ADULTERY ON FILM AND TELEVISION: A RANDOM LIST
Why do so many novels and movies focus on adultery? This emphasis is an oblique way of addressing the central human concern with love, the deepest longing of human nature and the deepest source of meaning. People want to focus on the nature of love, the limits of love, the dynamics of love. Adultery is the sharpest and most vivid betrayal of love, so wrestling with adultery becomes a major dramatic terrain for exploring the nature of love. It’s in the contrast with darkness that particular avenues open up for exploring the nature of light.
Love entails faith, in which trust is a major component. Truly loving means keeping faith, fulfilling the trust that another has in oneself. Betraying the beloved violates that trust, that faith. Hence infidelity, a synonym for faithlessness, has become one of the main synonyms for adultery. Adultery recurs in fiction and film as a prime vehicle for the human struggle with what it means to keep faith.
It can be difficult for victims of adultery to view films with adultery, for it can plunge us into replaying how we were victimized. At the same time, viewing others’ drama can relieve the isolation of one's own hurt, activate catharsis and yield helpful insights into the dynamics of betrayal and healing.
Here's an alphabetical listing of films and television series in which adultery plays a major part:
"A Million Little Things," 2018 – Family drama based in friendship among four guys. Sometimes treacly but often good. A major storyline is about an adultery among them that results in a child being conceived and born. Set in Boston.
"A Storm at Christmas," 2022, Netflix – Travelers stuck at Oslo Airport, in Norwegian. Good on various characters and interactions: bartender dying of cancer is reunited with long-lost daughter; lesbian singer repents her imperious treatment of assistant; demanding traveler is transformed by helping in a soup kitchen; young daughter helps her parents to stop arguing; naïve young woman who helps a pilot become less cynical; a woman chaplain along the way hooks up with a traveler; a philandering girlfriend confesses her numerous affairs to boyfriend, who appropriately ends the relationship. Good acting, subtle generally, though maybe trite in how all comes right in the end.
"A Walk on the Moon," 1999 – Excellent. Stars Diane Lane as Pearl, a straying wife in upper New York State in the summer of 1969. Features both the Woodstock Folk Festival and the first moon landing. Liev Schreiber plays Pearl's husband Marty, and Viggo Mortensen plays the affair partner. It’s all quite credible, with the possible exception of the closing reconciliation, which comes without the probing of any mutual discussion.
"Apple Tree Yard," 2017 – Excellent British 4-part series based on the novel of the same name. Emily Watson plays geneticist Dr. Carmichael, who co-starts adultery with wolfish Mark Costly in House of Commons crypt and falls heavily for him with sex in public places. She’s raped by a colleague at an office party, and Costley kills the rapist, substantially at her behest. He’s convicted of manslaughter while she’s let off. Adultery comes out in court, which is hard for her husband. Why didn’t she tell husband about the rape? – "I didn’t want him always to have that in his mind in coming years," in addition of course to her not wanting the adultery to tumble out into the open.
"Both Sides of the Blade," 2022, in French – From Ebert: "No one starts with a clean slate in adulthood. How you deal with this reality says a lot about who you are: how do you make sense of the narrative of your life, how do you fit your own past into your present story? This is the central tension of Claire Denis’ emotionally volatile and unpredictable ‘Both Sides of the Blade,’ with Juliette Binoche and Vincent Lindon giving two tremendous performances as a contented couple whose lives are exploded by a chance encounter in the street, by the past strolling back into the present, re-asserting its primacy with no warning. The past is the ultimate party-crasher." Yes, but with one modification: Sara sees Francois (the former flame) by chance, but he was intending to contact Jean (her husband) and did so to propose a new business venture and, I suspect, to try to win Sara back, so it was not simply by chance. Justin Chang on NPR: "The title of ‘Both Sides of the Blade’ evokes the age-old question of whether a person can love two people at the same time. And Binoche, so good at revealing complex, contradictory emotions, shows us a woman torn between a partner she adores and an ex she can’t forget." New Yorker: ". . . an update of the classic romantic triangle, which Denis inscribes on a much more elaborate geometry of politics, history, geography, memory, and mores." Oddly, this reviewer says the film depicts the obstacles to a woman’s freedom, but the opposite is the case: Sara has total freedom and she simply misuses it by adulterizing with Francois and then lying to Jean, gaslighting him and trying to convince him that she wants their quasi-marriage to continue, when in reality she’s pledged her love to Francois and had sex with him. As is common, she wants the safety of the good guy but is excited by the danger of the bad guy. In the end she loses both Jean, who rightly is fed up and walks out, and Francois, who can’t reach her because she let her phone fall into the bathtub, probably in order to prevent discovery of her texts with him. So she brought on herself the aloneness that her behavior deserved.
