Hollywood Perversions: "Deep Water" and the Return of Adrian Lyne

The director's first film in 20 years is a throwback to the erotic thrillers of yesteryear.
Greg Cwik
"Everything in the world is about sex except sex. Sex is about power."
Oscar Wilde 
Adrian Lyne makes erotic films that aspire to be respectable, the kind of movies that barely exist anymore in this age of mainstream geek culture. Lyne's films are about sex, yes, but they're classy, made for adults. Think of Glenn Close and Michael Douglas discussing Madame Butterfly between romps in the sack in Fatal Attraction, an R-rated film that was nominated for six Oscars and the top grossing film of 1987; or Jeremy Irons charming us as an insidiously eloquent writer helplessly smitten with a young girl in Lolita (1997), or the handsome bookseller (Olivier Martinez) wooing an unhappy housewife (Diane Lane) in Unfaithful (2002). 
Lyne makes movies that want to be taken seriously, never veering into camp, though they can be quite funny, like Michael Douglas hobbling around with Glenn Close in his arms and his pants around his ankles. These movies desire the respect of folks who don't usually go in for sleaze while satiating those who do. There's a sheen to these films that one might usually associate with prestige pictures, a quality in performance and lighting and blocking that you just don't see in dirty pictures. You see it in the steamy 9 ½ Weeks (1986), in which Mickey Rourke, as a beautiful brute, has some rough sex, not all of it consensual, with Kim Basinger. Rourke gives a performance that harks back to Brando in A Streetcar Named Desire—he's scary, but he's also sexy in all that gorgeous lighting. Sex in Lyne's films can be violent, as in Fatal Attraction, where a brief fling turns Glenn Close into a bunny-boiling psycho. It's sinful, as when Jennifer Beals's would-be ballerina confesses to a priest that she's been thinking a lot about sex in Flashdance (1983), which engendered the glitzy aesthetic for the MTV generation. Lyne shoots the female body in ecstatic action, dancers bending and stretching and twisting and turning as the camera gazes, hopelessly horny. In Unfaithful, Lyne enfolds the affair between a bored suburban housewife and a hot French bookseller who looks like a model for a romance novel with a soapy sensuousness. Lyne makes Richard Gere, the American Gigolo, into a cuck, which is a brilliant bit of casting. When Gere figures out what's going on, he bludgeons the fetching Frenchman with a snow globe. Another indiscretion gone awry. In Indecent Proposal (1993), an eternally entrancing Robert Redford offers Woody Harrelson's wife, Demi Moore, a million bucks if he can spend the night with her. Attraction and arousal and love are just another potential transaction, something that can be bought and paid for.
Deep Water, the director’s return to filmmaking after a 20-year hiatus, is certainly an Adrian Lyne film. It's about adultery and its consequences, Lyne's wheelhouse. It's salacious and silly, licentious without being totally lurid, a fun horny movie with a few murders thrown in for good measure. Hitchcock would be thrilled. Deep Water concerns Vic Van Allen (Ben Affleck), who is unhappy. His handsome mug may not show it, but he's approaching 50, and middle age looms. After inventing a microchip that allows military drones to hit remote targets, he retired young and affluent to a small town in Louisiana. Now he spends his time riding his mountain bike and hanging out with his young daughter and raising snails. His younger wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas), sleeps with a lot of guys, none of whom are Vic. Vic adores her. They have something of an unuttered agreement that she can get with anyone she wants as long as she doesn't break up the family. Vic seems cool with it, but behind that seemingly stoical facade, he is seething. His friends all express concern, but Vic has his own methods of self-care. He makes a joke about killing a former boyfriend of Melinda's, which gets the locals talking, wondering "What if…" Then he actually starts killing people.
Like Gere, Affleck is good at being cucked. He just seems so downtrodden, like life's kicking him while he's down. Affleck's done his best work when he's playing an aging alpha male who finds himself emasculated, i.e. Gone Girl, in which his bro-ish and oblivious husband, Nick, races to solve his wife's diabolical plot. Everyone in town supports Nick, loves him, then, very abruptly, they all hate him. He is easy to hate. "I’m sick of being picked apart by women," he says. Even Affleck's Batman feels weary, worn down, a man not at peace with himself. Affleck is particularly good at being a certain kind of sad American man, his face scruffy and with something woebegone behind his eyes. He seems like a man with regrets. He always looks like he's about to sigh in defeat. "Even you've gotten too old to die young," Jeremy Irons tells Affleck's Bruce Wayne.
