“I don’t think they’re coming back”: Abandoning ‘reality’ in ‘Adore’

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A few months ago, I watched the film Adore (also known as Adoration, Two Mothers, Perfect Mothers etc – glad I’m not the only one struggling with titles!) by Anne Fontaine. The film is based on a story by Doris Lessing and was released in 2013. It had totally slipped under my radar, and I’m not even sure I would have sought it out at the cinema, but, like many accidental finds, it helped me to process some things for my writing, and I find myself going back to it again and again. What makes the film so compelling for me, most of all, is that it allows for so many different interpretations.

Reduced to its basic story line (spoiler alert!), the film is about two women, Roz and Lil, who have been close friends since they were children. They eventually got married and each had a son. Lil’s husband dies at the beginning of the film, when Ian is still a child. The film then zooms to the present where both women are still very close, so close that Roz’ husband Harold feels excluded from their relationship. When Harold is offered a great career opportunity in Sydney and wants to move, Roz refuses to come with him to stay with Lil and their more remote Australian seaside paradise. Lil’s son Ian ends up falling in love with Roz, and they end up sleeping together. They get found out by Roz’ son Tom, who immediately takes revenge by seducing Lil. Both couples end up forming loving relationships, and Roz eventually divorces her husband, without telling him about Ian. After a while, the men start university and jobs, and the women prepare themselves for being left by them. At the same time, they try to prepare the young men for finding a more normal life with younger women, despite the pain this will cause them. Reluctantly, the men end up doing so and even start families, but eventually (it’s more complicated than that), they end up back with the two older women.

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Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright)

After the film, I was curious what other reviewers thought of it. I expected there to be a lot of comments on the age and look of the lead actresses (Robin Wright and Naomi Watts): whether they were appropriately cast, how they looked for their age, and the usual ageism that women tend to face. Of course, I did not have to look far. Reviewers reduced the film to a story of ‘wish fulfilment’ of aging women, who apparently would never end up with such young lovers in real life, or at least would not be able to get away with that level of ease and glamour. As one reviewer stated:

“…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.”

In contrast with the reality strugglers, other reviewers struggled with bonding issues:

“However, for a story with so much feeling, there’s surprisingly little emotional resonance in “Adore.” There’s heat and passion enough to make the innocent blush. We were struck by the beauty, both of the setting as well as the characters (we would gladly trade Nicolas Winding Refn retiring from film in exchange for Wright’s beauty secrets), but we didn’t connect with the characters. We weren’t sure where this film—that at times feels like a classical tragedy—would ultimately take its characters, but we also didn’t really care. By treating its central issue as a relative non-issue, “Adore” works to distance itself from its audience. We wanted to care far more than we actually did.”

Predictably, many reviewers were upset about the lack of critical engagement with the potential surrogate lesbian/oedipal/etc relationship. The film was aestheticizing and apparently celebrating something that would normally be deemed an abusive or at least asymmetric relationship:

“It is worth noting that the same movie about a couple of dads sleeping with each other’s 20-year-old daughters would need, at a minimum, to confront the ickiness of the situation. Really, such a movie would be unlikely to make it into theaters, in spite of the commonness of real-life relationships between older men and younger women.”

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Ian (Xavier Samuel) flirts with Roz

What surprised me was the lack of references to films such as The Dreamers or Heavenly Creatures. While many reviewers diagnosed a life set in a ‘bubble’ or an unhealthily close relationship, no one cared to make links to these familiar film tropes, and how these were handled – and, one could argue, subverted in Adore.

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Scene from The Dreamers (Michael Pitt, Eva Green, Louis Garrel)

In The Dreamers, the three youngsters, too, create their own bubble that enables their incestuous and quasi-incestuous relations and revolutionary fantasies. When the bubble is literally burst by a brick being thrown through a window by student protesters, the dreamers join the protest, but, coming from a different reality, they engage in extreme behaviour that leads the protests to escalate. In Adore, the characters’ bubble has basically been classified as a privileged middle class paradise that enables the prolonged fulfilment of a transgressive sexual fantasy. Yet at the same time, the film’s unflattering portrayal of the alternative ‘normal life’ seems to ask: who is actually living in a bubble? The two women and their sons who are having an unconventional relationship, or everyone else who insists that the social norm of the nuclear family or of the couple with ‘appropriate’ age difference is desirable?