"Dark Desire," 2020-22, Mexican series – Wife of judge goes out partying with a friend, hooks up with a guy, and the friend is murdered. Murder is the mystery throughout. Husband turns out to have been adulterizing with the murdered friend. Hookup guy is the son of a wrongfully accused and convicted man who shot himself in custody, so son’s hookup with the judge’s wife and then their daughter is revenge. A steamy, vivid illustration of the results of adultery.
"Deep Water," 2022 – Film starring Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas: long, torpid, ultimately uninteresting! But long awaited by critics because it was the first film by director Adrian Lyne since his "Unfaithful" in 2002, which is outstanding. In this film the wife is a promiscuous cheater, while the husband tolerates it superficially but in reality is killing off the affair partners. Evidently in the novel original they had agreed on an open marriage, but not in the film. The film is a waste of time, largely because the husband’s emotional passivity with his wife and her behavior is simply not credible. Yes, he’s active in killing off the partners, a displacement of his reaction to his wife’s behavior, but it still doesn’t hold up.
"Drive My Car," 2021 – Based on Haruki Murakami's short story of the same name, the movie won the Academy award for best picture. It focuses chiefly on a man’s wrestling with his wife’s infidelity. In this case she has multiple affairs with men from her TV screenwriting life, though we are witness to just one of them. When the husband comes home from a canceled flight to his wife having sex with a young actor on their couch, he quietly closes the door and leaves, which turns out to have been a longstanding pattern. Obviously, that’s a very self-destructive response. Very long movie that captures attention in the moment, but over time it has little staying power, maybe because his extremely passive response strains credulity.
"Faithfully Yours," 2022 – Two married women friends, apparently happily married, go off on an adulterizing weekend, but when it ends in catastrophe the husbands end up getting blamed! It’s a classic 21st-century expression of feminist entitlement, but it’s also a mediocre film.
"Fatal Affair," 2020 – All African American characters. Woman lawyer has dalliance with old flame who turns out to be psychopath, so there’s violence along the way. Her betrayed architect husband has the memorable line: "I can’t say I’m not angry. I can’t say I’m not hurt. But I say again, I need you because you’re what makes my world make sense." Resonates with how men forgive adultery more than women do, at least in terms of staying in the relationship.
"God Forbid: The Sex Scandal that Brought Down a Dynasty," 2022 – CNN documentary about Jerry Falwell, Jr., and wife Becki Tilley – of Moral Majority and Liberty University – who together had a years-long affair with 20-year-old Giancarlo Granda. Strikingly blatant and perverse behavior by prominent Christian couple. Interesting for adulterous initiative taken by Becki, with Jerry part of the threesome as he often watched the trysts.
"Infidelity," 2004 – A woman family therapist’s adultery with male musician in New Orleans, recapitulating the pattern of her father’s infidelity. Longsuffering husband finally discovers the truth, leaves, but returns and reconciles. Questionable pregnancy appears as well. Grade B movie, but interesting.
"Intimacy," 2022 – Eight-part Spanish series about two women: the married woman vice mayor of Bilbao who has a reckless affair and is filmed having sex with her affair partner on a beach, the video then going public; and a woman factory worker whose filmed participation in a sex tape goes public. Series is about privacy violations of women. But its advocacy is weakened by the fact that promiscuity is the underlying reality, especially since the politician, Malen, stubbornly refuses to apologize, even to her husband. "Men have done this for ages," goes the argument – yes, of course, but the answer should not be that women should likewise misbehave with impunity! Series is mistitled, for its subject is not intimacy but the considerable costs of infidelity and promiscuity.
"Lady Chatterley’s Lover," 2022 – Movie version of D. H. Lawrence’s famous 1928 novel. Tremendous acting by Emma Corrin, who played Princess Diana in Season 4 of "The Crown," and Jack O’Donnell. Amid tremendous sexual tension and beautiful sex, it depicts the lying and deception inherent in adultery. Of course, the husband is depicted as cold and mean, a standard trope designed to justify women’s adultery. Movie version’s happily-ever-after ending differs from Lawrence’s more ambiguous ending. Reviewed positively by critics.
"Love and Death," 2023, 4 episodes – True story of Candy Montgomery and Allan Gore’s mutual adultery as Methodists in Wyllie, Texas, in 1980, which ended with his wife coming at Candy with an axe and Candy killing her in self-defense with the axe, a defense that a jury affirmed in acquitting her of murder. The feelings expressed by the adulterers, especially Gore, were significant and interesting: very much as one would imagine how basically okay people might discuss, decide and ruminate over their adultery. Interesting feature: Both couples went to Marriage Encounter, which prompted Gore to end the affair.
