Entertainment

‘Deep Water’s’ sexless thrills: Did politics and an era of adolescent fandom kill the erotic thriller?


Everyone is hungry for a good erotic thriller, but no one is hungrier than me. Two years ago, Disney announced the release of the first erotic thriller in two decades by the master of the genre, the man behind “9 ½ Weeks,” “Fatal Attraction,” “Indecent Proposal” and “Unfaithful” : British director Adrian Lyne. In “Deep Water,” an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel, Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas play a married couple whose open relationship boasts a body count. It only made the whole thing more irresistible that the stars were a real-life couple at the time (they got together on set). So I chased Disney like it was a grade-school crush. I made it my mission to land Lyne, the man who defined the erotic thriller, the post-noir soft-core suspense genre of the ’80s and ’90s, whose male heroes could be overpowered by a sex-crazed anti-heroine and still come out on top. And I was about as successful as I was in grade school. It doesn’t need to be said that Disney is not known for its erotica. The company inherited “Deep Water” after purchasing 20th Century Fox and it quickly became clear they had no idea what to do with it. After two delays — from November 2020 to August 2021 and then January 2022 — “Deep Water” was unceremoniously removed from the release schedule, and it looked as if Lyne’s long-awaited film would be buried. But then, out of nowhere, it was reported that Hulu would be releasing the film in the U.S. and Amazon Prime Video internationally (including Canada). No date, though. Then, on Valentine’s Day (how cute), finally, a plan, March 18, and a teaser.

And what a tease — De Armas and Affleck picnicking, his hand between her legs, heavy breathing. It was all very in line with Lyne, and the excitement on social media was palpable. But Disney still held off on publicizing the film. When I ultimately told Lyne — whom I secured at the last minute through Amazon Prime —I had been pursuing him for two years, he burst out laughing: “It was COVID, I was cowering in a corner.”

Was it COVID? Or was Disney just not that hungry for an erotic thriller? The fumbling of a cartoon megacorporation over “Deep Water” is essentially the fumbling of an adolescent culture over its own maturity. Forty years ago, the classic erotic thriller used adult actors — meaning above age 30 — to transgress the sexual mores of mainstream cinema while putting feminists back in their place. But we are no longer living in a time of subversive eroticism – conservative politics or not. Instead, we are living in a time of sexless fandom, one in which Hollywood, forced to confront its legacy of sexual violence off-screen, would rather just avoid sex entirely in front of the camera.

While we still get noirish psychological thrillers of the “Gone Girl” variety at the movies, in which sex is an important part of the plot, these are not powered by an erotic charge. Filmmakers of David Fincher’s calibre seldom get sensual. That “Deep Water” ended up at Amazon Prime is something of a happy ending. But then the streamers at least seem vaguely aware of their audience’s thirst. One of the most-watched films on U.S. Netflix during the pandemic was “365 Days,” Poland’s answer to “50 Shades of Gray,” in which a Sicilian mafioso imprisons a woman and gives her a year to fall in love with him. A year later Michael Mohan gave us the rare well-crafted latter-day erotic thriller (with a female protagonist no less), “The Voyeurs.” The Montreal-set film premiered, like “Deep Water,” on Amazon Prime, and found its tension not in outdated notions of gender or sex but in that timeless query: Would you still want to sleep with your hot neighbour if you saw him kill his partner?

“Deep Water” is less direct. Lyne admits he found the source material “a little parochial.” On the page, the husband, Vic, is an asexual psychopath, while the wife, Melinda, is a self-centred bon vivant. “People who do not behave in an orthodox manner,” Vic says, “are by definition frightening.” There is no eroticism in Highsmith’s story. The intrigue is more slow burn: Will Vic or won’t Vic get his comeuppance for murdering his wife’s lovers? It is also more violent than its film adaptation. “I’d like to destroy you,” Melinda tells Vic. “I’d like to smash you.” Highsmith’s isn’t a story in which a male hero is protecting his home — a Lyne signature — it’s a story in which the home is already defective. “I liked the way it sort of teetered on the edge of reality,” Lyne says.

The context for the erotic thriller, has of course changed since the ‘80s when Lyne was in his heyday. “I haven’t really been thinking endlessly about Me Too,” he says, a funny observation considering “Fatal Attraction,” which came to define both the erotic thriller and Lyne’s career, was originally about the same thing: a desire to hold men accountable. That storyline is what attracted producer Sherry Lansing to the project.

