Sometimes it’s frustrating being a Diane Lane fan. For an actress so talented, she appears in a lot of dreck. For every The Outsiders (1983) or A Walk on the Moon (1999), there are three or four Must Love Dogs (2005) type clunkers. Yet, she gamely plugs along, turning in consistently good performances in even the most routine films (Murder at 1600). With Unfaithful (2002), she finally found material that could challenge her by portraying a fascinatingly flawed character in a provocative film. It was a remake of Claude Chabrol’s 1968 film, La femme infidele and was directed by Adrian Lyne, a filmmaker not afraid to court controversy by bringing a European sensibility to sex and sensuality in films like 9½ Weeks (1986), Indecent Proposal (1993), and Lolita (1997). With Unfaithful, he proposed a simple yet intriguing premise: why would a woman with a successful, loving husband and nice child threaten this security with an illicit affair with another man? While his film ultimately conforms to clichéd thriller conventions, Lane transcends the material with a career-best performance that garnered her all kinds of critical accolades and awards, chief among them an Academy Award nomination.
Constance Sumner (Lane) has it all: Edward (Richard Gere), a handsome husband with a successful business in New York City, and Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan), an adorable son. They live in a beautiful house on a lake outside of the city. Not to mention Connie has a body most women her age would kill for. The worst you could say about Connie and Edward’s marriage is that it’s gotten routine. They obviously still love each other and have that familiar shorthand that couples do after living together for years. For example, one morning she notices that he’s wearing a sweater inside out and lets him know before he goes off to work. We first see her in the midst of domesticity, doing the dishes and getting Charlie ready for school. She’s loving and supportive towards her husband and child.
Diane Lane and Richard Gere play this sequence well and are quite believable as a married couple by the way they interact with each other. Lyne inserts little details to reinforce their comfortable domesticity, like how Connie stops the dog bowl from moving around as their pet hungrily chows down on his food – it’s a move that looks like she’s done many times over the years. It also didn’t hurt that Lane and Gere were paired up previously in Francis Ford Coppola’s The Cotton Club (1984) and while they didn’t have much chemistry together on that film, they at least had something to build on.
One particularly windy, blustery day, Connie goes into the city to run some errands and literally runs into a young man (Olivier Martinez) carrying an armful of books. They both go sprawling and she ends up scraping her knees. He invites her up to his apartment so that she can tend to her wounds and call for a taxi. His offer isn’t difficult for her to accept. He’s gorgeous looking and has a sexy French accent. Paul is a book dealer who just happens to look like fashion model – of course he does or how else are the filmmakers going to explain Diane Lane cheating on someone like Richard Gere? Paul is aloof and accommodating but when Connie goes off to use his telephone, he checks her out. The camera adopts his point-of-view, slowly moving up her long legs to her face. No one can quite make a trenchcoat look sexy like Lane does in this scene.
Paul startles Connie by gently placing an ice pack on her knee and first physical contact is made. The look she gives him, a sly smile, makes you wonder if it is at this moment that she first thinks about having an affair with this man. The extremely windy day that starts off this scene is a harbinger, an ominous warning of how turbulent Connie’s life will become once she accepts this man’s invitation. After this alluring encounter, Connie comes home to reality: toys lying around, the dog roaming around and her son watching television. Later, she and Edward try to make love but are interrupted by Charlie – the ultimate mood killer.
Home alone during the day, she checks out the book Paul gave her and inside is his business card. On an impulsive whim, she takes the train into the city and calls him on a pay phone. Paul invites her over and Connie accepts, turned on by the attention she is getting from this mysterious, attractive young man. Once there, he slyly puts the moves on her, taking off her coat so that his fingers brush up against her neck. Lane is excellent in this scene as she conveys the excitement her character feels being with this man, the apprehension of being unsure of what she’s doing, and the inner turmoil as you can tell that she’s trying to decide whether to leave or stay. Ultimately, Connie leaves and visits her husband at work, giving him a present out of the guilt she feels for seeing Paul.
