NEW YORK, NY.-
Recently I rented a house upstate for the weekend with a group of friends, all new parents with children under 2. After putting the children to bed, we decided to stage a group viewing of Deep Water on Hulu then spent the next 15 minutes in a state of escalating madness, frantically tossing baby books and upending couch cushions in search of the houses lost remote control. This was how desperate we were to feel like adults, and to experience a now-rare form of grown-up entertainment: an erotic thriller directed by the master of the genre, Adrian Lyne.
Deep Water, alas, proved neither erotic nor thrilling. (Its difficult to explain how stupid the plot is without spoiling it, so fair warning.) Ben Affleck plays Vic, a guy who got rich making the chip for killer drones and now occupies himself with several brooding hobbies, including tending to a snail colony and editing a poetry magazine. Ana de Armas is his wife, Melinda, whose lifes work appears to consist of cuckolding Vic with pretty young men, an activity she barely attempts to conceal from a tortured (and perhaps mildly aroused) Vic. The couple shares a precocious child, Trixie (Grace Jenkins). It is not clear why these people are together, or why Vic feels his only recourse is to murder several of Melindas suitors in aquatic settings. Most of the onscreen sex is between the married couple, who have less chemistry than Trixies science projects. The snails are sadly underutilized. The water isnt even that deep!
Adrian Lyne hadnt made a movie in 20 years, and now he has returned with nothing to say. His erotic scenarios gallerist embarks on affair with sadomasochistic banker (9 1/2 Weeks, 1986); family mans one-night stand spirals into terror (Fatal Attraction, 1987); billionaire pays man $1 million to have sex with his wife (Indecent Proposal, 1993); and housewife cheats with chiseled Frenchman (Unfaithful, 2002) made for movies that were not necessarily good but were always kind of great. The sex scenes were never gratuitous, because the entire films were about sex usually about how disastrous meaningless sex can be. As one character puts it in Unfaithful: An affair is nothing like a pottery class.
Part of the thrill of rewatching Lynes old movies is that the sexual politics are the most perverse thing about them. Though the films delight in their explicit sex scenes, they are fundamentally conservative in their values. And though they often feature seemingly disturbed women, the movies are really about men white men. Every twist sinks the plots into deeper levels of their masculine anxieties. In Lynes masterwork, Fatal Attraction, Michael Douglas plays Dan, a lawyer who enjoys a comfortable family life he has the wife, the kid, the dog, the country house until he spends a night alone in the city and ends up in bed with Alex, a single book editor played by Glenn Close.
Though Alex first appears to be an independent, feminist-minded woman looking for a bit of discreet fun, she is soon revealed as a goblin desperate to trap a man and have his baby. After the affair, she slits her wrists, sabotages Dans car, kidnaps his daughter and boils her bunny, and finally arrives at the house with a butcher knife, giving Dan and his wife an excuse to kill her and her unborn baby.
This was a horror story that spawned its own discourse: People talked about Alex as if she had jumped off the screen to stalk the dads of America. Douglas and Close landed on the covers of Time and People, which used the film to fuel a trend piece on real-life fatal attractions. During the press tour, Lyne bashed Hollywoods unfeminine women and praised his terrific wife as the least ambitious person Ive ever met; Douglas said he was really tired of feminists, sick of them.
If Alex represented a rising feminist threat, Dan was the modern man who risked being seduced by her sexuality and degraded by her politics. The movie is infused with anxiety about toughened career women and softening American men. Dans mistake was not his infidelity but his treatment of Alex after their tryst he walked his dog with her, took her phone calls, consoled her when she tried to kill herself. The final lesson of Fatal Attraction was not dont cheat on your wife. It was, when you cheat on your wife, dont be decent to the other woman.
Fatal Attraction was such a reactionary document that it became a centerpiece of Backlash, Susan Faludis account of the 80s political and cultural assault on feminism. But now the assumptions that fueled the film have undergone such a reversal that Paramount+ is rebooting Fatal Attraction as a television series that, as the announcement for the show noted, reimagines the classic psychosexual thriller under the lens of modern attitudes toward strong women, personality disorders and coercive control. Alex has risen, and Dan has been permanently subdued. Pop culture is tired of these guys, really sick of them. It is women like Alex who remain interesting.
Its rare now that an erotic film gets people talking. Zeitgeisty onscreen sex and twisted relationship dynamics have largely migrated to television shows like You and Euphoria. The remaining heroes of Hollywoods erotic films look less like Dan defending his family and more like the sensitive strippers of Magic Mike defending their own tender hearts from breaking. Our last discourse-conquering sex movie, Fifty Shades of Grey, was 9 1/2 Weeks recast as a ludicrous girlish romance an affair that really did feel like a pottery class. Though the films sadomasochistic heartthrob, Christian Grey, was saddled with cartoonish demons, he was still based on the sparkling vampire hunk of Twilight, a monster too sensitive to suck the blood of living humans.
In this antiseptic environment, Affleck arrives as a naughty little gift. If Douglas represented the imperiled family man of the 1980s, Affleck is the shell of that man. He has tripped into the celebrity persona of a divorced dad who is always getting caught by paparazzi in sad tableaux: Here he is staring vacantly into the sea with a towel suspended around his belly, there he is stumbling out the front door and immediately upending a tray full of Dunkin. After being brought low, Afflecks persona has been infused with a humanizing appeal, as the sad Affleck figure conveys a universal angst spiked with a strangely appealing emasculation.
This is the dynamic that worked so well for Affleck in Gone Girl, the 2014 film in which a femme fatale is animated by a righteous, if deranged, feminist outrage. Amy (Rosamund Pike) stages her own death to frame her cheating husband, Nick, played by Affleck as a sweaty dirtbag who, in a twist, did not actually kill his wife. Deep Water tries to reverse the trick, casting Affleck as a seemingly decent guy who is an unexpected murderer, but this misreads Afflecks appeal his sleazy exterior belies a fundamental harmlessness, not the other way around.
The Deep Water press tour suggests a film that hopes not to trigger any discourse at all. The only player who seems game to talk is Lyne, who himself represents something of a dated figure: the controlling male director who seeks to rule over the movie set with his own sexual energy. Lynes bizarre directorial antics have been well documented, often by Lyne himself: In Indecent Proposal, he shouted vulgar encouragements at Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson as they had simulated sex; on 9 1/2 Weeks, he boasted about terrorizing Kim Basinger in an attempt to trigger a real psychological breakdown, a strategy he said was necessary because Basinger doesnt read books; she doesnt actually act.
Now the culture is coming for men like him, too.
Its a little bit more uptight now, Lyne has complained of post-#MeToo production codes. He bristled when the studio installed an intimacy coordinator on the set of Deep Water: It implies a lack of trust, which I loathed.
Lyne doesnt seem to understand what time he is living in, and it shows. Deep Water is unmoored: It is based on a 1957 novel by Patricia Highsmith (which helps explain why Vic and Melinda are named Vic and Melinda) but stuffed with glossy 80s sex scenes and sprinkled with nods to contemporary drone warfare. I wasnt looking for much just a campy playground where Affleck could show off his meta masculinity and his enormous back tattoo. But this time, the sex really was meaningless.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times