Fatal Attraction (1987)

Adrian Lyne directs Glenn Close, Michael Douglas and Anne Archer in this erotic thriller where a married man’s affair follows him home with deadly consequences.

The daddy of all yuppie in peril thrillers. The one night stand from hell. It is curious how De Palma was first offered so many of the projects that Lyne made his name with. Flashdance was a better fit for the Brit. But this would be a wonderful What If? Imagine the drawn out, Hitchcockian flow Brian might have brought to this concept. Lyne instead prefers surface. A layer of sheen punctured, broken or stained by a moment of invasive violence. The Homes & Garden domesticity stunk out by a boiling rabbit. A loft apartment, as white as a nun’s vestments, strewn with the blood of cut wrists. A serene moment of silence punctuated by a ringing phone, a call we all know in our gut is from a number that is breaking an unspoken contract of privacy. A Letter To Penthouse sexual fantasy blowjob in a lift interrupted by the comical but prophetically deathly steps of an old man walking past. Lyne likes to wreck the tasteful construct he has created, slash the aesthetic canvas. An interruptor of sensual perfection. Much later on the director does try his hand at set pieces… but this is first and foremost a mood piece. A mania piece.

Glenn Close’s Alex is often commented on as a metaphor for HIV. She infects the happy family. Her escalating outbursts and obsession are seen as a non-negotiable, incurable threat. The sequence where we listen to a cassette of her expletive filled internal monologue, knowing that she is only one car behind the unwitting Douglas is a stand out. As he realises the full extent of just what he has exposed his family to, he still is blinkered to the fact that moving states isn’t going to protect them from his betrayal. That’s the problem with his cock-led treachery… he isn’t equipped to deal with the fallout of extreme emotion. Witness how comfortable and measured he is (eventually) confessing to his reasonable and loving wife. Alex, is a different woman, she is immune to his charms and rationality. He can’t ignore her or fight her or quash her legally. Any method he tries to counteract Alex with blows up in his face. He’s a lamb, unschooled and fumbling in a new world where someone is unwilling to play by the very rules he decided to break.

Does Douglas deserve all the unhinged nastiness that is unfurled at him? Modern eyes suggest that he treated a troubled woman as disposable, was clumsy with her emotions. Yet Close’s Alex, undiagnosed mental illness aside, is always meant to be a demonic succubus of wrath and demented stalking. Look at her harsh look and flinty vibe when we first spy her across a bar. She instantly stands out as an intoxicatingly forbidden persona among all the polite couples and geniality. She knew she was pursuing a married man, was predatory in her offer. Is his minor sin of not realising her offer of sex had lacerating strings attached really deserving of the insidious destruction she unleashes and plots against him and his? The calculated threat almost feels like castigation from Chaucer or Dante… a worst case scenario penance for him sinning. Any married woman or used woman watching gleefully wants to see Douglas’ Dan dangle defenceless on the hook for the extended middle act.

Let’s not lie and pretend that if Dan was a more emphatic or sensitive man the movie wouldn’t want to dismantle him. Sex is the loaded gun, the knife with fingerprints all over it. Away from the loving marriage of Don’t Look Now and the horny rush of slightly maturer teen movies, sex is always an instigator for peril. Perhaps the overriding moral of Fatal Attraction and erotic thrillers in general is none of us should rush to bed with anyone we don’t know. The married man is rarely looking to trade up. The forbidden other woman rarely just wants a fleeting physical gratification. Both are left scarred by the sexual encounter. Hollywood was only just getting used to sex as an explicit plot device after four decades of coy separate beds even for the married. Hell, in this uniformly PG-13 era, they seem to have fully reversed the bang bus and given up on the idea of including fuck scenes in the plot since the millennium anyway. Only at the end of the 20th century was there the suggestion that all adults are fragile, capable of violence and moments of deep obsession. For 30 years between Play Misty For Me and Eyes Wide Shut, Hollywood considered which dark paths desire and lust might take us. Verhoeven, Lynch and Lyne were the masters of giving us attractions then making them fatal.

If only the movie suggested that Douglas’ character maybe should have cheated with someone he knew rather than the most attractive option that presented itself when he had a free weekend. The methodical corporate lawyer should have done his due diligence if he was going to risk his happy existence. He shifts from being draped in the matching whites of his angelic wife and daughter to becoming a black mark in his own home. For the second half he is dressed almost like a void or a question mark. He has not just cheated on his wife but become a hollow shadow of who he, and they thought, he was before the introduction. Would he feel just as guilty and no longer himself if Close did not continue to pursue him and wreck his life? It was the Eighties, so I doubt it. He has to be robbed and blinded to see the road to Damascus.

The reason Fatal Attraction was such a landmark, and has mutated in its potency is Close is actually too good an actress for the role. She brings a complexity and sadness to her villain that is not there on paper. Probably shouldn’t be there for the entertainment to work smoothly. We should not care about the monster. Alex manifests her frailty in a mode of criminal vengeance. Yet there’s never any concession that her breakdown is valid or could be resolved through love or therapy. Fucking her let’s the curse loose, the djinn out of the bottle. The reshot bombastic ending abandons all Hitchcockian psychology and goes for a satisfying horror movie scourging. Evil is banished, the family unit reunited in a cleansing act of brutality. The equally deserving transgressor ends up ultimately unpunished as balance is restored and the narrative is reset. Dan rejoins his wife and child with little further cost than the bathroom needs a hasty redecorate. The irony is maybe the angelic Anne Archer would have never forgiven his infidelity if it didn’t manifest itself in such a vicious, intrusive way. If she merely discovered her husband was a rat and threw his suits out into the driveway, they would never have had a demon to rally against and reunite their team.

Cathartic violence. The witch needs to be dunked and executed at the stake for Hollywood to pervade the conservative lesson that monogamy is the way, masculinity the right. Both lead women are mentally enfeebled by all this sex and mistrust. You need a man around the house even if he is part hound dog. It is a ropey, rusty conclusion that you can never unpack fully. Fatal Attraction works best as a warning to the faithful man to keep true to his path. Your wife is always safer than the mad bitch offering it up. And a warning to the married woman to keep her man happy, as otherwise god only know what dogs shit he might blithely drag into the hallway carpet after his walk on the wild side. There’s no lesson for the lone woman who falls hard for the fucker someone else has already snagged. Or it is merely an efficiently 1980s rattler that only wants to put it winningly mature stars and us through the ringer and make the box office chime. Which it did deservedly. Witch, bitch, dog shit. This review and the film does feminism few favours. The only institution glorified by a deeper reading of Fatal Attraction is husband and wife must work together to keep dangerous temptation at bay.

7

Check out my wife Natalie’s Point Horror blog https://cornsyrup.co.uk

We also do a podcast together called The Worst Movies We Own. It is available on Spotify or here https://letterboxd.com/bobbycarroll/list/the-worst-movies-we-own-podcast-ranking-and/

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