She visits him again and he excites her in the way he looks and touches her. Paul looks at Connie in a very seductive way that makes her feel wanted and desired – something that she doesn’t feel with Edward. She has a moment of conscience where she tells Paul that what they are doing is a mistake, to which he replies, “There’s no such thing as a mistake. There’s what you do and what you don’t do.” Connie leaves and then comes right back to get her coat. Before she can say anything, Paul embraces here and literally sweeps her off her feet. Lyne does an interesting thing here. Instead of just showing their subsequent love scene, he breaks it up by intercutting Connie’s train ride home, juxtaposing her emotional reaction to what she’s done with the act itself. As he demonstrated with 9½ Weeks, Lyne certainly knows how to capture the erotic intimacy of a sex scene.
Lyne shows Paul gently touching Connie’s body, which is trembling in fear and excitement. The emotional turmoil that plays across Lane’s face is astounding as she displays a vulnerability that is quite raw. This gentle foreplay segues into something more primal as Connie attempts one more time to stop this and Paul tells her to hit him so that her aggressive passion that he knows lurks under her conflicted surface will take away her fear. It does as she pummels him and this gives way to passionate kisses as she hungrily devours him. This is intercut with Connie’s train ride home as she reflects on what she’s done. The range of emotions that play across her face as she replays it over in her mind is incredible to watch. She smiles to herself and her hand absently runs across her chest. Her mood darkens ever so gradually before lightening again as she smiles and then breaks out into a laugh. Finally, her face takes on a slightly sad expression. In only a few moments, she has run a whole gamut of emotions and pulls it off masterfully.
Edward has been married to Connie long enough to sense when something is off with her. Early on, he doesn’t have any definite indicator that something is amiss except for a possible small lie that she told him. But it’s enough for him to ask her one night if she loves him. Richard Gere asks Lane in such a way that your heart goes out to his character. He’s done nothing wrong while she’s off having an affair with another man.
Lyne orchestrates another fascinating montage that juxtaposes Connie spending time with Edward and her son at their home with her spending time with Paul in the city. She has fun with both men but in different ways. With Edward, she feels safe and secure in domesticity, and with Paul, she feels excited and passionate. Ultimately, she is looking for someone who can make her feel both safe and passionate. Connie’s affair emboldens her to take unnecessary risks, like kissing Paul in a public place and, by chance, one of the men (Chad Lowe) that works with her husband sees them.
As he demonstrated in both 9½ Weeks and Indecent Proposal, Lyne really knows how to photograph women and bring out their beauty. Unfaithful is no different as he does an incredible job of conveying Lane’s beauty, both naked (the scene where she takes a bath) and clothed (she can even make wearing a t-shirt and jeans look sexy). It is the way he lights her and the angles he uses that bring out her natural good looks. Lane has never looked or acted so well.
When Edward suspects that Connie isn’t being truthful with him yet again, he checks up on her excuse and finds out that she lied to him. To add further risk, when she’s in the city to meet Paul for another tryst, Connie runs into a friend of hers with a co-worker. Unable to ditch them, they all go out to lunch. Connie calls Paul and tells him what happened and he shows up. On the spur of the moment, they have sex in a bathroom stall. Lyne shows a playful side during this scene as he cuts between Paul and Connie’s brief but passionate bout of sex and Connie’s friend talking to her co-worker about how good Connie looks, which is rather obvious. As Edward’s suspicions grow, he decides to have Connie followed and what he finds out and how he acts on it, changes the entire complexion of the story and the film.
The longer the affair goes on, the more selfish Connie becomes and she loses sight of what’s important to her – Edward and Charlie. She has become addicted to her rendezvous with Paul as he consumes her thoughts to the point where she even gets jealous when she spots him with another woman. Connie becomes more desperate and her behavior more erratic as the affair continues.
Richard Gere has the thankless role of playing the spurned husband and he does a good job of eliciting sympathy early on. Edward may not be has handsome as Paul but, c’mon, it’s Richard Gere! The man has aged incredibly well and looks handsome no matter how many frumpy sweaters Lyne tries to put him in. Gere’s finest moment in Unfaithful is when his character confronts Paul. Edward starts off angry but Gere doesn’t chew up the scenery – it’s a slow burn as Edward questions Paul and then he gradually becomes unglued. Gere has to convey a wide spectrum of emotions in this scene and does so quite expertly. From that scene on, his character undergoes a very profound change and it is interesting to see how Gere plays it out.
