“Deep Water” is Adrian Lyne’s return to filmmaking after twenty years. Now 82, his last film was 2002’s excellent “Unfaithful” starring Diane Lane and Richard Gere, a strong character-driven erotic drama.
Lyne’s best films (“Unfaithful,” “9 1/2 Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction” and his extremely undervalued 1997 version of “Lolita”) find an interesting balance of character drama and eroticism, with a few adding the aspects of a thriller to heighten their impact. The less said about his “Flashdance” and “Indecent Proposal” the better.
This new erotic thriller finds the director in the territories he understands best, domestic non-bliss and sexual dalliances that crack seemingly happy domestic lives.
Adapted by screenwriters Zach Helm and Sam Levinson from Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel of the same name, “Deep Water” gives Lyne a film that allows him to walk the type of cinematic landscape perfected by director Claude Chabrol, whose 1969 classic “La Femme infidèle” Lyne remade as “Unfaithful.”
This time, Lyne trades in his usual New York City locations (almost always the SoHo district) for New Orleans but loses none of his visual stylings. The filmmaker has a feel for a city’s surroundings.
Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas play Vic and Melinda Van Allen, a wealthy couple who live with their young daughter in New Orleans.
Vic is very much a cuckold to Melinda’s infidelities and endless parade of men, whom she flaunts.
And everyone notices. Many of their friends come to Vic privately and worry about him. As he always tells them everything is as it should be, the film hints that Vic just may be silently getting off on his wife’s indiscretions.
Melinda drinks too much, often making a public spectacle of herself with Vic observing silently from across the room. She claims to be bored by her husband, as he is somewhat of a complacent man. Vic is happy being a father, doesn’t drink that often, and makes a lot of money that keeps them all in a luxurious home. On the surface, he is content. This sense of complacency is almost a middle finger to Melinda and her wild ways.
When Melinda’s lovers begin turning up dead, due to a bad joke he made to one of her “suitors”, rumors spread that Vic is involved. These rumors are fueled by their friend Don (Tracy Letts), who has his suspicions about his neighbor.
In its stimulating and refreshingly adult depiction of an unstable marriage’s sexual politics, the film is too smart for today’s Hollywood.
It is important to note that a mainstream film in 2022 takes on male emasculation, infidelity, and adult sexuality so boldly. American cinema has shied away from dealing with onscreen sex in a realistic manner.
These days, films don’t deal with sex at all. Most filmmakers under thirty-five don’t have what it takes to create honest portrayals of men and women embracing their desires. This generation grew up thinking the childishly silly “Basic Instinct” was bold and erotic.
In Lyne’s film, sex isn’t used as a weapon but a dagger. There are moments between Affleck and de Armas that have real heat, as their two characters still desire one another but their sexual pool has been muddied.
Melinda is almost angry at her husband’s passive resistance.
It can be argued that her screwing around is a challenge to Vic. Domestic life doesn’t seem to suit Melinda, her free spirit still burning.
She doesn’t want to be made love to as a domestic woman with a family. Melinda wants to be fucked. She wants her sex racy and dangerous. Deep down, this is what Melinda desires from her husband. The character feels this fire has been lost since becoming a mother.
Lyne lessens the sumptuous feel of his previous films, as this material is darker and its sexuality has an edgier feel to the eroticism, much like his “Unfaithful”.
Having begun his career directing television commercials in the seventies (as did Ridley Scott), Lyne’s films are always visually striking. This work concerns dangerous sex games and a threat of violence. Working with cinematographer Eigil Bryld, the two men create a New Orleans that is mostly overcast and when inside Vic and Melinda’s home, rooms are darker than they should be, as the shadow of damned fates is ever present.
The director does not shy away from the eroticism of the piece—I would expect nothing less. While the film doesn’t have any full-on sex scenes, there are moments of sexuality that are skillfully handled, creating a more intimate and realistic venereal tone.
Ben Affleck hasn’t been this excellent in a long time. With praise for his good (but obvious) work in last year’s “The Tender Bar,” this is the film where fellow critics should be raising a glass in his honor.
The actor brings a clam to Vic that hides something sinisterly playful. It is a delight to watch his character take back his masculinity by intimidating Melinda’s partners whenever he has a chance. Mind you, each time it is done when his wife has left the room.
Affleck fully inhabits the character. We see that Vic is clearly fighting the demons that have possessed his marriage but is doing it from the inside, opening only now and again to assert what manhood he has locked up.
Ana de Amas does great work as Melinda. She is cold and sexually cruel (mostly when drinking) but is confused by how much she still loves her husband. Melinda respects but is jealous of his domestic skills, fueling her resentment even deeper.
The actress makes sure the audience does not hate Melinda. She does despicable things to her husband that for many would be unforgivable. Yet there is something inside her that seems to be tiring of all this. At this point, I don’t believe even Melinda understands why she cannot stop. Even though it may be buried deep under indignation and dissatisfaction, she loves Vic, and de Armas allows an honest human fragility to prevent the character from becoming a villain.
The film only slips during its denouement with an out of place moment where someone gives chase in the most preposterous manner. The scene starts well but spirals out for control as if the screenwriters were forced to give this serious work a nail-biting finale.
On top of being ridiculous, the scene is not earned, nor does it serve the material.
All is forgiven when Lyne takes back the reins and ends with a perfect final scene that concludes the film like the most devilish of poker hands between two skilled players.
“Deep Water” is a welcome adult-themed film in a time when American cinema has become stale and an immersive work from a veteran filmmaker who hasn’t lost his edge.