Two decades have passed since Adrian Lyne made “Unfaithful,” arguably his best film, but not his most famous. (That would be his 1987 sizzler, “Fatal Attraction.”) A slick purveyor of the erotic thriller, Lyne doesn’t make love stories so much as lust stories—particularly the way incorrigible sexual appetite can tear a life apart.
So on paper, he seems like the perfect choice to direct Deep Water, an adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel about a dangerously ill suburban marriage. Retired, Vic (Ben Affleck) is enjoying his tech fortune by mountain biking and breeding snails. (Glittering close-ups of gastropods suggest this hobby has an ominous narrative purpose; let me know if you find one.) Vic’s gorgeous wife, Melinda (Ana de Armas) – rarely seen without a glass in one hand and a lover in the other – prefers little black dresses that shrug her shoulders as easily as her sobriety. Vic may be tormented by her blatant infidelity, but how can you stay mad at a woman who goes topless just to do the dishes?
Filmed in New Orleans and drenched in drunken parties where Melinda’s public humiliations of her husband earn pity for Vic’s friends, “Deep Water” (a French version was released in 1981) is a ludicrous murder mystery that could have worked much better as a study of sexual masochism. (Marriage has no warmth, yet there is a sly taste in Melinda’s cruelty and a psychological puzzle in Vic’s pained stoicism.) Alternatively, if the story was set in the 1950s of Highsmith’s novel, when divorce became more stigmatized and alcohol the preferred alternative, Vic’s forbearance—not to mention all those parties—may have made more sense.
As it is, Affleck is left with little to play for except a sad, perpetually gloomy cuckold. When the film opens, a previous lover of Melinda has mysteriously disappeared. “I killed him,” Vic tells the dumb replacement (Brendan C. Miller), and we wonder if he’s capable of kidding. And as Melinda’s flirtations — including a cheap pianist who woos her by playing “The Lady Is a Tramp” — fade away, a local writer (Tracy Letts) grows suspicious. Even Vic’s 6-year-old daughter (a delightful Grace Jenkins) looks at him suspiciously.
None of this is ever less than ridiculous. While heaven knows I’m grateful to every adult film these days, “Deep Water” is in many ways a mind-boggling return for Lyne, whose advertiser’s eye for an image’s allure is repeatedly undermined by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson’s messy, often mysterious scenario. Eigil Bryld’s caressing camera is fully up to any task his director throws at him, but the film seems chopped into misaligned pieces and dangling loose ends, the scenes spewing out as randomly as bingo balls.
Originally intended for theatrical release, “Deep Water” has landed on Hulu, possibly due to nervousness about the themes. Yet there is surprisingly little sex, and what there is has none of the vibrancy and tactility that Lyne is known for. Like Vic’s snails, which have to be starved before they can be consumed, “Deep Water” feels like a movie where all the interesting stuff has been well and truly sucked out.
Rated R for bored fellatio and passionate murders. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes. Check out Hulu.