2017 Film Essays

‘Fatal Attraction’ at 30

At his peak, Michael Douglas specialised in playing anxious men. Perhaps having to be constantly compared to his virile father Kirk — the star of such masculine epics as Paths of Glory (1957) and Spartacus (1960) — had planted the seed of this perpetual malaise. But it was Michael’s unique ability to appear at once self-assured and weak (in more ways than one) that established him as the figure of Shaken Masculinity in the 1990s.

In the early 1990s, absurdly muscular beasts such as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger had began losing their place as models of a new ideal of masculinity. In her seminal 1993 book Spectacular Bodies: Gender, Genre and the Action Cinema, Yvonne Tasker explained how, in the 1980s, these were the figures of a complex response to second wave feminism. While still strong and active — in contrast with the stereotypically passive women — these men were also readily objectifiable for their sculpted and proudly displayed bodies. Defined by at once a return to and an exaggeration of traditional male characteristics of physical prowess, bravery and American exceptionalism, they were fantasy figures, offering both idealism and escapism to both their male and female audiences. With his much-less surreal anatomy, blow-dry haircut, smart suits and quiet confidence, Michael Douglas came to represent a more common and realistic man, which Tasker and other scholars often referred to as the “New Man.” Unlike his spectacularly physical predecessors, Douglas — who had already slyly parodied Indiana Jones’ derring-do in Romancing the Stone (1984) — was closer to his audience in all respects (including his fears).

As the financial frenzy was shaking Western consumerist society in the late 1980s, feminism was on the cusp of its third wave, which would come crashing against gender expectations like never before, and focus more on women as individuals than as a unified group. At once titillated by the free market and enslaved by it, simultaneously embracing women’s sexual and economic freedom and emasculated by their lost sense of being indispensable to them, men were excited and afraid, ambitious and nervous. Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, also from 1987 and starring Douglas as oily corporate raider Gordon Gekko (two Gs, as in “greed is good”) ably captured the wannabe-alpha male side of this equation while hinting at the nervousness underneath.

Released in 1987 — one month before Black Monday — Adrian Lyne’s Fatal Attraction resonated even more strongly with people’s anxieties and desires on both sides of the gender divide; its movie-of-the-moment timeliness made it the year’s highest grossing film worldwide. In plot terms, the film is a prototypical erotic thriller: New York lawyer Dan Gallagher (Douglas) finds himself crippled by fear and desire when Alex Forrest (Glenn Close), the woman he had a weekend-long affair with, refuses to simply let him go back to his happy family. The most evident tension explored by the film is, indeed, that between desire and danger. Although Dan’s impulsive two-timing is not admirable, Alex’s rising frustration at being abandoned by her lover — a man she knew was married —  and her increasingly violent attempts at getting his attention add up, in the script’s moral calculus, to her being the bad guy — or at least more so. Close’s savage variation on the classic femme fatale therefore marks an anxiety regarding adultery, but one centered on physical safety: by making the mistress violent, the film argues that cheating could be literally, physically dangerous. Instead of being detrimental to the certainly less palpable idea of the family unit, adultery is presented as a potential cause of death, a bomb that could blow away a family by actually killing its members. This paranoia about infidelity was taken at face value by some spectators. In interviews, Glenn Close has declared that, to this day, men still come up to her to thank her for saving their marriage by making extramarital affairs look more deadly than they’re worth.

Alex’s reaction to Dan’s eventual rejection, however, can also be read as a warning against desirous and independent women. Despite knowing about Dan’s situation, she wants him to “face up to [his] responsibilities,” and she is not simply referring to her being pregnant with his child. Dan and Alex’s hookup occurs when Dan’s wife Beth (Anne Archer) is out of town with their six-year-old daughter Ellen; when Beth returns, Alex doesn’t back off but ramps up her attempts to get in touch with Dan, knowingly putting him in danger of being discovered. Alex cannot accept that Dan could at once desire her and refuse to leave his wife and daughter, and so she takes matters into her own hands. “You don’t get it, you just don’t get it!” exclaims Dan after she shows up uninvited at his office. Here, it is as if the screenwriter is speaking directly through him.

Fatal Attraction presents Alex as a contradiction and accusatorily logical (she’s right about all of Dan’s lies and evasions), but also as a deeply, monstrously irrational woman. After all, it is true that Dan has slept with her not once, but twice, yet as Dan and the spectator understand, that shouldn’t oblige him to submit to her excessive demands and turn his life around. Women like Alex, in touch with and acting on their desires, are presented as quite simple-minded: Alex cannot recognise the ambiguity of the situation and is blinded by her sense of sovereignty over her desire. Don’t have affairs, the film warns, because the type of women who do are driven crazy by the independence they find in their economic and sexual liberation. Her now famous exclamation, “I’m not gonna be ignored, Dan” can be understood as the demand of a feminist asking for her voice to be heard, and Close’s brilliantly strident delivery makes her sound like an angry and tired housewife asking for respect: she is her lover’s escapist fantasy object no longer. In the context of Alex’s destructive behaviour, however, her feminism is ridiculed, demonised and made terrifying.

In a 2013 interview with CBS News, Glenn Close explained that although she consulted two psychiatrists to prepare for the role, “never [once] did a mental disorder come up.” Since the film’s release, Alex’s behaviour has indeed been attributed by psychology experts to her suffering from erotomania, a delusional condition also known as de Clérembault’s syndrome, where the person affected believes that another person is secretly in love with them and can find proof of that affection in everything that person does. However, in Fatal Attraction, Alex’s condition is stigmatised by being combined with incredible violence: she starts by insulting and jumping on Dan when he leaves her, and even kills and boils the pet rabbit he had offered to his daughter. The intensity of that scene has made it so iconic that the rather misogynistic term “bunny boiler” has entered the Oxford English Dictionary: “A woman who acts vengefully after having been spurned by her lover.” The film’s settings also encourage that association with violence, placing Alex’s asylum-white apartment in the then still hellish Meatpacking District in New York City. With its hanging carcasses, the neighbourhood makes the idea of the “pleasures of the flesh” literal, but also associates Alex with death. “Most people with mental illness are not violent,” Close explained at the 2013 National Conference on Mental Health held at the White House, “and it is immoral to keep that [stigma] perpetrated.”

