On Screen, Off Screen: Viva Adultery!

A few years ago, some of us leaving a party were standing in the foyer when we got onto the subject of adultery. Maybe another couple had just gotten divorced-always a slightly terrifying occurrence-and we began to ask each other, “What would you do if you found out your spouse was cheating?” Most of us shilly-shallied, hemmed and hawed, answered evasively. “That depends,” we temporized, either for public consumption or because we really didn’t know. A woman half-jokingly said, “I’d kill him.” A man, implacable, said, “Divorce.”

That was before 9/11 ushered in the tempus fugit principle with a vengeance, and people suddenly began contemplating long-delayed matrimony or, for the already betrothed (if the current crop of adultery movies is any reflection), contemplating a long-delayed affair.

As long as marriage is the centerpiece around which we organize our lives, infidelity will always tantalize and disturb in equal degrees. Or perhaps not quite equal: As Freud wisely noted about infidelity (in Sexuality and the Psychology of Love ), “It is one of the obvious injustices of social life that the standard of culture should demand the same behavior in sexual life from everyone-a course of conduct which, thanks to his nature, one person can attain without effort, whereas it imposes on another the severest mental sacrifices; though, indeed, the injustice is ordinarily nullified by disregard of the commands of morality.”

The “his” isn’t gender-neutral; Freud was describing, and perhaps exonerating, compulsively straying men. Women didn’t have “sex lives” (it was a reason for their “intellectual inferiority”-one of Sigmund’s less stellar ideas). Flouting the Sixth Commandment was not an option, and if women did commit the unpardonable, they were branded, flogged, put to death or-in our more enlightened societies-treated as sluts, ostracized, placed beyond the pale.

For men or women, it’s not just dealing with a straying spouse that’s difficult. Adultery itself is a tricky proposition, not that easy to pull off, in life or on film. We may not believe the culprit should be stoned, but some retribution seems fitting. We want the act, whether “motivated” (as a woman’s extramarital fling is classically seen to be) or purely libidinal (men, of course), to have consequences.

This is what makes Adrian Lyne’s Unfaithful so amazing-and disconcerting. When was the last time you saw an American movie in which the woman who cheats on her husband “for no good reason” remains sympathetic to the end? Most of this is due to Diane Lane’s astonishing, powerfully nuanced performance. But give Mr. Lyne some credit for taking such a non-judgmental view of a woman’s carnality. Another film that gives full rein to a woman’s complex desires is the immensely moving Mexican film Y Tu Mamá También . What begins with an armpit view of two randy teenagers soars into a coming-of-age road movie in which the philandering woman emerges as the moral and sensual heart of the story. But in more traditional fashion, her waywardness has both an immediate excuse (a two-timing husband) and, in the twist ending, a moral justification -hence it is “redemptive” according to the rules of old Hollywood movies.

In Unfaithful , by contrast, the affair has no apparent motivation; it happens, it’s over. Connie of Connecticut could almost go back and resume her old life. Almost. She does get caught-thanks to a series of flagrant slips-and a conflagration ensues. After all, we are in punitive, puritanical America, where no pleasure goes unpunished. And do we really want no-fault infidelity?

Even European films and their patrons aren’t quite as sophisticated as we’d like to believe. When Truffaut came to make Jules and Jim , he realized that in order to retain audience sympathy, he had to reduce the number of lovers entertained by his heroine Catherine (Jeanne Moreau), the Nietzschean belle dame sans merci of Henri-Pierre Roché’s enchanting and mordant novel. We’ll put up with more on the page than on the screen, where our one-on-one identification with the star narrows the limits of what we’ll accept. (For example, the woman of large appetites; the woman who loves freedom and reinvents herself from moment to moment; or the seductress who runs through men and stirs things up to maintain her leverage in an unequal world, and according to her own private moral accounting-each threatens the boundaries of civilized life.)

There’s nothing Nietzschean about Ms. Lane’s Connie-at least not on the surface-and that’s how she pulls us in. She’s almost timid: a nice girl afraid of and startled by her own impulses, and the last person to risk everything for a fling. Gradually she unleashes another side in the hands of a lover-Olivier Martinez’s sleazily seductive Euro-hunk in bibliophile clothing-who knows just which buttons to push. Sensing it’s not sweet nothings that will melt her defenses, he tells her to hit him. The moment she does, she’s thrillingly lost, shedding her innocence and her inhibitions in a rash of erotic fury. The responsible wife and mother make way for a woman who wants to feel as sinfully luscious as forbidden fruit, and Connie makes palpable the delicious paradox of the housewife-whore, Belle de Jour on a commuter train, feeling rosy and sore and scraped raw from sex, guilty and ecstatic simultaneously.

La Femme Infidèle , Claude Chabrol’s sly, comic masterpiece from which Mr. Lyne and his screenwriters drew their story, is everything Mr. Lyne is not: witty, ironic, an exercise in style and sensibility, with glacial camera movements capturing the chilly “perfection” of a materially satisfied but emotionally arid marriage. Stéphane Audran, Mr. Chabrol’s then wife, plays the impeccable and impassive bourgeois with just a flicker of disdain, and Mr. Chabrol keeps his audience at a satirical remove until the ending, in which the fastidious little husband (Michel Bouquet) suddenly discovers, through jealousy and the lengths to which it propels him, a grand passion he (and we) never knew he had.

Mr. Lyne, by contrast, panders to materialistic as well as lubricious fantasies; a breath of humor or irony would topple the brick-and-mortar paradise of his well-heeled couple. He so eroticizes marital life (in Fatal Attraction , the child was a pure charmer and Anne Archer was more sensual than Glenn Close; in Unfaithful , the uxorious, tormented Richard Gere is more attractive than the lover) that he makes infidelity even harder to understand. But that, if anything, is his point. His high-concept premises may have all the depth of a glossy magazine layout: think of Demi Moore in Indecent Proposal , and the buzz surrounding the weighty question “Would you lend your wife to Robert Redford for a million dollars?”-to which our loved ones variously responded, “Hmmm … ” and “Tax-free?”

It’s precisely through such crass provocations that Mr. Lyne continually touches a nerve by exposing our dirty little secret: Even when we’re “happy,” fulfilled, blessed by fortune-perhaps especially in those privileged moments-we can be lured away in an instant, drawn by some demonic urge to plunge into a darker form of eros, risking all for the dangerous thrill of life on the edge.

So should we just accept infidelity as a fact of life and say that anything goes? No, the code of conduct called monogamy is valuable as an ideal that humans have created and kept alive at some sacrifice. Marriage is the myth around which we organize our emotional, practical and imaginative lives. Just because we can’t live up to its sometimes onerous demands doesn’t mean we should abandon it. And no matter how prevalent adultery may become, or how easy it may eventually be to pull off, on-screen or in real life, it doesn’t make it any less objectionable to those betrayed.