It speaks to Hollywood’s politics that a feminist story could enter its machine and come out anti-feminist. At the time, women were breaking the glass ceiling and many men believed the shards were aimed at them. In this climate, the central male character of “Fatal Attraction” could not be unheroic. He could mess up, flirting with anti-heroism, but he couldn’t ultimately be the fall guy. Instead, the single career woman became the villain, and the housewife the saviour. Even Time magazine, which ran a cover story celebrating the film, “The Thriller Is Back,” called it “reactionary.”

“What I think audiences will think about are all those differences between the sexes,” Lyne told Time in 1987, “that underlying mistrust between men and women when it comes to sex.” This thread runs from “Fatal Attraction” all the way to “Deep Water,” and it’s what defined the erotic thriller in its classic form. The genre, albeit not by that name, was really born around 1981 with “Body Heat,” inspired by the film noir “Double Indemnity.” Here, Kathleen Turner plays a femme fatale who hoodwinks William Hurt’s lovestruck lawyer into killing her husband and securing her his fortune. The film’s explicitness infused the genre, which turned women’s sexuality into a weapon and later a feminist threat to family values.

In Lyne’s classic erotic thrillers the family is fetishized, the anxiety-inducing thrill always introduced by an interloper. Lyne idolizes French new wave filmmaker Claude Chabrol, a master of bourgeois corruption, a milieu Lyne gravitates both towards and away from. In his films this manifests in the juxtaposition of downtown New York’s gloomy grit with the sun-kissed softness of suburban domesticity. Watching Lyne’s films in tight succession, you notice recurring images: groups of schoolchildren being led through the city, couples falling all over each other in the grass, large yellow dogs splayed around the house, children chewing gum when they shouldn’t, the odd bout of wild unfettered sex in the kitchen. Lyne’s trademark stylistic flourish is a romantic haze of smoke to mute colours, deepen darkness (perhaps less romantically for the actors who have choked on it).

Lyne’s oeuvre was shot through the filter of a British advertising boom in the ’70s. His contemporaries were Ridley Scott and Tony Scott and Alan Parker, young filmmakers who helped companies sell bread and jeans before taking their refreshingly stylish naturalism to Hollywood. You would think this aesthetic would translate well to our hyper-visual time, where everything is for sale. But it hasn’t.

Per Cyndi Lauper, another ’80s staple, money changes everything. At the time Lyne was in ads there was a lot of money floating around. When he was dominating film — erotic thrillers topped the box office from 1987 to 1992 — there was a lot of money floating around as well, money for longer productions, and the time to get things just right. The theory goes that after Paul Verhoeven took the erotic thriller to the brink of excess in 1992 with “Basic Instinct,” with the femme fatale (Sharon Stone) and Douglas’ hero ending up in bed together — a knife beneath them — discussing their future kids, there was nowhere left to go.

The odd erotic thriller popped up in the years after — “Disclosure” (1994), “Jade” (1995) “In the Cut” (2003) — but by then the market was saturated and online porn meant sex was more accessible. In the ’80s, when TV was for families, and movies for dates, the sex part had been key to the genre’s popularity. Now TV and film traded places. TV became sexier (on premium cable anyway), and “erotic thrillers” like “50 Shades of Gray” inevitably peddled the same antiseptic affluence and cool gestures of bodily congress. Even with adult fare finally moving to streaming, the tight productions, budgets and style sheets, didn’t make much room to transgress.

It’s hard to gauge how people will react to Lyne’s fifth erotic thriller. “I just wanted to keep it sort of within the realms of credibility,” Lyne says of “Deep Water.” “So that the audience didn’t dismiss it and say, ‘Oh, that’s just silly.’” Perhaps that’s why there isn’t much sex, off-camera activity here, some heavy petting there. The bigger problem is the lack of eroticism, which never seemed an issue for Lyne before. But then, in the past the interloper was not the marriage itself. It’s a tricky balance to keep the central couple running both hot and cold on their own steam. The comparison for Lyne now is not Chabrol, it’s Mike Nichols. He invokes the infamous sniping couple intent on tearing each other apart in Nichols’ 1966 drama “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.” “I wanted it to be kind of a twisted, strange love story,” Lyne says.

To that end he makes Highsmith’s husband and wife complicit, him in her affairs, her in his killings, the major departure from the book. “I think it’s more complex,” Lyne says, “And as a result, I think it’s more interesting.” In the past Lyne’s husbands and wives have always been at odds, the transgression causing a fissure in the home. The transgression now is that the husband and wife are in it together: “I liked the idea that maybe this madness would continue.”

Soraya Roberts is a Toronto-based contributing writer at Defector and editor-at-large at Pipe Wrench magazine. Twitter @sorayaroberts

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