Deep Water is a psychological erotic thriller, a spiritual kin to Unfaithful but trashier and with a higher body count. Its concerns aren't with simple titillation (nothing here is particularly sexy, and the leads don't have much chemistry despite Affleck and de Armas's short-lived real-life relationship) but the consequences of sex, whether it be a child, whom Vic really loves, or a series of murders. Being betrayed by the person you love and seeing her flaunt her promiscuity without a care for anyone or anything can drive you to murder.
After a piano teacher-cum-lover (played by Euphoria's Jacob Elordi) drowns in the pool, suspicion falls on Vic, and we see Vic replaying the death in his head, fleeting glimpses of him holding the skinny kid under the water, and this would suggest that Vic did it, that he's remembering the events; but earlier, we saw Vic imagining his wife messing around with the pianist in the car, very Eyes Wide Shut, and this, we know, was only in his imagination. We are left to wonder if drowning the pianist was also in his imagination, something he wished he had done. The ambiguity suggests something deeper than what Lyne ultimately delivers, and hints at the great film that could have been. It isn't until Vic claims his next victim (Finn Wittrock) by throwing rocks at him that we know what Vic has done. (He has really good aim, plunking the guy in the face on the first try.) The actual attack takes just a few seconds; Lyne spends a lot more time showing Vic strapping stones to the pale limp body with his leather belt and dragging it into the river. Lyne is more interested in the consequences of sex than in the pleasure of it, how sex and love can inspire violence and how violence is a form of passion for the otherwise passionless Vic. When he kills Melinda's boy toys, you get the sense that otherwise crestfallen killer is enjoying life for the first time in a long time. As Patricia Highsmith wrote in The Price of Salt: "What was it to love someone, what was love exactly, and why did it end or not end? Those were the real questions, and who could answer them?"
The film was, like the 1981 French film starring Isabelle Huppert, loosely adapted from the Highsmith novel. The American script is by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, the latter of whom is the creator and main writer/director of Euphoria, a show that has garnered a lot of controversy regarding the sex scenes between its drug-loving teenagers. Like Lyne, Levinson has a perverted worldview. Euphoria is a severe work, very For Mature Viwers Only, with intense sex and and drug use and a lot of penises hanging out in all their glory. The show focuses on a group of high schoolers as they navigate lives rife with more drama than a season of Dallas. These are libidinous teens who grew up on social media. They Cam, they use TikTok, they Juul. It is a modern, epochal work, a product of a specific era of teenager pop-culture. Deep Water is not. Despite Vic's topical vocation—providing the military computer chips—and one throwaway line about autocorrect, the film is totally out of place in 2022, a middle-budget, middlebrow movie aimed at adults and made by a guy in his 80s, the return of the once-prodigal king of the box office from ages ago, reemerging in a time where his brand has gone out of style. If this came out in 1990, it might seem merely adequate, caught up in the deluge of erotic thrillers that flooded theaters in the wake of Fatal Attraction, but now it feels like a glorious capsule from a bygone era, a reminder of what American films used to be like. "Perversion interests me most and is my guiding darkness," Highsmith wrote in her diary. Perversion is the darkness that guides Lyne, too.
Deep Water was slated for a theatrical release, but instead went straight to Hulu. (It's a Disney film, their first erotic thriller since Color of Night bombed in 1994.) What does this say about the current state of moviegoing? It stars Batman for Christ's sake, and it still got dumped. Flashdance grossed $200 million on a $7 million budget, Fatal Attraction made $320 million against $17 million, and Indecent Proposal made $266 million. Even 9 ½ Weeks, initially a disappointment, found life on VHS and eventually made $100 million. Lyne used to be very profitable, but his brand means nothing now. Maybe it shows that the modern cinematic landscape, strewn with so many intellectual property products and superhero movies and remakes, has no room for a director who makes movies like this. American movies have become prudish, with the sexless Marvel movies breaking box office records every other month. We're fed baby food regularly. We could use a little more libidinousness on our screens. Horny adults deserve respectable entertainment, t00. "I’m very pleased that the people haven’t totally forgotten them," Lyne said to Forbes in 2021 about his films. The mega-blockbuster Deadpool 2's poster was an homage to the famous water dowsing scene from Flashdance, one of cinema's indelible images, though if you asked the people who flocked to the theaters to see Deadpool 2, they would probably have no idea what Flashdance is.


Adrian LyneBen Affleck
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