered permanently, particularly with a cute child to be considered. The ending I saw left us all hanging for what came next, except that there was no next-only the end titles.

There is a way of accepting what the movie has to offer without penalizing Mr. Lyne too severely for being something of a tease, if not a complete hypocrite. The close-in lyricism of both the enraptured sex scenes and the blissful home scenes creates an unreal world in which beautiful people cavort, while we pretend that the guilt and fear which paralyze the rest of us in such situations somehow applies to these cinematic gods and goddesses as well. Ultimately Unfaithful is escapism in its purest form, and I am willing to experience it on that level, even though with all the unalloyed joy on display, there’s almost no humor. But trust me, I have given this matter a great deal of thought. Besides, Unfaithful is one of the very few mainstream movies currently directed exclusively to grown-ups.

A Reverence for Women

Shohei Imamura’s Warm Water Under a Red Bridge , from a screenplay by Motofumi Tomikawa, Daisuke Tengan and Mr. Imamura, based on a book by Yo Henmi, combines a comically dismal social realism with a farcically bawdy fantasy of redemption and regeneration. The 75-year-old Mr. Imamura has made 19 films since his first feature, Stolen Desire , in 1958. His Ballad of Narayama won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Films Festival in 1983, and The Eel won the same honor in 1997. He shares with Kenji Mizoguchi (1898-1956) a profound obsession with women. Indeed, he has been quoted as saying of the new millennium: “Someone said the 21st century will be the era of science and technology. I agree, but I’d like to add one thing: The 21st century will also be the era of women.”

In his latest film, Mr. Imamura begins with the plight of Yosuke Sasano (Koji Yakusho), a laid-off worker in an architectural firm that has gone bankrupt, an all-too-familiar phenomenon in contemporary Japan. Yosuke’s estranged wife keeps hounding him on his cell phone to get another job, or at least pick up his unemployment insurance and wire her some money pronto, if not sooner. Yosuke, however, is a born loser who drifts aimlessly on the streets of Tokyo looking for nonexistent work.

One day he stumbles upon Taro, a fellow wanderer, who tells Yosuke that he once stole a valuable gold Buddhist statue from a temple in Kyoto and concealed it in a house by a red bridge in a town on the Noto Peninsula, near the Sea of Japan. The red bridge in question becomes one of the film’s visual constants when, after Taro’s death, Yosuke recalls the story of the gold statue, which could solve all his financial problems, and immediately sets off to find it. Upon reaching the town, he heads to the supermarket, where he spots a woman shoplifting. When Yosuke goes to the spot where the woman was standing, he finds an earring in a mysterious puddle of water. Following the woman to her house by the red bridge, he discovers that she is Saeko, the granddaughter of Mitsu, an old sweetheart of the late Taro. Yosuke returns the earring to Saeko and discovers the mystery of the puddle of water: It comes from Saeko as a form of orgasmic release, and this water has the power to make flowers bloom out of season, and to draw fish from the sea into the river. Yosuke immediately becomes her lover and enabler, and decides to settle down in the town and work with the other fishermen, even though the gold statue is nowhere to be found.

A group of hoodlums from Tokyo arrive in town in search of the Buddhist heirloom, but after a few alarms and excursions, Yosuke and Saeko settle down for life in the house by the red bridge. Yosuke has cured Saeko of her “affliction” with his constant attentions, and he’s prepared for a new life. But not before Mr. Imamura has reaffirmed the infinite and magical fertility of women.

Spirits and Crockery

Olivier Assayas’ Les Destinées Sentimentales , from a screenplay by Jean Fieschi and Mr. Assayas, based on the novel by Jaques Chardonne, is a curiously attenuated attempt at a three-hour film covering the first three decades of the 20th century in the French porcelain and cognac industries-as revealed through the story of two lovers struggling to stay together through the entire period. There is a minimum of the traditional “bridging” spectacle associated with the genre, yet it’s a paradoxical thing about watching movies: Many of the conventions you’re sick of seeing leave a gaping hole in the continuity once they’re omitted.

The cast itself raises perplexing problems over the imagined three decades. Steadily losing steam are the beauteous Emmanuelle Béart as the principal love interest, Pauline, and Charles Berling as Jean Barnery, who is first seen as a Protestant minister in a loveless marriage to Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie. When last we see him, he is dying, the head of the family’s porcelain factory and tended by his one true love, Pauline. In between there have been many misunderstandings, a Great War, several financial crises, and a rift between a daughter and her parents. Time passes with a vengeance, and Ms. Béart is placed in the awkward position of seeming too old for the early sequences and too young for the later ones.

Strangely, the film completely lacks devices of the Proustian madeleine or Wellesian “rosebud” variety to bind the three decades together emotionally. People get older and die, but haphazardly, without ceremony. Family gatherings are chaotic affairs with no recognizable link to the central narrative. The ultimate result is interesting, but not compelling. Mr. Berling’s male protagonist concludes that love is all that matters, but it is said more than it’s felt, and told more than it’s shown.