I struggled with Adore. It’s become incredibly rare to find films that treat the pleasures of women with as much weight and seriousness as men. Even less common is the film that look at that kind of romance from an older perspective. Aside from Diane Keaton or Nancy Meyers films, the affairs of older women are kept entirely off-screen.
Of course, just because a niche isn’t well represented doesn’t automatically mean that there are always stories in that vein worth telling. Yes, I’ve definitely enjoyed my share of Keaton and Ephron films, but they at least tried to tackle the age and pleasure divide instead of keeping these things at a distance. Adore might as well be about people who find romance in the workplace and can’t tell their bosses, or students and their teachers who are afraid of expulsion – any number of scenarios that lend little specificity to the subject.
On the one hand, it’s impressive that the creative team and performers engage in its subject at all. But rather than feeling like a conscious choice to weaken a taboo by acting as though it doesn’t exist, the film instead puts its romances through a painfully routine melodramatic wringer. By the time I reached the third scene of Naomi Watts staring soulfully off into the distance while, “We can’t do this”, I had to agree. There are only so many times the same weepy scenario can repeat itself before it loses all meaning.
It’s a shame, because the setup has so much potential. Lil (Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) have shared experiences with each other their whole lives. They both got married young, had strikingly handsome children, and their fair share of ups and downs with their significant others. Roz’s son Tom (James Frecheville) grew similarly close to Lil’s son Ian (Xavier Samuel) after Lil’s husband died. In their respective loneliness and pain, they all grow closer and closer until the lust the matriarch’s feel for each other’s son grows overpowering, and they begin a group affair that quickly grows serious.
I love this setup and the myriad of questions it presents. Are Lil and Roz’s respective flings evidence of an attraction between one another that is casually hinted at? How much of their sharing was noticed by their kids growing up? Is it possible they nurtured the personalities and growth of each other’s children to fill a void of satisfaction? There are so many possibilities to approach the story with, and it’s deeply dissatisfying to find that Adore picks the most mundane path.
Rather than explore the complex relationship between the two pairs, Adore becomes an elongated match of will they / won’t they. The question becomes quickly irrelevant with the knowledge that even if they don’t connect at the moment they will in a few minutes. A cycle of shame and pleasure takes its course through the foursome and after a bit more reflection, they’re back at it. It becomes so routine that you can almost time to the minute that the cycle takes to repeat. Adore doesn’t have a plot so much as it has an outline repeated ad nauseam.
The film is beautiful to look at, but indicative of the kind of distancing that is keeping the film from doing any real commentary. Their pleasure and troubles are isolated in shots that alternate between long takes of pristine beach landscape and dark close-ups. They’re well done, but telegraph the emotion so broadly that this could work without dialogue. Again, this is something I should love, but it just shows that all the craft and care went into forming a pristine experience instead of allowing real problems to play out onscreen.
It also results in some terrible casting choices. Even if the film opted to deal with the romantic taboo more directly, it doesn’t change that the sons as played by Xavier Samuel and James Frecheville have just as many lines and creases of experience as Naomi Watts. In some lights they even look older and since the script takes steps to avoid dealing with the taboo directly many moments it creates a weird dissonance. The scripting has these performers act as though their dalliance is wrong, while visually putting them in paradise, with performers that don’t even look like they’d have the problems they purport to have. Watts is a fine actress, but she looks younger than the man she is supposedly having a forbidden tryst with. The only casting decision that makes sense is Robin Wright, who is the only one to really let the strain of her age and stored up desire lash out onscreen.
It’s a significant problem when the central dilemma is more interesting in description than it is in execution. What ends up onscreen is a distillation of the indie subgenre of films that regards pretty white people and their problems. Their staging is so crisp, casting so awkward, and dialogue so mundane that the movie washes away like so many footprints in the sand.
Directed by Anne Fontaine.
Screenplay written by Christopher Hampton.
Starring Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, James Frecheville, and Xavier Samuel.