The ‘other bubble’ is obviously very powerful. Ian and Tom, the two sons, are pushed out of their paradise, half by the two women who don’t want their lovers to be socially disadvantaged, half by the force of social dynamics. Tom succumbs to the pressure first, after a woman (his future wife Mary) suggests that he might be gay. Yet he is also the first to break down and lead a double life with Lil. Ian continues to fight for Roz who wants to end the relationship both for his and Lil’s sake. When he has a one-night stand out of frustration and revenge (with his future wife Hannah), the unprotected sex results in pregnancy, also trapping him in the correct narrative. However, when he finds out that Tom is sleeping with Lil again, he immediately exits his prison, and confronts both wives with the truth. Horrified, the Mary and Hannah leave with the children for good, exorcised like a bad nightmare. While this behaviour may seem reckless on part of the men, their wives’ subservience to the normativity bubble, including their desire to keep their children firmly inside, feels equally disturbing, in fact, so disturbing, that one feels relieved when the two sons get back together with each other’s mothers.

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Marriage of Tom und Mary (Jessica Tovey)

It is also interesting how Adore handles the ‘scary intimacy between women’ trope. Heavenly Creatures is a key example of this genre. It shows how a close female relationship is pathologised, instead of the circumstances that give rise to the fantasy world that the girls create as a coping mechanism. Especially close female relationships have become pathologised in film, from predatory lesbians to the seemingly inevitable death of Thelma and Louise. While films such Heavenly Creatures usually show what gives rise to close relationships and the unhappy fate of the people involved in them, they also end up reinforcing the belief that great intimacy results in insanity, isolation and overall negativity. Intimacy is threatening through its self-sufficiency and refusal to submit to an outside.

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Melanie Lynskey as Pauline Parker and Kate Winslet as Juliet Hulme

In Adore, Lil is pursued by a male colleague, and, to fend him off, Roz insinuates that they are a lesbian couple. The women know that this is the easiest explanation, because people have been wondering about their ‘unnatural’ closeness for a long time, and lesbianism is the most natural diffusion of this tension. People would continue to be disturbed by any alternative intimacy. It is rather amusing for the viewer that the women prefer to take on the stigma of homosexuality than to publicly admit to their actual heterosexual relationships or extremely close friendship. Again, the characters’ recognition of the different ‘bubbles’ plays into the handling of the situation: the outside bubble is kept intact to pass as ‘normal’ inside of it and to protect the alternative at the same time. This way, no harm is done either way. The women know too well how entrenched the other bubble is to attempt to engage with it – after all, their relationship has been under constant scrutiny, and it does not take much to extrapolate from it – and perhaps they also don’t care enough, since they have learnt to manage it well enough with little energy. (Here, the film does the exact opposite as ‘We need to talk about Kevin‘, which has a similar ‘bubble’ theme).

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Saul (Gary Sweet) asks Lil out while Roz watches on

One could argue that, because of such lack of confrontation, Adore is a very apolitical film. Despite major transgressions, no one attempts to change particular norms or make a critical standpoint. It’s basically four hot people with an age difference making out in a beautiful setting. On the other hand, the film’s strong aestheticisation precisely functions to create ambiguity and confronts the viewers with their own normativity. Is it okay that the two women sleep with each other’s sons, as everyone seems to enjoy it so much (including the viewer)? Is it responsible to enter normative relationships without being convinced by them and hurting others in the process? Like Roz and Lil, the viewers first have to acknowledge that they are shaped by the same norms as the ‘outside bubble’, and then have to ask themselves how far they are willing to move away from them, and how public they would be prepared to be about it. This does not have to be something as drastic as sleeping with your best friend’s kid, as already minor transgressions such as childlessness or older women’s sexual confidence are policed quite heavily. In this sense, if Adore is seen as a fantasy, then it is perhaps due to the viewers’ own limitation of their social imagination.

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