"Loving Adults," 2022, Danish – Middle-aged Leonora discovers husband Christian is having an affair with young construction engineer colleague, so threatens him with disclosure of their company’s unrelated financial fraud on behalf of their disabled son. To eliminate the threat, he tries to kill his wife but runs down another unrelated woman instead. Turns out his wife Leonora, while a teenager, had killed a boyfriend who cheated on her. So now she masterminds killing the affair partner. And they get away with it! Says frustrated detective, "Love destroys" as well as fulfills. As so often is the case, adultery lies at the root.
"Mammals, 2022, 6-part series – British dark comedy about marriage and adultery. Chef Jamie’s French wife Amandine is found to be having sex with several men. Jamie’s devastation is portrayed very well, drawing the viewer’s empathy. But he resorts to sleuthing and then confronting the men rather than his confronting his wife, until midway through the series, when he does so publicly! In the last moments of the series it turns out that she started her adultery because she’d seen him having sex with another woman, but, similarly, she’d never confronted him about it. Instead, she embarked on revenge affairs. Revenge adultery is not uncommon, but it usually occurs after the original adultery is confronted.
"Marriage Story," 2019 – Ebert: "Divorce is described in Noah Baumbach’s masterful ‘Marriage Story’ as like a death without a body. Something has been lost. There is grieving, anger, denial. In his personal and moving story, Baumbach captures the insidious nature of divorce, how two well-meaning people who still care about each other will do things they would never think they would do." Adam Driver and Scarlet Johannsson are remarkable. From NYT: "It’s funny and sad, sometimes within a single scene, and it weaves a plot out of the messy collapse of a shared reality, trying to make music out of disharmony. The melody is full of heartbreak, loss and regret, but the song is too beautiful to be entirely melancholy. The most painful parts of ‘Marriage Story’ act out that revisionism, as idiosyncrasies are made to look pathological and mistakes are treated as potential crimes. The German social critic Theodor W. Adorno wrote that ‘divorce, even between good-natured, amiable, educated people, is apt to stir up a dust-cloud that covers and discolors all it touches,’ an insight that Baumbach illustrates with vivid precision. He shows how ‘the sphere of intimacy’ (to continue with Adorno) ‘is transformed into a malignant poison as soon as the relationship in which it flourished is broken off.’" Driver’s character is revealed to have had an affair, but adultery is not the primary focus of the movie.
"My Sordid Affair," 2017 – Six-episode TV series, each fairly short episode highlighting a separate instance of adultery, mostly by women. For instance, in one episode a mother gets involved with her son's guitar instructor. In another, a women does adultery with the guy who's teaching her photography class. In all instances, the adulterer's world comes crashing down, so the series seems designed to warn viewers off having affairs. Grade B, but reasonably good. About the title: Actually all affairs are sordid for they involve betrayal, secrecy, sneaking around and abuse of an intimate relationship, so the title is instructive!
"Outlander" – This multi-season 2016 period-time-travel drama between 1945 England and 1743 Scotland is quite something with Catriona Balfe as Claire and Sam Heugan as Jamie: wartime between clans and Redcoats, remarkably moving sex and personality encounters. Reviewed well by New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum as one of the best dramas on TV when it started in 2016. But: "Outlander" is partly a female fantasy of adultery that’s conscience-free because while Claire’s trapped in the 18th century, she gets to have her daughter in the liberated 20th century, then go back to Jamie in the 18th century after her boring husband Frank dies in an auto crash in the 20th century – conscience-free.
"Overspel," 2011-15 – Dutch TV series in 3 seasons. Married photographer Iris and married lawyer Willem embark on adultery, with lots of personal and family ramifications. He lawyers for a shady real estate family that her husband is pursuing as a state prosecutor, so lots of complications ensue. Very well done, with emotional costs fully explored. Overspel means adultery in Dutch, but the English title is "The Adulterer," which is misleading, for the two principal characters are, obviously, equally adulterous. The American remake was titled "Betrayal."
