Naked claustrophobia: Krister Henrikssen as David and Lena Endre as Marianne in Liv Ullmann's 2000 film "Faithless".  The epic film (at two hours and 40 minutes) speaks not only to adultery but to the nakedness and intense anguish of isolation it brings to the perpetrator and to the marriage betrayed by the act of cheating.

The Other Man, The Other Woman
Tackling Degrees Of Infidelity On Film: Do Cheating Hearts Truly Prosper, And If So Is The Prospering Solely Along Gender Lines?

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
December 16, 2008

(Updated with corrections)

There's the conventional boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love, and boy and girl live together happily ever after. 

And then there's boy marries girl, boy goes out and has an affair behind girl's back. 

Or vice versa.

Films have chronicled infidelity forever now, and over the last 50 years there have been several notable ones: "The Postman Always Rings Twice" (both versions), "Fatal Attraction", "Unfaithful", "Faithless", "One Night Stand", "Dial M For Murder", "Diabolique" and many others. 

"Scenes From A Marriage", the Ingmar Bergman classic from 1973, looked at the marital institution as an unsteady and unlinking portrait of angst, tension and destabilization, with its wrenching episodes of dialogue between its stars Liv Ullmann and Erland Josephson.  You didn't need to see the scenes of cheating to appreciate the devastation that the adultery, or at least the suspicion of it, had wrought on the couple in the marathon five-hour film, which initially was a television series of episodes in Sweden before being trimmed to just under three hours for theatrical release.  Ms. Ullmann, the legendary actress turned director, has starred in many of Mr. Bergman's films including "Persona" and "Cries And Whispers", and eight years ago directed "Faithless", an film that takes a sharp look at one adulterate encounter where the lines are blurred ever so delicately and then breached so overwhelmingly.

In "Faithless", the ramifications of the affair are significant, but so too is the isolation of the betrayer.  Marianne (Lena Endre) invites her husband's best friend David (Krister Henrikssen) to her bedroom while her husband is away, after initially rebuffing David's request to sleep with him.  David, who is in the midst of marital crisis, asks to sleep in the bed and Marianne agrees, but nothing more than hand-holding is permitted.  What happens next is not seen by the audience, but it is felt in the many conversations Marianne has with her apparently imaginary psychologist, aptly named Bergman (and ironically played by Erland Josephson).  Marianne is trapped by her indiscretion and feels victimized by her own temptation.  Lonely and in limbo, she is prepared to forsake her only child as well as her dedicated husband Markus (Thomas Hanzon).  She has no faith in anything: marriage, trust, least of all certainty of happiness.  "Faithless" also offers surprises as it maturely discusses the most painful aspects of betrayal in a non-theatrical way.

Typically adultery is seen in some films in Hollywood as justified, especially from the male point of view.  The woman the man gets to cheat on is typically a shrew, unbearable, nagging and an all-round pain in the backside.  (See Tilda Swinton in "Burn After Reading".)  The reverse happens for women who choose to engage in extramarital desires: the man is normally seen as an ungrateful, overbearing, and often violent cretin (Sam Neill in Jane Campion's Oscar-winning film "The Piano") who has subjugated the woman into cheating, not because she necessarily had designs on doing so, but because she has no other real choice of escape. 

But when looking at infidelity on the big screen, which of the sexes tends to get the short end of the stick, to the extent that one sex or the other does?

The answer would seem to point to women getting the short end. 

Even in Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" (1960), Marion Crane (as played by Janet Leigh) had engaged in adultery with Sam Loomis (John Gavin) and pledged to lick the stamps where payments of alimony was concerned, but she got a hell of a lot more than she bargained for at the hands of one Norman Bates.  Even indirectly, Marion Crane, far from a Maid Marion, pays the price, perhaps for her adulterous and dishonest ways as much as for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Of course, in "Fatal Attraction", the male adulterer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) gets off relatively scott free, suffering a few bumps and bruises along the way, while the temptress he was tempted by gets paid in full: a single gunshot wound to the heart by none other than the adulterer's wife (Anne Archer), who gave Alex Forrest fair warning: "if you come anywhere near my family again . . . ".  Adrian Lyne's smash hit 1987 film leaves the unmistakable coda: the family that kills together stays together, illicit hanky panky or no.  As well as leaving Mr. Douglas's character to eat his cake and keep it too, Mr. Lyne was also criticized for demonizing career women as wild, dangerous, desperate and lonely.  Some of those charges are as unfair as the triumph of the film's adulterer.

