To cheat or not to cheat...
Really, there is no question. Cinema loves infidelity. It's the scenario that can bring about sex, anger or comedy. Think the passions of 'Unfaithful,' the dangers of 'Fatal Attraction' or Leslie Mann's paranoia in 'Knocked Up.' It fuels reminiscences in 'The End of the Affair,' is an unavoidable downside to soulmates in 'Before Sunset' and inspires men to murder in 'Dial M for Murder.'
This month, it's also a prevalent theme in new releases. As Perri noted last week, the first month of the year usually isn't the best for cinema. It's plagued with studio runoff as everyone focuses on last year's picks and who will win all of those pretty little statuettes. This year, however, is a little bit different, fodder fare mixed with Golden Globe-nominated productions. But it's also heavily unfaithful.
Out of twelve main releases, four focus on cheating. We've got 'Country Strong,' 'The Other Woman,' 'Barney's Version' and 'The Dilemma.' 33% of January's films in the first half of the month center on lusty desires and unfaithful actions.
It starts with 'Country Strong,' which continues to expand into more markets. Gwyneth Paltrow is fallen country star and alcoholic suffering the quintessential divide between young and fresh talent and the rising obscurity of age, not to mention being torn between her manager and husband (Tim McGraw) and a rising songwriter (Garrett Hedlund).
Meanwhile, though it doesn't come out in theaters until February, VOD is now offering Natalie Portman's 'The Other Woman.' Once titled 'Love and Other Impossible Pursuits,' the Don Roos film focuses on what happens after the cheating, as Natalie Portman plays the other woman who scores the man, gets the family and then deals with familial tragedy. Though the feature focuses on her trying to be a stepmother whilst mourning the loss of her own child -- which makes the previous title rather apt -- the powers that be ultimately decided to focus on the infidelity.
The male point of view gets play in the final two selections.
Next comes 'The Dilemma.' Ron Howard's comedy focuses on a lifelong bachelor (Vince Vaughn) who discovers that his best friend's (Kevin James) wife (Winona Ryder) is cheating on him with a young hottie (Channing Tatum). As the summary and trailer outline, Vaughn approaches Ryder, who threatens to lie and shift the blame onto him to save her hide.
Finally there's 'Barney's Version.' You have to go out with a bang, both figuratively and literally. The film offers most of the forms of cheating you can imagine. There's dating cheating which leads to baby surprises, meeting the love of your life at your wedding to someone else, cheating with the most inappropriate choices and finding others to fill a sad, marital void.
In two weeks of releases, the cheating increases from messy triangles to emotional torture to sneaky blackmail and a selection overflowing with infidelity. That's a lot of cheating in half a month.
The most interesting in this batch is definitely 'The Other Woman,' which not only features the theme, but was also rejigged through marketing to center on the unfaithfulness at the base of the story, rather than on the emotional journey the "other woman" takes. Our first introduction to her is through the title -- 'The Other Woman' -- and then through the initial moments of the trailer, where news that the man at her door is married doesn't evoke surprise. Discussion of the infidelity is, instead, framed as pre-sex flirting. Portman's character is now immediately coded with an imaginary, crimson A, adding a sense of morality before the film airs, and prepping us for distinct opinion of her character. (Similar can be said for Winona Ryder's character in 'Dilemma,' who quickly gets sneaky and mean in the face of her cheating.)
In the past, infidelity offered a great duality that intermingled wanton promiscuity with a sense of menace. The other woman was exactly that -- the "other" -- foreign and sultry, acting as a signifier of repressed desire and the allure of that which is unfamiliar. It was the escape from the Donna Reed norm, and likewise, was a peephole into realistic situations that "morally influenced" storytelling refused to state.
But what does an inundation like this mean now? There are some solid female characterizations in the above films, especially Rosamund Pike in 'Version,' whose character tries to figure out how to navigate the divide between feelings and cheating. But two of the four are also quick to code, in marketing, the woman as home-wrecker, the saboteur of happiness ('Other,' 'Dilemma').
It brings to mind a scene in 'The King's Speech,' when Lionel Logue wonders why King Edward VIII cannot continue his love affair discreetly, so that he can publicly offer up the life expected of royalty. It used to be that there was this secret world. The "other woman" was the way to privately act on passion that wasn't considered suitable. But in a world where divorce rates are on the rise, not to mention various elongated single-hood and polyamorous arrangements, an overabundance of films about cheating seems antiquated, almost like the last rush of air in a dying social system.
We're a society that now relishes wildly diversified fields of interest, where one can bounce from painter to inventor to philosopher to media maven. The world is at our fingertips and as a result, it's both easier and harder to find the perfect mate -- easier to find someone with some similar interests, yet harder to find someone that's following the same trajectory of trivial whims. We're a more honest public, revealing all minutia of our lives, from TMI medical conditions to morning breakfasts and interpersonal affairs. Our private experiences are now public. There's a war for how to define marriage and, in many people's eyes, whether there's any point to the 'affair' at all.
Whether our social norms change or ultimately reassert themselves, we're at least evolved enough not to have so much of it focus on the women. He might be a despicable character, but thank god for Barney Panovsky, who offers himself up to help level out the gender field of infidelity.
Is there still the same place and environment for the "other woman," or cheating in general? Or, is it time for the notion to evolve?
On another note, the Alliance of Women Film Journalists has announced 2010's award winners. Below you will find the Female-Focus winners, and hit this link for all of the achievement winners and special mentions, like the Hall of Shame award. ... can you guess which sequel earned that prize?
Best Woman Director: Debra Granik - 'Winter's Bone'
Best Woman Screenwriter:Lisa Cholodenko - 'The Kids Are All Right'
Best Female Action Star:Noomi Rapace - 'Girl With The Dragon Tattoo'
Best Animated Female:Astrid - 'How To Train Your Dragon'
Best Breakthrough Performance:Jennifer Lawrence - 'Winter's Bone'
Women's Image Award:Annette Bening - 'The Kids Are All Right'
Perseverance Award:Joan Rivers
Actress Defying Age and Ageism:Helen Mirren
Sexist Pig Award:Mel Gibson
This Year's Outstanding Achievement By A Woman In The Film Industry: Debra Granik for 'Winter's Bone'
Lifetime Achievement Award: TIE -- Claire Denis, Helen Mirren
AWFJ Award For Humanitarian Activism: TIE --Sandra Bullock, Sean Penn