Much of Adore takes place in a picturesque Australian coastal town where the azure-blue water apparently has magical powers. Everyone who wades into it wades out impossibly beautiful. As childhood friends, Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) swam in it daily: Forty-some years later, they can still rock skimpy bikinis like Jennifer Aniston. Their sons Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville) were also raised there, constantly surfing the inlet’s majestic waves, and they grew up to be Abercrombie & Fitch models with a curious allergy to T-shirts (they can keep them only for only a few minutes at a time).
Lil, who is a widow, and Roz, who is soon to be divorced from her husband (Ben Mendelsohn), remain as inseparable as ever. “They’re beautiful! They’re like young gods!” Roz tells Lil as they watch their statuesque sons frolic in the water like they were at a Bruce Weber photoshoot. The two women spend so much time together — they’re next-door neighbors and appear to have no other friends — rumors start circulating that they may be “lezzos,” as Roz puts it. But although there are subtle sexual undertones in their relationship, Lil and Roz aren’t sleeping together. Instead, they’re sleeping with each other’s son. And it’s the kids, not the moms, who initiated the affairs. This isn’t an Oedipus complex. This is a Preposterous complex.
Adore marks the English-language debut of French filmmaker Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel, Natalie..., How I Killed My Father), who knows how to frame gorgeous widescreen vistas but doesn’t have much of a sense of humor and isn’t one for satire, either. Everything in Adore is played straight, without a trace of subversiveness or emotional complexity. The script was adapted from Doris Lessing’s novel The Grandmothers by the esteemed playwright/screenwriter Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons, The Quiet American) and is overloaded with the kind of awful dialogue even actors as gifted as Watts and Wright can’t salvage (a sample conversation over lunch about their ongoing affairs: “How are you feeling?” “Good.” “Yeah, me too. I can’t remember being this happy.” “It’s scary.” “Very.” “I don’t want to stop.” “I don’t see why we should have to.”)
Was Hampton drunk? Or is he just punking us? Movies about people driven to insane acts by sexual desire need to make us feel the characters’ passion — need to show us why otherwise healthy, sane people delve helplessly into such destructive behavior. In 1992’s Damage, when Jeremy Irons started having an affair with his son’s fiancee (Juliette Binoche), director Louis Malle graphically depicted the ferocity of their illicit encounters, making us understand why Irons was unable to resist his disastrous desires. But Adore aspires only to high-toned soap opera. Practically all the sex takes place offscreen. It’s treated like an abstract thing with no psychological or moral consequences. Instead, there is lots of cuddling and spooning and scenes in which Lil and Roz frolic in the surf with their sons like Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello in Beach Blanket Bingo while a happy salsa song plays on the soundtrack. And as shallow as these crazy cougars come off, their sons fare even worse — two handsome, intelligent young men who never leave the house and are perfectly happy hanging out (and sleeping with) each other’s mom. Did these people beam down from another planet?
The overwhelming stupidity of Adore extends beyond the central foursome, too. In one scene set at a posh, elegant wedding reception, the crowd dances happily to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s Relax. I mean, who does that? At least the film has the courage of its convictions, eschewing the expected tragic ending for something in line with the preceding weirdness. Only genuinely talented people can make pictures this bad and misguided. “This whole thing is unacceptable,” Lil remarks at one point. That goes for the movie, too.
Cast: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn, Jessica Tovey.
Director: Anne Fontaine.
Screenwriter: Christopher Hampton. Based on the novel “The Grandmothers” by Doris Lessing.
Producers: Philippe Carcassone, Andrew Mason, Michel Feller, Barbara Gibbs.
An Exclusive Media release. Running time: 111 minutes. Vulgar language, sexual situations, brief nudity, adult themes. Opens Friday Sept. 20 in Miami-Dade only: Koubek Center, Cosford Cinema.