It’ll be hard to discuss Adore without first addressing the obvious joke in the room, so let’s get it out of the way: Yes, the film bears a remarkable resemblance to the SNL musical skit “Motherfuckers,” in which Justin Timberlake and Andy Samberg decided to bed each other's mothers. (“What time is it, dawg?” “It’s time for a switcheroo.”) But since Adore is based on Doris Lessing’s 2003 novella The Grandmothers, maybe we should be marveling more at SNL’s diversity of inspiration rather than at director Anne Fontaine’s poor timing. Still, poor timing it is, and the unfairness of it all would be worth getting more worked up about if Adore were a better movie. It’s not. But it’s a fascinating one nevertheless — a case study in thwarted cinematic ambition and a cautionary tale of stylistic timidity.
I haven’t read the Lessing story the film is based on (I gather it’s structurally quite different from the film), but I do know Lessing doesn’t do realism. And, judging by the almost diagrammatic nature of the film, it’s pretty clear director Anne Fontaine isn’t interested in realism, either. Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) are two best friends who grew up together and now live near one another in the same majestic coastal area of Australia. Lil’s husband is dead, while Roz’s husband (Ben Mendelsohn), a theater director, seems to be regularly absent or traveling. Their respective young sons, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville), are also incredibly close. As the boys grow into strapping young Adonises, the women can’t help but note their impossible handsomeness: “They look like young gods,” Roz says in disbelief and pride to Lil. But it’s the boys who make the first move, when Ian, one shirtless summer night, quietly pulls Roz toward him and passionately kisses her. She reciprocates. When Tom finds out, he takes Lil to get back at his mom and his best friend. But the revenge motive soon disappears, and the four are heavily involved, spending all their time having wine and laughing and schtupping with abandon.
This is not a story about what actually happens if a woman and her best friend sleep with each other’s sons. (There, I think lawyers and some daytime talk show hosts would be involved.) Rather, Fontaine and screenwriter Christopher Hampton are giving us a metaphor for the inability to let go. These characters don’t inhabit the real world: They remain lodged in this seaside idyll from beginning to end, and whenever an opportunity is presented for them to leave (as when Roz’s husband gets a job in Sydney) or move forward (as when a co-worker asks Lil out), they remain in their own little fantasy land, a girl and her best friend who’ve dared to invite two boy versions of themselves into their dream planet. The story spans many years, and the young men get married and have kids — but they still seem unable to leave their urges behind. Someone better versed in Freud than I might be more qualified to interpret the film’s central image, that of the mothers and their boys splayed out on a floating raft in the middle of a ridiculously blue sea, but it seems apt: a lovely, static composition of opaque beauty and longing, both adrift and frozen, a narcissistic psychological itch that can’t be scratched.
But within that framework, Fontaine makes some serious missteps. She’s always had a fondness for these kinds of highly symbolic, far-fetched stories (in her 2003 film Nathalie…, a woman hired a prostitute to have an affair with her husband and report back), but she still feels the need to give her characters more mundane motivations, to make us like them. It’s an understandable miscalculation — and let’s applaud these two insanely talented actresses for gamely lending real vulnerability to these broken, fantastical creatures — but it’s a catastrophic one, because it threatens to bring Adore into the real world, and that’s not a realm where this story can survive. Thus, we get repeated mentions of how beautiful these boys and their mothers are — as if somehow that explains it all, as if the human condition detailed here is only applicable to fortysomething MILFs who had the misfortune of giving birth to floppy-haired, jacked studs. This sort of thing threatens to make the movie about sex, a more straight-faced variation on something like Blame It on Rio, and, as far as I can tell, that’s not what Adore is up to.
Adore wants it both ways. It asks not to be judged by standards of realism, but then tries to inject realism and naturalism into its absurdist narrative. One imagines what other directors who deal in similarly symbolic, hermetically sealed environments could have done with this material: Imagine a David Cronenberg tackling something like this, or Sally Potter and Peter Greenaway in their prime. Fontaine, for all her talent and ambition, doesn’t seem up to the task; her outrageous movie, in the end, doesn’t quite go far enough.