Much Adore about Nothing: Anne Fontaine’s Adoration
When a woman falls for her best friend’s son, and her own son starts a relationship with her lover’s mother – amid characteristically Australian white sand and azure waters –we get a uniquely beautiful yet salaciously superficial story, writes Glenn Dunks.
It’s hardly surprising that Australian artists are so drawn to this country’s beach culture. From a purely aesthetic point of view, it’s impossible to deny the visual appeal of long stretches of white sand and golden sunbeams on bronzed, athletic bodies. And, of course, there’s familiarity: 85 per cent of the population live within 50 kilometres of the coast. But it’s the beach’s cultural cache that pulls creative types time and time again. Attached to the crashing waves is a mythology of awakening that feels undeniably linked to our heritage.
Almost no creative field is immune to it: we see this mythology play out in novels like Tim Winton’s The Turning and Michael Noonan’s The December Boys, plays such as Nick Enright’s Blackrock, songs like Daryl Braithwaite’s ‘One Summer’ and Warumpi Band’s ‘My Island Home’, and the television series Home and Away, Paradise Beach and Ship to Shore. Of course, there are also many films examining local beach culture – from Storm Boy (Henri Safran, 1976) to Newcastle (Dan Castle, 2008) and Drift (Ben Nott & Morgan O’Neill, 2013). That these texts almost always associate beachside awakening with the sexuality of young men makes Anne Fontaine’s Adoration (2013) seem like just another in the series. However, while masculine sexuality is very much a part of the film’s story arc, it’s the female element that gives Adoration whatever forward momentum it can muster. Not at all like Puberty Blues (whether the 1979 book by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, the 1981 movie adaptation by Bruce Beresford, or the acclaimed Network Ten series), Fontaine’s adaptation of Doris Lessing’s 2003 novella ‘The Grandmothers’ focuses on the ‘awakening' of two older women, making this picturesque film unique.
Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) are lifelong best friends who each begin an affair with a younger man, Tom (James Frecheville) and Ian (Xavier Samuel) respectively, that snowballs into genuine affection. Lil pushes aside a potential love interest, her co-worker Saul (Gary Sweet), who pursues her with dimwitted puppy-dog eyes. Similarly, Roz begins to lose interest in Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), her long-term boyfriend and Tom’s father. That each woman just happens to fall in love with her best friend’s son – whom they have known since their childhood – is the morally dubious core of the film and, ultimately, its greatest challenge.
By choosing the New South Wales coastal locality of Seal Rocks as the setting for the characters’ enclave, Adoration forces its characters into a life that lacks credibility, harming the film in the process. We see little of their external lives – Roz runs an art gallery and Lil owns a yacht-development company of some sort, but little is revealed about what they actually do. However, they are shown spending their downtime, of which they seemingly have a lot, reminiscing about their formative years while flicking through photo albums amid the embarrassed snickers of their sons. They spend an inordinate amount of time at the beach, and, given that Adoration spans some sixteen years, these two (admittedly very beautiful) women don’t appear to age a day, let alone get so much as an uneven tan from their decades in the sun.
Fontaine has spoken of wanting to explore the notion of a ‘fusional foursome' and, to an extent, she has succeeded. The four live for each other – forming a peculiar ‘family’ that only makes their sexual liaisons even more questionable. But if Adoration gets one thing spot-on, it’s the way it explores these relationships, as envisaged in Oscar-winner Christopher Hampton’s screenplay. Lil and Roz casually stroking the boys’ hair or peering out of their open-plan beachfront houses at their sons’ lithe bodies make the allusions to incest undeniable. Yet as Lil and Roz become more emotionally attached to Tom and Ian, the filmmakers remain on their side, never once portraying them as predators (or ‘cougars’, as today’s pop culture savvies might label them). Instead, we are shown that the love both couples are experiencing, while taboo, is very much real and honest. Even years later, when their actions threaten to destroy the otherwise ‘normal’ family lives that Tom and Ian have since formed, the women are never vilified.
Sadly, perhaps Fontaine and Hampton have given the two central relationships too much dignity. Without a doubt, the film is redolent of high camp – yet it is so enamoured with its entirely un-humorous take on the subject matter that every laugh that does eventuate is purely accidental. It’s difficult to stifle a giggle or two when Lil and Roz, sunbaking as always, watch Ian and Tom surfing and then wax hyperbolic about how their sons are ‘like gods’ and unearthly auras. There’s that beach mythology rearing its head again – but not as we’ve seen or read it before. Elsewhere, beyond the drippy dialogue, the sex scenes reek of a waterlogged Mills & Boon. The muscular young men seemingly compete to see who’s got the most sexual stamina, and during these sequences it’s difficult to tell whether Lil and Roz are meant to be exuding pride at their boys’ prowess or merely revelling in the attention. They certainly don’t object to their children’s puffed-chest antics.
