Film review of ‘Adore’: Watts and Wright tackle mother love down under
Also known as Perfect Mothers, this Australian feature by French director Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel) and writer Christopher Hampton (Dangerous Liaisons) has been particularly divisive among critics. Adapted from Doris Lessing’s novel, the central conceit involves two 40-something mothers, Roz and Lil (Wright and Watts) who, having been the best of friends their entire lives, still see each other daily and live within minutes of each other on a stretch of idyllic Australian coastline. Each has a teenage son and these young men have also forged a deep friendship with one another. Trouble arrives on the shores of paradise when, after Lil is widowed and Roz’s husband relocates to the city, the blond nymphean MILFs and their sun-bronzed surfer boys are left to their own devices. Yes, it goes there.
In the beginning when the sex wheels start turning, the film is almost unbearably claustrophobic. There’s a sense that perhaps this world of gallery owners and dramatists bred a naval-gazing boredom in which two wives, bearing a passing resemblance to one another, exist in a lifelong state of mutual narcissism and have shifted their idle attentions to their own offspring. Admittedly, their ogling of their progeny makes for uncomfortable viewing, but on reflection, knowing that the story requires these two women to have sexual relations with the other’s son, it is admirable how economically and convincingly the script gets us there. The problems arise when the film tries to establish a kind of absurd status quo in which Roz and Lil are sleeping with each other’s child, allowing these impressionable teens to fall in love with them and, after negligible protest, all parties become absolutely fine with that. The attempt to sell us the everyday normality of their predicament is less convincing than the sparks that ignite their dubious behaviour.
Judging these women invites a myriad of permutations around this scenario, and it’s tempting to think of the potential reaction to the same film had the gender roles been reversed – of course we’ve already broken many taboos with fiction about older men courting teenage girls, but perhaps the familial context that frames this story is the most difficult element to stomach: what Lil and Roz are doing is not incest, but uncomfortably close. I’m reminded that in some cultures, fathers routinely promise their daughters to friends and colleagues as a matter of course. That isn’t what’s happening here: the sons are the ones who make the initial advances (each have their reasons), but while you might have advised these women to put on the brakes, the film offers a glimpse into a world where the brakes are permanently off and selfishness, happiness and physical pleasure take priority over all else in a haze of moral ambiguity.
On reflection, it’s perhaps better to view the film as a series of dramatised hypotheticals rather than a representation of reality. With a repeated visual coda, Fontaine urges us to view the four as isolated, cut off from any familiar societal structures and living as laws unto themselves. This is just as well, because no matter how kindly one views the characters, it is difficult to forgive the laziness of two women who go no further than their doorsteps to satiate their physical and emotional needs and then proceed to bewail their predicament. It’s not until very late, when the drama narrowly avoids descending into soap opera territory, that they do what should arguably have been foremost on their checklist: listen to the wants and wishes of their own sons.
If the audience can successfully negotiate some challenging hurdles, they’ll be rewarded with one of the more thought-provoking and unpredictable dramas of recent years.
Dir: Anne Fontaine; Aus/Fr drama, 2013, 100 mins; Robin Wright, Naomi Watts, Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville, Ben Mendelsohn
Premiered October 10