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'Fatal Attraction'

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
September 18, 1987

 


Director:
Adrian Lyne
Cast:
Glenn Close;
Michael Douglas;
Anne Archer
R
Under 17 restricted


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Initially, the circumstances in "Fatal Attraction" are innocent enough: Dan (Michael Douglas), a married attorney with a prestigious New York law firm, meets Alex (Glenn Close), an associate editor for a publishing house. They meet again later at an office conference -- his firm represents hers -- and they're obviously attracted to each other, but at first, they engage only in harmless eyelash-batting, exchanging coy smiles and suggestive glances.

The camera is a sly accomplice in these early scenes, isolating the pair from the people around them, concentrating on their eyes, as subliminal messages pass back and forth between them. When they move beyond the flirting stage to Alex's loft, where they make love in the sink, the sex is explosively erotic, but at the same time, funny. The director, Adrian Lyne, who made "Flashdance" and "9 1/2 Weeks," knows how to give audiences their vicarious kicks; he excites them, then gives them a little release by making them laugh. Dan and Alex spend one night and part of the next day together, listening to music, frolicking in Central Park, and flipping through old memories in the way that one seldom does except in the first flush of a new love affair. Very quickly they establish an easy intimacy and, in her head, Alex is already making plans for the future. After one night, she falls in love. He doesn't.

Congreve said, "Heav'n has no rage, like love to hatred turned, nor Hell a fury like a woman scorn'd" -- and "Fatal Attraction" sets out to prove him right. The movie, which was written by James Dearden, has a rock-solid premise. But, though it's an odd one for a thriller, it works beautifully.

"Fatal Attraction" has an inescapable pull to it; it's suffocatingly exciting. Lyne's direction has a seductive sharpness and precision. What Lyne has learned from his past films, and his work before that making television commercials, is how to look at things. And the things in this movie -- average things like the sharpened pencils on the desk in Dan's office when Alex comes to visit -- are threateningly present.

This is a tactic that Hitchcock made good use of, and there are moments -- like the spectacular bathroom sequence at the end of the film -- when Lyne makes your throat tighten the way Hitchcock did. Also, there are places where the emotions break through. In one scene, Alex sits on the floor of her bedroom switching the light off and on, off and on, and in medium shot it's funny; in close-up it's not.

On the face of it, the story is a female revenge fantasy; it's the expression of every woman's anger on the morning after a one-night stand when the lovemaking is over, and the man has left, and that empty, used-up feeling starts to creep in. But the movie takes the man's point of view, not the woman's; it's about the male fear of women's emotions -- their dread that casual pleasure-taking will turn into messy entanglements.

All this -- which adds up to make the point that there is no such thing as safe sex -- is banked into the subtext, and because it builds on existing sexual fears, the movie may come across as being more serious than it is.

The movie's deep -- but only superficially. Lyne is interested in ideas only to the extent that they buttress the thriller aspect of his story. But he's savvy in his titillating, manipulative way about sexual attitudes. He knows, for example, that Dan's troubles with Alex tighten his bonds to his wife Beth (Anne Archer) and their little girl, Ellen (Ellen Hamilton Latzen). What this enables Lyne to do is create a sense that something is at stake. Lyne is particularly good at conveying the affection between Dan and his wife. But as Beth, Anne Archer makes the job easy for him.

Archer hasn't had much of a career to this point -- she's appeared in a number of less than outstanding features and television shows -- but she's spectacular here. Beth can't believe that she's a beauty, and that may be the most attractive thing about her. The sexiest moment in the movie, in fact, isn't the one in which Close and Douglas first make love, but the one in which Dan watches Beth put on her makeup. Beth is presented as a model, modern wife -- good-spirited, self-deprecating, efficient -- but she doesn't come across as a drudge; she's happy in her life, fulfilled. In other words, she's everything Alex would like to be, but isn't.

Alex is 38, with a career and just about nothing else. Clearly, the filmmakers would like us to see her as the down side of the women's movement -- the woman who bought all the rhetoric and missed out on her chance for happiness in the suburbs with husband and kids. We aren't given much about Alex's background: just that her father died of a heart attack at 42 and she's had a nasty miscarriage that she believes has left her unable to have children. Whatever the history, though, her fling with Dan pushes her over the edge.

The part of Alex is essentially that of a hysteric, and it's not a flattering one, but Close doesn't recoil from this woman or try to soften her. Close plunges deep into this woman's derangement, and her level of involvement gives it a greater validity; you can't just cross her off as a crazy. This is by far the most exposed Close has allowed herself to be in her movie roles; she's never had this kind of forcefulness. The pain and anger in her portrayal are frighteningly potent -- perhaps because they're just an extension of the normal gut-wrenching awfulness everybody experiences when love affairs go sour. There's a touch of Medea in Close's characterization; the rage she expresses is mythically feminine. Still, she's a profoundly unsympathetic figure.

Strangely enough, the film's sympathy goes to Dan, even though he's the one who must suffer for his indiscretion. Dan isn't an exciting man; he's settled and a little complacent. That puts him right within Michael Douglas' range. Douglas is skillful without really engaging you. I think he's wrong for swashbuckling parts -- he's too average -- but he can convey goodness, and he's sexy in a kind of nonthreatening way; he's decent.

There are things wrong with "Fatal Attraction." Once the central situation is laid out, it evolves pretty much the way you thought it might. Also, presenting Douglas as such a nice guy robs the character of some of his vitality; a little darkness in his soul might have added another dimension. Lyne screws things down pretty tight, though. This is a spectacularly well-made thriller. Its being as effective as it is may not, in the long run, be such a plus. It is an odd thing, really -- the movie is sexy and at the same time a warning about the costs of sex. It contributes to the atmosphere of sexual paranoia. And is that something we really need?

Fatal Attraction, at area theaters, is rated R and contains some nudity, violence and suggestive material.

   
© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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