"Scenes from a Marriage," 2021 – Remake of Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 "Scenes from a Marriage," which starred Liv Ullman and Erland Josephson, Bergman’s beginning is very stilted, but much of the rest of it is compelling – after his adultery revelation, Marianne is cringingly willing to humiliate herself for the sake of love in the early days, and she grows only gradually in being able to name the dynamics. The remake’s characters, played by Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, are more nuanced, not so stereotypically arrogant (Jonathan now vs. original’s Johann) or deferential (Mira now vs. original’s Marianne). Now, though, the roles are reversed – it’s the wife, not the husband, who abruptly leaves for an affair, a nod to the contemporary reality that the frequency of adultery among men and women now is about the same. First episode includes contemporary dynamics of open marriage, lesbian experimentation and abortion. That episode ends with Mira choosing abortion. The viewer might conclude it’s because she suspects or knows that the child’s father is her affair partner, whereas her husband does not yet know of her adultery, but it later seemed that it was because she thought a second child would make it harder for her to leave the marriage. 4th episode is the most wrenching – in the house waiting for the movers – and the most erotic. In the final episode they’re still trysting four years later, despite he having remarried, but it’s a relational wilderness: she feels traumatized by her own abandonment, while he’s gotten married and has a child but still has affairs, partly because his wife doesn’t want sex, and he senses that the marriage marriage won’t last. He recognizes his moral vacuity but doesn’t care.
"The Americans," 2012-18 – Excellent long-form series about undercover Soviet spies in 1980s Falls Church, Virginia, starring Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys with two children. Lots of horrifying violence and manipulative sex that illustrate callousness of high-level spy operatives. Interestingly, Elizabeth turns out to be the more vicious and ideologically committed operative while Philip becomes increasingly skeptical of their work, though even she gives in to her doubts at the end. FBI agent Stan’s role across the street is major, though his letting them get away in the end is not credible. Ultimately they lose both their children to staying in USA as they have to return to USSR to escape capture. Toward the end Elizabeth has to admit to her daughter that she’s been using sex to entrap people, and she devalues the significance of sexuality altogether – that is the price of promiscuity. Excellent acting by all.
"The Bridges of Madison County," 1995 – Famous film starring Meryl Streep as Italian immigrant Iowa housewife Francesca and her 4-day affair with National Geographic photographer Clint Eastwood. Erotic and romantic, with the marriage and husband depicted, of course, as drab! Its rapturous reception indicates the film was and remains many women’s wet dream, which is a bit pathetic. Housewife realistically decides to stay in her marriage, but infidelity author Shirley Glass points out that her cherishing her memory of the affair in secret until her death undercuts her purported lifelong commitment to her husband. Disclosure and analysis are crucial to any authentic healing after adultery. A betrayed spouse deserves to know the truth about the marriage he/she is in.
"The Descendants," 2011 – Set in Hawaii. A boating mishap puts lawyer Matthew King’s (George Clooney) wife Elizabeth in a coma. From their teenage daughter Alexandra he finds out she’d been doing adultery with an unknown guy, which is confirmed by ‘best friends’ who had concealed it from him. With Alex’s help Matt tracks down and confronts her affair partner Brian Speer, who’s then found out by his wife Julie. It’s all about the spreading trauma that adultery causes. Based on the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings, it was nominated for 5 Oscars.
"The Duchess of Duke Street," 1976, BBC/PBS – Initially entertaining about a lower-class young British woman who makes it as a chef to the upper classes. But then there’s a wretched episode about an artist woman up in London who adulteries with a politician cad, falling for his flattery, and declares her love for him while her husband ails back at their country home. The B&B household cheers her on and sympathizes as she plays the victim when it all comes tumbling down. It recalls Esther Perel’s comment in Mating in Captivity about how female sexuality tends to center on being adored.
"The Eyes of Tammy Faye," 2021– Excellent movie about televangelists Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, their rise and fall amid financial and sexual scandals. Jessica Chastain’s portrayal is luminous, stunning and skillful, well deserving her 2022 Best Actress Oscar. It’s striking about how both of them fell into adultery, she with PTL’s music producer, he in a threesome and then also with gay men. Chastain’s singing is terrific and Tammy’s spirituality comes across as more authentic than Jim’s. As in the documentary about Jerry Falwell, Jr., and his wife – "God Forbid," noted above, it's a good portrayal of Christian leaders’ descent into adultery.
"The Fabelmans," 2022 – By Steven Spielberg. One review implied that his boyhood filmmaking obsession is center stage, with the adultery of his mother, played by Michelle Williams, vaguely alluded to on the side. Instead, the adultery is center stage, while the filmmaking is a strong accompanying theme. Clearly the trauma of adultery is the central energy, for at age 75 Spielberg makes a memoir film in which he’s working out the trauma of his mother’s adultery.
