Sex and humiliation have always made for strange cinematic bedfellows. This is especially true in the classic erotic thriller where physical attraction represents both an extreme risk and break from normalcy for characters besieged by lust. Adrian Lyne’s brutal spin on the genre uses the former to trigger the latter. Affairs of the body, mind, and soul spell disaster not only because they tear at the fabric of mutual trust, but in doing so also expose the potential embarrassment of having one’s sins be broadly revealed and judged. Disclosure is the true threat.
While much has been made of the correlation between seduction and danger in Lyne’s classics like Fatal Attraction (1987) and Unfaithful (2002), his obsession with indignity is arguably even more interesting. Lyne’s cheating louses and doting husbands start out confidently, masters of traditional domesticity and financial success. But they become riddled with shame once their selfish fantasies about women are destroyed. Bad decisions and cowardice force them into the darkest corner of a love triangle, and their only escape is murder.
“He’s just a little insecure like the rest of us.” When Michael Douglas’ philandering lawyer fatefully talks up Glenn Close’s unhinged advertising exec in Fatal Attraction, his joke about male insecurity becomes the treatise for Lyne’s view of fragile masculinity.
It’s been two decades since Richard Gere embodied this archetype in Unfaithful. During that time Lyne has seemingly moved into more reflexive (and reflective) territory. Deep Water, his wonderfully stern non-erotic erotic thriller based on Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel, is the opposite of an aphrodisiac. Nearly every scene is an exercise in humiliation. It tests the boundaries of how much embarrassment one person can take in the name of love. Or in the name of retaining one’s status.
Up to this point, so many of the cocky men in Lyne’s filmography are taken aback by how quickly their lives can fall apart. Ben Affleck’s millionaire Vic Van Allen is slightly different; he’s already come to grips with the fact that his wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) likes to screw around with younger guys. She invites these men to parties, flaunts her flirtations without pause much to the chagrin of Vic’s wealthy social circle who can’t believe he tolerates such obvious disrespect. There are even intimate family dinners where Melinda brings these men into their home, essentially cheating right in front of Vic’s face.
Deep Water sees Vic’s lifeless stares and dead eyes as the culmination of this motif of male humiliation, the point past the point of no return. But as the film progresses, it becomes clear that Vic isn’t your normal pathetic coward. His preferred form of venting includes killing these men one by one. A not so talented Mr. Ripley.
Lyne oscillates back and forth between these two extremes - Melinda cheats, Vic kills - creating a strange and fascinating symbiotic relationship between two people who need each other to be messy and miserable.
One of the more subversive elements of Deep Water is how it strips away any sexiness from a genre that’s supposed to be sexy. Someone on Twitter asked me why this was any fun to watch. And my answer is simple: Deep Water is not any fun in the traditional sense. If you’re looking for arousal, keep on looking. The sex scenes, both pathetic and often interrupted, are based on stale, repetitive power dynamics and a pouty male gaze. Lyne is no longer interested in the tease, but the numbing, suffocating experience of living outside the tease, outside the fatal attractions, outside the hot sex. Ben Affleck is the perfect actor to embody this silent suffering and humiliation, a top heavy sad sack of a man who looks like he might tip over at any one moment.
Considering many of the scummy plot details, it’s also incredibly hard not to see Deep Water as some form of camp. Vic’s wealth has come from developing the computer chip that allows military drones to function, a moral grey area verbalized by Tracy Letts’ hack screenwriter. Melinda spends one argument brushing her teeth, the toothpaste becoming so prominent it looks like she’s frothing at the mouth. Vic has an obsession with snails, and even keeps them as pets in a makeshift greenhouse. For what reason? Probably because they let him touch them unlike Melinda. There’s also a climactic chase involving a mountain bike that truly must be seen to be believed.
All of this is to say that Lyne and company are up to something devilish here that shouldn’t be dismissed. Unlike Fatal Attraction, which is itself a masterful cautionary tale about escalating repercussions and accountability, Deep Water exists in a purgatory or sorts where such dimension and morality is pointless, personal change non-existent. All that’s left are the intimate humiliations we hope will stay in the family.
Deep Water will be available to stream on Hulu Friday, March 18.