Yet in Mr. Lyne's "Unfaithful" (2002), adultery is made more complex.  The marriage of the Sumners -- Diane Lane (Oscar-nominated for her performance in the film) and Richard Gere -- is by all accounts going just swimmingly, thank you.  Happily married, Edward and Connie been together for eleven years.  They have one child.  They are rich, successful and have the dream house in the suburbs that they've always envisioned.  But the human heart, being the complex conundrum (and pleasure seeker) that it is, wants more, and this was true in Ms. Lane's case, with Connie getting it on with a Frenchman named Paul (Olivier Martinez) about ten years her junior.  The fact that there's no incident or situation that propels the adultery troubles some American audiences in particular, but the scene that rivets and discomforts those audiences and many others is the flashback of Ms. Lane's character as she recalls the unmitigated ecstasy and freedom of her naughtiness.  We see her blush, we witness her exhilaration.  We feel as guilty or as uncomfortable as she does at one point as she rides the Metro North train back to suburban upstate New York. 

That Connie Sumner -- what a piece of work, we may say to ourselves. 

But she's doing what just the boys do -- and what is still so often seen as "boys will be boys" is seen for women as the ultimate scarlet letter -- and Hester Prynne couldn't have said it better herself.

That moment: Diane Lane as Connie Sumner in Adrian Lyne's "Unfaithful".  In an otherwise stable and happy marriage, her random affair brings out the marriage's underlying frailties and shortcomings.  Does Connie's affair help save the marriage?  Ms. Lane was Oscar nominated for her performance.  (Photo: Screenshot by Omar P.L. Moore/PopcornReel via Twentieth Century Fox)

But as in Mr. Lyne's "Fatal Attraction", it is not the person in the marriage that pays the price, it is the man with who takes aim at a desirable woman.  And it is the husband, Edward Sumner, who plays murderer -- his defending of his wife as property for lack of a better word, against any potential male misfeasor, the cuckolded spouse's literal killing of the forbidden carnal freedoms and desires of his own wife, that stun viewers unfamiliar with Claude Chabrol's film "La Femme Infidele", upon which "Unfaithful" is based.  In a sense, Connie, while in the wrong, is still victimized, with two men fighting over her indirectly -- one with a legal relationship to her, the other with a lustful one.  Yet on the other hand, Paul, the character played by Olivier Martinez, is the objectified being upon whom the Sumners project their fears and fantasies.  Edward kills him, fearing his destroying the Sumner family (and by implication Edward's own masculinity) but before that Connie has fucked him, shattering the humdrum marriage that seemed so safe and secure, with her instant fantasy come true.

The way Mr. Lyne stages the opening fifteen minutes of "Unfaithful" is so telegraphic that the inevitability of the affair between Connie and Paul is overwhelming as opposed to sudden, even though the windstorm conditions suggest an explosion of passions.  There's the cliche and stereotype of the amorous Frenchman, the dangerous, rugged lover who knows how to ladykill.  The saying goes: how can Connie S. resist?

Maybe the Edward Sumner-Connie Sumner marriage is too good.

Or too stale.

