Adapted from Claude Chabrol's La Femme Infidele, Unfaithful is the story of a contemporary couple commuting to Manhattan from their safe enclave in White Plains. Edward Sumner (Richard Gere) owns an armored car company, a spacious house and two late-model luxury automobiles. His ironically named wife Constance (Diane Lane) does lunch. She rises languidly every morning to get her 9-year-old son Charlie (Erik Per Sullivan) off to school, then heads into the city to waste time until she needs to pick her child up from school. References are made to Connie's raising money for charity, but the only thing we see her raise is her skirt. Lyne may actually believe that idle hands are the devil's workshop.
One day Connie is up to whatever in the city when a wind storm literally blows her on top of Paul Martel (Olivier Martinez), a French rare book dealer with both the charm and the morals of a Frenchman. Skinned knees lead to Band-Aids, hot tea, a slow dance around a bag of muffins, repeat visits, vows of "I've really got to go," several "I really shouldn'ts," and as much heavy breathing as you're liable to see in a Hollywood release until Lyne makes his next movie. Be forewarned, however; if your motives for seeing this movie are impure, you're not going to see nearly enough to be glad you did.
What's unusual about Connie's infidelity is that the filmmakers nowhere try to justify it. Edward is a kind and attentive husband. He may be a little schlumpy in his weekend clothes and his lived-in manner, but he is Richard Gere, after all. Edward is loyal and loving, and everything suggests that the Sumners' sex life is normal and mutually satisfying. Connie just doesn't have anything to do in the early afternoon, so she takes to doing Paul Martel. She never plans to leave her family; she apparently never stops loving her husband. She just sees a chance at some forbidden pleasure and, like a contestant on Supermarket Sweepstakes, helps herself with both hands. Of course, we've all seen Lyne's earlier Fatal Attraction, and we know that no good extra-marital sex goes unpunished.
I'll readily concede that the acting is top drawer here. Diane Lane has been in movies since age 12, and she's that rare child star who really seems to be finding her stride as an adult. She was good a couple of years ago in A Walk on the Moon, and she's even better here. She's got one really great scene about a third of the way in when she's riding the train home from her first romp with Paul. Remembering what she's done, she's horrified, sorrowful and ashamed all the while she can barely contain a delight so giddy that she can barely restrain herself from bursting into laughter. In a better movie this wordless tour de force is the stuff that lands Oscar nominations. And Gere is nearly her equal. Adroitly playing against type, Gere's Edward is mild rather than exciting, solid rather than charismatic. Staying wonderfully within himself, Gere never shows either the cockiness or the devilish charm that have long been his acting trademarks. He smiles like a dad and a husband, not like a lover.
Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn't begin to live up to the efforts of the stars. The writers have evidently never met an unlikely coincidence they didn't adopt. Connie's just about to stroll up the steps to Paul's flat, and who should she run into but a couple of women from her own neighborhood. What's everybody from White Plains doing on this street? Paul and Connie decide to make out in a restaurant and who should be sitting at the next table but Edward's vice president. Connie lies about soliciting a friend for the charity she never solicits for and who should sit down next to Edward on the train but the unsolicited friend. We understand that Connie is horny, but why does she have to be stupid? Why tell Edward she's got a beauty appointment when it's so easy for him to discover she doesn't? More important, why, when things have gone bad, would Connie conceivably want to have sex in a hallway? But most important, why does a movie about the wages of sin have to twist itself from domestic drama into thriller? Because, Watson, it's not about the story or the theme or the characters; it's about the box office.