"The Lost Daughter," 2021– Stars Olivia Colman as Harvard academic Leda on vacation in Greece, where childcare and adultery tribulations of a Queens vacationing family evoke wistful and regretful memories of her own motherhood struggle, adultery and abandoning her husband and two young daughters. Lots about the struggles of motherhood. Altogether about aging reassessment of one’s life, triggered by whatever. Leda is not idealized but cast actually as an unpleasant character and an "unnatural mother" who nevertheless elicits our empathy for her struggles with her weakness and malevolence.
"The Morning Show," seasons 1 & 2, 2019 & 2021 – The entire show is premised on adultery. Mitch Kesslery, played by Steve Carell, is a married TV morning show host who turns out to have had multiple affairs with network women, so is then divorced by his wife. Jennifer Anniston, playing Alex Levy, is the married TV star who turns out to be one of those women. Bradley Jackson, played by Reese Witherspoon, is the young brash West Virginian who helps bring it all crashing down, but then has sexual intrigues of her own. Billy Crudup plays Cory Ellison, the top executive who tries to manage all the vicissitudes, both personal and corporate. Well done, with some subtle explorations of feminism.
"The Split," 2018, 2020, 2022 seasons – Very good BBC series about adultery and divorce in British divorce law family firm. Nicola Walker plays Hannah who cheats with her law school chum Christie. Various adulteries arise, but the drama among Hanna, Christie and her husband is central.
"The Worst Person in the World," 2021 – Well-reviewed Norwegian film about a young ambivalent woman in Oslo who struggles with love and vocation. Actress is winsomely attractive, but her character is so callous in cheating on the two love interests that it’s ultimately uninteresting and somewhat repellant. Vocationally she ends up being a still photographer for actors in TV series – that's fulfilling? How would this play if the protagonist were a man? – probably not so well in the popular imagination, demonstrating the extra mile given today to women in all matters relational and adulterous.
"The Worst Year of My Life, 2015 – A comedic drama about a down-on-his-luck romantic named Kyle who, one week before proposing to his girlfriend, discovers that she’s been having sex with another man – and later that she’s a financial cheat as well. Lots of intersplicing with a deadpan insightful young woman therapist as he deals with his anger, hurt, obsession, desire to reconcile and, at times, addiction to the pain. He finally gets free of his former fiancé and is able to form a new relationship.
"This Is Where I Leave You," 2014 – Very clever family drama with lots of humor, but also lots of pathos: Judd, played very well by Jason Bateman, comes home to his wife having sex with his boss, then hears that his Jewish patriarch father has died, so goes to his family to sit shiva, reconnects briefly with an old flame (Rose Byrne), while siblings (including Adam Driver) and mother (Jane Fonda) all have their own dramas. Movie version of the novel of the same name by Jonathan Tropper. The movie’s very good, yet the novel is even better.
"Truth and Lies: Monica and Bill," 2019 – Documentary about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, with lots of footage from the time and interviews with journalists and others. Good. Especially stunning is the recklessness with which Clinton pursued adulterous relationships – Lewinsky obviously, but also Jennifer Flowers and Paula Jones. But, of course, adultery is always reckless – people not reckoning the risk and pain.
"Two Lovers," 2009 – Joaquin Phoenix plays bipolar 30s Jewish Leonard living at home, slated to marry daughter of parents’ business partner but then is infatuated with neighbor Gwyneth Paltrow, who is a lawyer’s mistress. He beds both of them. In the end, Gwyneth returns to her sugar daddy and Leonard decides to be content with the fiancé.
"Under a Tuscan Sun," 2003 – Diane Lane in a flimsy, flip and shallow film about a woman who moves to Italy after her husband cheats on her. Interesting that Lane’s two excellent adultery roles – "Walk on the Moon" and "Unfaithful" – were issued in 1999 and 2002, so this was a semi-comedic comedown the next year.
"Unfaithful," 2002 – Perhaps the best adultery movie, it stars Diane Lane and Richard Gere as a married couple in Westchester County with a young son. He commutes to NYC, and she’s a homemaker busy in community life. Couple was happy: in contrast to many depictions of female adultery, there is nothing about the marriage being unsatisfactory in any way; her husband was loving and attentive. Nevertheless, Connie flings herself into a fling with a French Manhattan bookseller because she wants to: it’s exotic, exciting, sexually rapturous. An older woman friend’s warning about adultery always ending badly was impressive. Couple being genuinely loving, though traumatized, in the wake of the affair was credible. Film’s ending is appropriately ambiguous: coincidentally stopping in front of a police station does not imply Gere was going to turn himself in for murder at that moment, only that the threat of law enforcement would always hang over them regardless of what they do. Reviewed positively by the critics.
[This message edited by GuyInPain at 12:05 PM, Saturday, September 30th]