Far from stale is Spike Lee's take on the matters of cheating in several films.  He finds original ways in which the betrayals occur.  In "Mo' Better Blues", Bleek (Denzel Washington) has two girlfriends who know about each other's existence and Bleek's rival Shadow (Wesley Snipes) horns in on one of them.  Mr. Lee's film takes a slightly farcical approach to the variables Bleek has to juggle and the film even cheekily exploits this with a sequence that has Bleek calling each woman by the opposite woman's name during a bedroom montage sequence.  In "She Hate Me" (2004), Mr. Lee presents his lead actor Anthony Mackie with his girlfriend (Kerry Washington) who turns out to be a lesbian, with Dania Ramirez, her partner.  Mr. Mackie's character comes to "terms" with his girlfriend's infidelity (shown in a flashback) and then is objectified by Ms. Washington later on as he is the sole male recruit in a baby-making business.  "Jungle Fever" focused on the interracial affair between Flipper (Wesley Snipes) and (Angie) Annabella Sciorra, but the anger against Flipper appears directed more at the fact that he cheated on his wife (played by Lonette McKee) with a white woman than that he cheated at all.  "Nuclear holocaust!", declares Mr. Lee's character, Flipper's confidante and main man who inadvertently spills the beans about the tryst, which Flipper confesses, was born out of curiosity about white women. 

The voice of reason comes from the wife who was wronged.  Ms. McKee's character says, "You know what?  It doesn't even matter what color she is.  My man is gone."

"Jungle Fever" doesn't attempt to delve into the repercussions of the philandering of its main character; it only places these illicit episodes in the record of public discussion where race in America is concerned, specifically interracial sexual relationships, which still create a lot of anger, agita and grief, particularly in the U.S., even as the society slowly progresses in its evolution of racial relations.  In Mr. Lee's film the whole family gets the short end of the stick, including Flipper's brother Gator (Samuel L. Jackson) and the larger black community, for reasons wholly unrelated to adultery. 

Is there such a thing as a consensual adultery?  Or is that very notion a contradiction in terms?

In Mr. Lee's "Summer Of Sam" (1999) John Leguizamo and Mira Sorvino are married and it is 1977 in New York City.  The Son Of Sam killer is on the rampage, and the swinging orgy house known as Plato's Retreat is thriving.  During an opportune stop at the Retreat, one of several in the country at the time, Vinny (Mr. Leguizamo), who has already been unfaithful to wife Dionna (Mr. Sorvino), enters with her, and they both proceed to have sex with other people during an orgy, in a misguided attempt to repair the fraying passions of their marriage.  They see each other getting off, and the anger is launched afterwards by Vinny as he shouts out to Dionna, "did he fuck you better than me?", and other far more explicit verbiage the answers to which would test the fragile egos of men in general.  Of course, nothing is said about Vinny's sexcapades, although Dionna challenges him on that and other matters.  When Dionna walks out on Vinny it is no surprise.  She's had enough, and her leaving him unmasks Vinny's own feelings of inferiority and fear of a permanent loneliness, all with David Berkowitz looming large in the background of a hot New York summer.  Whether the visit to Plato's Retreat constituted a consensual adultery more so than a diversion from a marriage filled with deception is another story.  Mr. Lee has multiple storylines in most all of his films, and in "Summer Of Sam" the cheating question is subsumed by the devastating events in the Big Apple in 1977.

Another film that may or may not answer the question about whether consensual adultery exists may be in Mr. Lyne's film "Indecent Proposal" (1993), where a lonely billionaire (Robert Redford) offers Woody Harrelson's character one million dollars for a night with Demi Moore.  These days, especially with a recession and soon to be depression in effect in the U.S., Ashton Kutcher wouldn't allow that to happen, but on the big screen, Mr. Harrelson did, and the short term gains on both sides were indeed fleeting, with the repercussions on the marriage between Mr. Harrelson and Ms. Moore's characters being felt long afterwards.  The proprietary transaction: money for a night with your woman again puts Ms. Moore's character on the short end, but what does it say about the men in the equation?  Mr. Harrelson pawns off his wife for cash to solve any financial issues the couple has, while a man with all the money in the world and an otherwise handsome man cannot get the woman of his dreams to share life's last days with him, so he has to get his money, not himself, to do the seducing.  Whether Ms. Moore's character consents to adultery is probably moot, as both partners do it as a joint venture.