Then there is the comic zeal that seems desperate to come out during the film’s later passages as the women, especially Lil, become more unhinged by the drama they are embroiled in. In its final act, Adoration makes a 180-degree turn. Audience chuckles may have started small and scattered, but by this point in the film the humour will have intensified. By the fourth time-jump into the future, it appears that the bad decisions these characters have made have finally reached ludicrous proportions. We can’t help but be aghast as Tom stands at the altar with the virginal Mary (Jessica Tovey), a young actress he meets through his father.
It would have been more interesting to see the film cross-examine the machismo of Australian beach culture with a heavy dose of camp. Not necessarily the same kind of camp that took over early 1990s Australian cinema – as in Strictly Ballroom (Baz Luhrmann, 1992), Muriel’s Wedding (PJ Hogan, 1994), The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (Stephan Elliot, 1994) and Sirens (John Duigan, 1994) – but rather one that allows the story to break out of its pompous, self-serious trappings and embrace the ridiculous elements inherent in it. Fontaine’s portfolio includes the stiffly executed Coco avant Chanel (2009) and the unconvincing erotica of Nathalie… (2003), the latter of which was remade into the high-camp English-language Chloe (Atom Egoyan, 2009), so maybe it’s a trend for Fontaine to not see the potential humour in her works. Whether the original Lessing text was full of as much faux-intellectual garble I do not know, but the filmmakers, professionals with many titles to their credit, should have be able to assess how this rather preposterous-sounding plot would come across on screen, likely be greeted with stifled laughter or groans of boredom.
Meanwhile, elements that should feel right at home in a story such as this feel swept aside. Little time is given to exploring just why Lil and Roz are such close friends for so many years. Similarly, a potentially interesting theme arises early in the film when secondary characters insinuate that Lil and Roz are secretly gay. An exploration of this theme may have strengthened the film, but these implications are instead dealt with through comical, throwaway lines – as in one early scene, when Lil wails, ‘He thinks we’re lesos?!’ (one of the most glaring cases of cultural cringe I can ever recall experiencing in a cinema). Most significantly, the film seems to simply revel in the illicit affairs of these four people rather than examining why they are so cut off from the world. The loneliness that ultimately leads to the intergenerational affairs is barely touched on; instead, the audience is forced to endure the characters’ platitudes about how they’ve ‘never been happier’ or about how stunning the scenery is.
It’s lucky, then, that the casting was well done, or else the entire thing would have collapsed into the murky depths of its ocean setting. Watts and Wright are certainly committed and enjoying the chance to act lasciviously at an age when Hollywood rarely affords them the opportunity. Watts borders on quivering and hysterical, a common problem with her work since breaking out with the maddening Mulholland Drive (David Lynch, 2001), but maybe she’s deliberately trying to inject the film with some well-needed spark. Wright remains dignified throughout, though – her surfer-chic appeal looks just right for the part.
It’s the two young men, however, who surprise most of all. Samuel takes the screenplay’s ridiculous angles and moulds them into something palatable. We feel for Ian, a man wounded by expectations and barely able to contain his disdain for interloping Hannah (Sophie Lowe), who accidentally becomes pregnant to him and whom he later marries. Samuel also makes Ian’s affection for Roz tangible, even when the script may not have afforded him the direction to do so. Frecheville, on the other hand, has a trickier task in merging teenage spitefulness with a scarred, sexual naivety. As Tom’s hand strokes Lil’s bare arm in bed there’s an unspoken – and, I suspect, unwritten – nervousness that comes through. It’s an effective moment that typifies Tom’s lack of sexual pedigree compared to Ian. That Frecheville’s facial features resemble those of Michelangelo’s David in certain angles only makes his sexual allure more potent. Audiences can’t but see why Lil and Roz would be attracted to these boys.
Ultimately, Adoration is a film as unconventional as its genesis. Written by a British man adapting a British woman’s story, directed by a Frenchwoman, set in Australia, and starring Australians and an American, it went into production under the title ‘The Grandmothers’, before being changed to ‘Two Mothers’ for its Sundance premiere and altered once more to ‘Adore’ for the American cinema and video-on-demand release. Its Australian title, ‘Adoration’, sounds as flat on the tongue and unsure of itself as the actual film. Anne Fontaine never finds the right voice for her film’s message and ends up with this disappointing, albeit handsomely made, effort.