There are a number of reasons Anne Fontaine’s Adore should be the most personal film I’ve seen in years. Unusually for an Australian film, it is set within almost exactly the same socio-cultural niche the Aussie side of my family occupies, albeit in New South Wales, and we’re from Melbourne. When I was twenty, or the age of the two male leads, I lived in Mum’s hometown for a while, staying first with her childhood best friend, Auntie Sooo, who has a son more or less my age with whom I quickly fell in love — he looked like a teen Mel Gibson, and was sweet and loving, and so forth. The physical aspect of our relationship was never consummated,
but it became quite intense between us on an emotional level, all the more so because we were de facto cousins, just like the male leads in Adore.
However, what I most identify with is the theme of intergenerational romance. True, it’s more pervasive among older men and younger women than vice-versa as it is in the film, and even more frequent in gay relationships, but it’s still scowled upon, or at least thought of as odd. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to have a relationship with someone even close to my own age. Despite what my friends say — and it’s only those friends who would never engage with people so much younger than they are who are so adversely judgmental — it’s not just my personal preference; in fact, in fairness to me I can’t say that I only prefer guys who are young enough to be my son. It just seems to be the way things are working out these days. And at least fifty percent of the responsibility lies with the younger person. At least.
Adore bears me out on that.
I’d venture to say the younger person isn’t bothered about the age gap as much as the older lover, and again Adore agrees. Or they think of it differently: it’s fun, it’s cool, it’s a badge of having wisdom beyond your years to have captured the attention of a much older person. My lovers aren’t looking at themselves in the mirror like I am, cursing the overhead lighting for accenting the sag and wrinkles and muttering, “What are you thinking? He’s half your age!” And, no, these relationships aren’t sugar-daddy situations. My finances are precarious at the best of times; as often than not the younger one pays for me, and it gives him great satisfaction to do so.
This intergenerational thing is so much the new normal with me that I was thrilled when I went out on a successful date with someone only seven years younger the other night. I felt oh so grown up, for a change — I was doing The Right Thing, as I’m supposed to as a responsible adult. Of course, like most worthy men his age my date is otherwise engaged in another cohabitating relationship that is winding down, so this is unlikely to go much further, or not in any hurry. But I was happy because I’ve found someone I like who might distract me from this tortured four-year on-again-off-again relationship with a guy twenty-one years younger than me. Like the middle-aged characters in Adore, I keep pushing this younger guy away because that’s the sensible thing to do on every level. But, like the young characters, he won’t have it and goes to great lengths to keep me in his life. And in the end I have to admit I’m happy and thankful for that (not to mention very flattered) — I don’t want to be with anyone else. In fact, I’d rather be single.
All of this is to say that, with respect to my abundant real-life experience, I found Adore utterly believable. Based on a novel by Doris Lessing, the story follows childhood best friends and neighbors Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts), blonds whose lives are so co-joined they even have sons who are the same age, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frechville). The serpent of lust crawls into their Eden-by-the-Sea when Lil’s Ian and Roz consummate latent sexual and romantic feelings and begin an affair. In revenge, Tom seduces Lil, and they soon fall in love. This ménage à quatre proceeds idyllically for a while, and then turns sour, as it must. But it turns sour in a Doris Lessing way, which is to say slowly and not very dramatically, and more’s the pity.
Christopher Hampton co-wrote a screenplay with Fontaine that is about as far from Hampton’s Oscar-winner Dangerous Liaisons as you can get without wondering why he didn’t remove his name because it’s nothing like what he does: This isn’t dialogue, it’s small talk. Ugh. How very film-festival minimalist, how unobtrusive to the stunning surf and landscape shots, but how very inauthentic. Yes, I understand that small talk can sort of be realistic, but these characters are theater people, gallery owners, educated, artsy folk — in my world, and this is my world that is being portrayed, our everyday banter sounds more like any given scene Lena Dunham has written than some sparsely worded meditation that is squarely meant to resonate with festival programmers, nobody else, and they love nothing more than depressed people in remote locations staring tearfully out the window, torn apart by emotions and thoughts we the popcorn-muchers in aisle G cannot hope to understand.
