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Tuesday, September 23, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 71.0° F  A Few Clouds
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Unfaithful is that rare thing, a mature movie about adultery. It's not like directors haven't tackled this subject before, but when they do they tend to lose their bearings, get all hot and bothered (but mostly bothered). Adrian Lyne, who directed Unfaithful, has spent the better part of his career pursuing adulterers, and in the past he's come after them with Old Testament fury. In Fatal Attraction, boiling the rabbit was Glenn Close's way of saying "Thou shalt not abandon me." And in Indecent Proposal, Demi Moore would end up begging God's forgiveness for her one-million-dollar-night-stand. You can almost hear Lyne licking his lips in these salacious melodramas; he loves it when people stray from the path. But Unfaithful is different, somehow ' older, sadder, wiser. Lyne isn't rubbing our noses in it this time. He's letting human nature take its course.

In a performance that will surely be remembered next spring, Diane Lane is Constance, an upper-middle-class housewife who may not realize how tired and bored she is. Her husband, Edward, is played by Richard Gere, and that may explain why she doesn't notice. A silver-haired hunk, he dotes on her in that can't-believe-I-still-love-you way, and they share a sprawling 19th-century farmhouse with their 8-year-old son. But Constance appears to be drowning in comfort, which is why, when she literally runs into a handsome French guy (Olivier Martinez) on the windswept streets of Manhattan, she reaches for him like a lifeline. Does Paul represent the passion that has seeped out of her marriage? It's hard to say, which is one of the wonderful things about Unfaithful. As tight-lipped as a wandering spouse, it refuses to offer the old familiar explanations.

What it does offer is the sad spectacle of a happily married woman giving in to forbidden desires. When Constance first beds down with Paul, her body shakes so hard it nearly goes into convulsions, and you'd have to be a trained therapist to sort through all those emotions ' guilt, fear, lust, exhilaration. Lyne shows it to us via flashbacks as Constance is riding the train back to the suburbs, subtly suggesting that she's already having trouble getting Paul out of her head. Not that there's much to Paul beyond what Erica Jong once called "the zipless fuck." He's a sex fantasy ' a Gallic stud who, gently stroking the English language, says things like "Your eyes are amahzeen. You should nezer cloze zem, even at night." Well, it doesn't take much of that before Constance is hooked on Paul like a drug, another victim of amour fou.

Lane gave a heartbreaking performance in A Walk on the Moon, where she played a woman who'd married so early she didn't have time to consider the alternatives. Infidelity suits this thirtysomething actress. It brings out the contradictions in her screen presence ' the strength and the vulnerability, the coldness and the warmth. Unfaithful doesn't give Lane a backstory to work with. We know nothing about Constance's marriage except for what can be inferred from the way she looks at her husband, and Lane's face shifts emotions like a kaleidoscope. (Lyne has called the movie "an erotic thriller about the body language of guilt.") Although she looks great for her age, her age does show through in the worry lines that, like a tell in poker, announce how she feels about the cards she's playing. And the pot just keeps growing.

At 52, Gere is still holding on to a decent portion of his movie-star looks, and not only is it difficult to imagine a woman going out on him, it's painful to see him in the role of cuckold. Which is the point: Constance has everything to lose, nothing to gain. Or so it would seem. Gere, in what has to be his least narcissistic performance ever, gives Edward the tiniest hint of dispassion. Edward may have been headed for his own affair someday. Meanwhile, he has an attentive husband's ability to pick up on infinitesimal changes in his wife's moods. He immediately knows something's up with Constance, just can't tell exactly what it is. And as his suspicions rise, concern gives way to anger. Finally he hires a private investigator to follow her.

What happens after that is rather predictable, in that old thriller way, but Lyne doesn't surrender the reins entirely. Nor does he pounce on the big moments the way he used to. Almost so subtly that we don't know it's happened, he hands the movie over to Edward, who tries to save his marriage in the only way he knows how. Although I still enjoyed this part of the movie, I started missing Constance, who doesn't seem like your standard thriller character. Unfaithful bears a slight resemblance to In the Bedroom, which showed us what it's like when "real" people get trapped in a genre movie, but Lyne is so much better at calibrating and doling out emotion. He overdoes the smoky atmosphere, which looks like something off the Weather Channel, and I could have done without the bucket of bloody water. But how else to get the stain out of this marriage?

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