"Don't you think one of the charms of marriage is that it makes deception a necessity for both parties?", asks Sandor Zavost (Sky Dumont) of Alice (Nicole Kidman) in Stanley Kubrick's final classic film "Eyes Wide Shut" (1999).  Mr. Kubrick's film is about being faithful and it presents the hazards of daring to put the "un" in front of that word that makes life a tortured experience for Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) who does everything he can to cheat on his wife Alice, who has merely told him that at one time she had desired to betray him with a man that she was prepared to spend the night with, her own nine-year-old marriage and seven-year-old child be damned.  In dreamlike scenes from start to finish -- "Eyes Wide Shut" is inspired by Arthur Schnitzler's novel Traumnovelle (aka "Dream Story") -- Bill faces potential danger each time he makes the effort to be unfaithful.  Every attempt is interrupted by a cellphone call, or bad news, or a last minute intervention by another.  It all seems like a cruel joke.  Except that it isn't.  There are a billion interpretations to "Eyes Wide Shut" and it is one of the 20th century's greatest films, although adultery is not the meditation as much as the sanctity of marriage is.  (By the way, the question posed at the start of this paragraph is answered in "Eyes Wide Shut" by Alice with a chuckle.)

While the sanctity of marriage is priceless, another film, "Cover" (2008), directed by Bill Duke, tests the sanctity in spades with a wife's discovery that her husband Dutch (Raz Adoti) is having an affair with another man (Leon).  In one of the film's most powerful lines, Aunjanue Ellis's Valerie remarks to a friend, "I can compete with another woman, I know what to do.  I can get prettier.  But how do I compete with another man?"  The film is disturbing because of that very question.  The safety of a marriage may indeed make the question of deception by both parties more palpable but that speaks more to open relationships within a marriage rather than the status of the marital institution itself.  In "Cover", Dutch is a successful attorney, but the past relationships in his life pre-marriage have essentially come back to haunt him -- an inverse of what happens to Bill in "Eyes Wide Shut", where temptation is crushing him at every turn. 

With Mr. Adoti's character in "Cover", one could say that he has been living a lie in his marriage as a gay man who is trying to erase or forget his orientation by getting married.  The film doesn't point fingers or justify or make judgments about Mr. Adoti's character, or Leon's.  It is a shock to see the scene in which Ms. Ellis's character is as stunned as we are, but the question is, how on earth does a marriage with this situation ever get repaired?  Ms. Ellis's character shares the same anguish and isolation that Marianne does in "Faithless", and she isn't even the wrongdoer in her marriage.  It's an unfair proposition for her, and she is devastated.  (Then again, one may ask: in a committed marriage does it matter who the wrongdoer is more than it does that the situation be fixed and openly addressed in order to repair some of the damage?) 

Like "Jungle Fever", "Cover" makes more overarching social commentary about the black family and its endangerment, but in "Cover" the devastation is from within, as the severity of HIV/AIDS contracted by women in the U.S. accounting for 72% of those cases being black women, 1999 to 2002, according to a New York Times report, makes "Cover" even more powerful, troubling and an avenue for discussion, with the "down-low" phenomenon -- the practice, particularly common in Atlanta and other U.S. cities, where black men have sex with other men and then come home to their wives or girlfriends and pass on any diseases they may have contracted during unprotected activity.  Such activity is found across all racial lines, with accounts of some men on Wall Street and elsewhere doing the same thing.  A New York Times report several years ago chronicled the sexual activity of married men who would go to parks on Long Island in New York and meet male strangers for sex and claim that they did so because they were bored with their wives and not for any other rhyme or reason.  "Far From Heaven" tackled this aspect of adultery with Dennis Quaid's character to a certain extent, but "Cover" literally exposes the underlying deceptions within a marriage.  Naively or otherwise, one may say that the shock of two men cheating together while a wife is at home waiting, might supersede the idea of male-female adultery, in the same way that "Jungle Fever" spoke of cheating across racial lines.

Adultery on film has been taken at face value in some instances by not being addressed.  In some films adultery is played for laughs (Paul Thomas Anderson's "Boogie Nights"), in others adultery is presented as a comedy of life's coincidences (Mike Figgis's "One Night Stand" - with Wesley Snipes and Nastassja Kinski), and in others still it is more incidental to a larger story (Sidney Lumet's "Before The Devil Knows You're Dead") but it certainly leaves us plenty to look at and think about.  There are victims on all sides, and nobody wins, even when they think that they do.

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