After years of playing heroic roles in films like Judge Dredd (1995), Lane began to seek out projects that gave her the chance to play more flawed characters. In many respects, A Walk on the Moon was a warm-up for her role in Unfaithful. In that film, she played a 1960s housewife who gets caught up in the sexual revolution of the era and cheats on her husband with a good-looking traveling clothes salesman. Whereas her character’s motivation was clearer in that one, it is more ambiguous in Unfaithful. In fact, Lyne cast Lane based on her work in A Walk on the Moon in which he found her to be “very sympathetic and vulnerable.”
During the production, Lyne fought with 20th Century Fox over the source of the affair. Executives felt that there needed to be a reason while the director believed that chance played a large role. Early drafts of the screenplay featured the Sumners with a dysfunctional sexual relationship and the studio wanted them to have a bad marriage with no sex so there would be more sympathy for Connie. Lyne and Gere disagreed and the director had the script rewritten so that the Sumners basically had a good marriage. He said, “The whole point of the movie was the arbitrary nature of infidelity, the fact that you could be the happiest person on Earth and meet somebody over there, and suddenly your life’s changed.”
When it came time to assemble the crew for this film, Lyne asked director of photography Peter Biziou, with whom he had made 9½ Weeks, to shoot Unfaithful. After reading the screenplay, Biziou felt that the story lent itself to the classic 1.85:1 aspect ratio because there was often “two characters working together in frame.” During pre-production, Biziou, Lyne and production designer Brian Morris used a collection of still photographs as style references. These included photos from fashion magazines and shots by prominent photographers.
Initially, the story was set against snowy exteriors but this idea was rejected early on and the film was shot from March 22 to June 1, 2001 with Lyne shooting in sequence whenever possible. Much of the film was shot in Greenwich Village and Lyne ended up incorporating the city’s unpredictable weather. During the windstorm sequence where Connie first meets Paul, it rained and Lyne used the overcast weather conditions for the street scenes.
Lyne also preferred shooting in practical interiors on location so that, according to Biziou, the actors “feel an intimate sense of belonging at locations,” and use natural light as much as possible. A full four weeks of the schedule was dedicated to the scenes in Paul’s loft which was located on the third floor of a six-story building. Biziou often used two cameras for the film’s intimate sex scenes so as to spare the actors as little discomfort as possible. For example, Olivier Martinez wasn’t comfortable with doing nudity. So, to get him and Lane in the proper frame of mind for the sex scenes, Lyne showed them clips from Five Easy Pieces (1970), Last Tango in Paris (1972), and Fatal Attraction (1987). The two actors hadn’t met before filming and didn’t get to know each other well during the shoot, a calculated move on Lyne’s part so that their off-camera relationship mirrored the one of their characters.
Lyne tested his cast and crew’s endurance by using smoke in certain scenes to enhance the atmosphere. According to Biziou, “the texture it gives helps differentiate and separate various density levels of darkness farther back in frame.” Lyne used this technique on all of his films; however, on a set where cast and crew were filming 18-20 hour days, it got to be a bit much. Gere remembered, “Our throats were being blown out. We had a special doctor who was there almost all the time who was shooting people up with antibiotics for bronchial infections.” Lane even used an oxygen bottle for doses of fresh air between takes.
The last 25 minutes of Unfaithful slides dangerously into formulaic thriller territory, threatening to derail what had been up to that point an engrossing drama about an illicit affair. Why did Lyne feel the need to go in this direction? Did the studio influence his decision and mandate that he incorporate more commercial elements? Lane and Gere do their best to keep things on track and it’s a credit to their abilities that they keep us interested in what is happening to their characters as they transcend the material. In some respects, Unfaithful is a horror film for married couples or for people in some kind of long-term relationship as it shows the ramifications of cheating on one’s spouse. The tragic thing is that all of this could have been avoided if Connie and Edward just talked to each other openly and honestly about how they felt about things. After all, communication is the key to a successful marriage or any meaningful relationship. As Unfaithful shows, lies only complicate things and drive people apart. It’s a harsh lesson that Connie and Edward learn the hard way.