The thing is, I very much do understand, and that’s why I presented my credentials so exhaustively at the beginning of this review. One important thing the young ‘uns love about us older folk is the conversation, and that is nowhere in Adore. And in real life it’s a two-way street, part of what makes the older/younger dynamic so successful in many ways: it’s refreshing for us olders to be infused with that youthful, inquisitive energy, empowering for us to be the teacher, just as it is thrilling for the young ‘uns to soak in our experience, and to be comforted by it — it’s more believable to be told “everything’s going to be all right” by someone your parents’ age than it is by a peer. But none of that emerges in Adore, perhaps because it’s so concerned with posing and being pretty.
Indeed, I would say that this is basically a French festival film in English, but a lot of Australian art house films are like that these days. Still, with a budget of $16 million, I’m not sure how art house the original intentions for this were; whatever they were, I seriously doubt this is going to make its money back. Perhaps they thought Adore would be empowering for Nora Ephron-esque women of a certain age, who would flock to see it in the hopes of having their own wistful, not-too-complicated relationships with surfing Adonises.
But here’s the problem: Adore isn’t just about intergenerational relationships, it’s basically about incest. And audiences are a long way emotionally and intellectually from making that theme commercially viable, and that budget level needs to be commercially viable. At least when Oedipus married his own mother he had no idea he was doing it — he’d never met her before adulthood. In this instance, Lil and Roz living as sisters across the street from each other raised these boys as brothers. In other words, they co-parented; in the boy’s minds, they were interchangeable as mothers. That latent sense of incest weighs heavily on the film and makes you a bit queasy.
Who knew that Robin Wright is better an Aussie? I’d never thought of her that way, but she seems to be right at home, despite egregious slippages of accent now and then. Presumably, she was trying to speak in an understated, upper-class way, but all Aussies are broader than that, luv — true, Mum has been in the U.S. so long she sounds mostly American, but more like a Southerner, and this isn’t a film about an Aussie expat in New York. As much as Wright physically fits into an environment I know well, Meryl Streep in A Cry in the Dark she ain’t.
Naomi Watts was raised in Australia, so she is authentically local, but her heart isn’t in this film as much as Wright’s is, so it oddly evens out the performances. It’s as if Watts is saying, “I’m not sure I’m too comfortable with this, but, okay, as long as Robin’s up for it…” But Wright is, like, “Fuck it. I was married to Sean Penn. Let’s do this!” Samuel and Frechville acquit themselves splendidly in awkward roles, and to make matters more challenging they aren’t exactly being directed by Bertolucci. Both look like they are right out of a Bruce Weber shoot, but while Samuel is so achingly beautiful it almost hinders his performance, Frechville has a gestural naturalism that will serve him well as he transitions to Hollywood, and transition he probably will.
There isn’t a frame that isn’t beautifully composed, lit and shot — I didn’t just think of Weber, but also Herb Ritts and Peter Lindbergh. There were times when the art director in me took over and in my mind I ran type over the image as if I were laying out a billboard: “RALPH LAUREN, AUSTRALIA.” But my mind wandering to layouts is also a testament to how slowly and indifferently this film moves, a slowness that in similar films is usually punctured by Something Very Dramatic happening — and I am so conditioned to expect that jack-in-the-box spike of awfulness that it kept me tense throughout most of the second act — but it never happens. There’s no comeuppance, either. And that makes the drama authentic in terms of my real-life experience, but I’m not sure you can have great entertainment without a proper payoff.
The dynamic between Lil and Roz reminded me a lot of the relationship between my friend Pamela Hanson, the fashion photographer, and her childhood best friend Lisa Love, the Vogue editor, with whom she is still just as close as when they were kids. Lisa even looks a lot like Robin Wright, or she has that WASPy, lithe, thoroughbred blond sense about her. All three of us are Ameropeans, or Americans raised in Europe. When I approached Pamela to direct a script of mine about Ameropeans in Paris, she said, “Why would people want to see a film about us?” In other words, who cares about people who live lives in gilded cages?
That’s the final flaw with Adore: this isn’t just about a pair of older-younger crypto-incestuous couples, it isn’t just about first-world problems, it’s about upper-middle-class problems. And I know from a lot of experience writing about this world that it had better be as dynamic as possible to it to engage a wide audience. As true as the characters and situations might be to real life — and I can keep going with stories about people I know who are akin to what Lessing, Hampton and Fontaine are trying to portray — in the end Adore suffers from Gorgeous Bourgeois Ennui Syndrome. Or, as I’ve written in the past about similar pieces, it’s just too cool to connect.