Saturday, January 24, 2015

Adultery as narrative catalyst in cinema

By Steve Evans

The aftermath of a cheating spouse drives the plot of so many great films that this narrative stratagem could be a cinematic sub-genre of its own. I cannot think of a single film dealing with infidelity in which the outcome of an adulterous affair leads to anything but misery and tragedy.

In every instance, the spouse committing the affair is portrayed as morally bankrupt, neurotic, emotionally unwell or completely unencumbered by conscience. Human beings if anything are an impulsive species of animal, driven more often than not by their own selfish desires to the exclusion of everyone around them. Adultery remains such a sturdy cinematic trope because it is the ultimate betrayal between two people who at least at one time shared common hopes, dreams and intimacies. In real life, the consequences are emotionally devastating for at least one individual. In the cinematic realm, the consequences are often much worse.

A representative sampling: 

The Graduate
Mrs. Robinson seduces newly-minted college grad’ Benjamin, whose confusion with his life is so total that he ends up having an affair with her daughter, as well. Many viewers view this film and come away with the idea that it ends happily. Look closely at the expressions of the protagonists as the bus pulls away. The end is, at best, ambiguous. Outcome: uncertain.

Body Heat
The wife (Kathleen Turner) of a wealthy businessman conspires with her lover (a none-too-bright attorney played by William Hurt) to murder her husband and collect on his life insurance. Double-crosses and a twist ending follow multiple deaths and a long prison sentence. Outcome: Murder, arson, prison.

Double Indemnity
Barbara Stanwyck and Fred MacMurray plot to murder her husband and stage the death like an accident so his insurance will pay off double the policy rate. Body Heat is essentially a remake of this classic film noir, in which Edward G. Robinson plays against type as a good guy. Outcome: Murder and prison, preceded by some snappy dialog.

The English Patient
A profoundly moving tragedy in which an illicit affair comes undone by a jealous husband, who crashes his bi-plane in an effort to kill his wife and her paramour. Though the narrative tilts in favor of the lovers, the film also makes clear that they are aware what they are doing is wrong – and they proceed anyway.  No better film about choices and consequences has been made in the last 30 years. Oscar winner for Best Picture of 1996. Outcome: Murder, suicide, burn-victim agony, soul-wrenching contemplation, euthanasia. As if the horrid backdrop of World War II was not enough.

Blood Simple
The Coen Brother’s first film, a neo-noir of adultery, conspiracy and violent death. Frances McDormand plays the wife of a shady bar owner involved in an affair with one of his bartenders. The husband hires a sociopathic fixer to kill them both, but as with most characters in the Coen’s cinematic world, the aftermath of marital betrayal leads to a convoluted series of double-crosses, mistrust and murder. Outcome: being buried alive, shot through the heart, stabbed in the hand and one thoroughly wrecked bathroom.

American Beauty
Another Best Picture Oscar winner (1999), American Beauty explores the dysfunction beneath seemingly placid suburbia, especially middle-aged angst and the gnawing dissatisfaction that life derailed somewhere along the way. Oscar-winner Kevin Spacey lusts for a cheerleader at his daughter’s high school. His daughter gets involved with a weird kid who deals pot and shoots strange videos. As Spacey’s wife, Annette Bening has an affair with the local real estate hotshot, leading to his own divorce. A homosexual subplot propels the picture to a tragic climax with only the slightest grace note of redemption for Spacey’s character. Outcome: ruined lives, shattered dreams, murder.

Cinema Uprising copyright© 2015 by Steve Evans. All rights reserved.