If that weren’t disturbing enough, the film dives into even murkier waters by having Alex also attempt suicide, and portrays that event in ambiguous ways. While Dan visits her to say a last goodbye, she — and the director — hides her bloody wrists from him (and the audience) and starts kissing Dan forcefully until he notices the blood. Her self-harm is presented as yet another dramatic attempt to manipulate Dan into caring for her. Suicide is thus not taken seriously and made repulsive, presented as an ultimate act of horror rather than an opportunity for empathy. Moreover, after Dan literally saves her life out of pity (and to avoid having her death on his conscience), Alex goes quiet for a while, but then returns more vengeful than ever, and the empathy that one may have developed for her is foiled. A movie character’s self-destructive mental disorder has never appeared so dangerous and stressful for other people.

Through Alex, an extensive number of irrational anxieties are thus expressed in an inflammatory manner: the destructive power of desire outside marriage, the irrationality of feminists, the violence that the mentally ill can perpetrate and the burden of their possible suicidal tendencies for the people around them. Her entire being signals instability and danger. Her monochromatic black or white wardrobe suggests her mood swings, from childish giddiness to unrestrained rage. The blondness of her hair is gorgeous and icy. Contrasting with the brunettes of film noir, it will come to define the 90s version of the femme fatale, from Sharon Stone in 1992’s Basic Instinct to Rebecca Romijn in Brian De Palma’s riff on the stereotype 10 years later, Femme Fatale. Alex’s curls are beautiful but messy — Pauline Kael called her a “Medusa” and her stare turns Dan into anxiety personified. In a harrowing moment of despair, Lyne shows Alex sitting on the floor of her apartment beside a lamp that she switches on and off repeatedly, staring into space while listening to the aria from M. Butterfly (an opera about a character who yearns for transformation). The white t-shirt she wears outlines a shape around her body that recalls the Venus de Milo, symbol of beauty, but a crease near her stomach creates the fleeting but unavoidable illusion of a straightjacket. At once irresistible and insane, Alex is every 1990s man’s nightmare.

As captivating as Alex is, however, Dan is the film’s main character and his position at the center of the story complicates events considerably. Dan brings things on himself by cheating on his wife, and his infatuation with Alex — and subsequent attempts to escape from her affections — makes him appear at least as guilty as his mistress. The contradictions between Dan’s status as the architect of his own misfortune and a put-upon victim give Fatal Attraction a maddening and fascinating ambiguity.

Lyne emphasizes Douglas’ Everyman quality from the start. When Dan first appears, he is sitting beside his daughter Ellen, working overtime with his headphones on while she laughs at a silly show on TV; in the bathroom, beautiful, ever-smiling  Beth is getting ready for a  couple’s night out. It’s a seductive image of domestic life, but the details keep tarnishing the perfect surface — and Dan’s place within it. When he goes to answer the phone, Dan stubs his toe because the living is messy with toys. He has to ask his wife where she put his suit because her clothes are hanging everywhere to dry; although in good spirits, everyone is in a rush, and Douglas’ eyerolls and sincere yet tired smiles show a quiet and resigned frustration.

Family is a stressful business, requiring effort at every moment, and Dan has to leave the book launch early when Beth decides she’s tired. Beth also unknowingly cuts short his first and fateful meeting with Alex. Referring to the clumsy flirtation of his colleague (Stuart Pankin), he has just naively and revealingly told the strikingly beautiful book editor “Jimmy’s OK, he’s just a little insecure like the rest of us.” Insecure indeed, Dan can’t bring himself to argue with Beth when, after they’ve returned home, she not only insists on him taking their dog out, but also refuses him his spot in the bed. When he returns, Ellen has taken his place, and all Dan can do is smile. Softly but surely, family emasculates poor Dan with the responsibilities it imposes upon him.

It doesn’t take long for the independent and smart Alex to notice just how helpless Dan feels in his current situation. To the audience’s great and borderline-sadistic pleasure, Lyne slyly adopts her point of view to share in her bemused fascination with this ludicrously conventional yet charming man. After their professional meeting the day after the book launch, Alex finds Dan struggling to open his umbrella in the pouring rain. As he repeatedly thrusts its handle in front of him in what unmistakably and hilariously looks like a desperate attempt at sexual release (reminding of Beth’s innocent refusal the night before), she comes to his rescue and hails a cab with graceful efficiency. As if that weren’t enough humiliation for Dan (and glaring campiness from Lyne), the hero’s hesitant voice then fails to attract the attention of the waiter in the elegant restaurant where he and Alex have ended up. Her sharp smile and mischievous eyes evoke a predatory amusement mixed with curiosity, until she makes her adulterous intentions clearer and explains that, like him, she is a “discreet person.”

Alex continues to hit on him even more vigorously by calling him a “naughty boy” for having dinner with “a strange girl,” yet she keeps their rapport lighthearted by smiling playfully. But again, his weakness shows in his hypocritical vagueness: “I don’t think having dinner with anybody is a crime!” When Alex asks, certain of her desire and power, if maybe it could become a “crime” eventually, Dan rejects all responsibility onto her and makes the double entendre even more resounding: “I think it’s definitely gonna be up to you!” Although it is Alex who initiates the seduction of a man who she knows is married, the fact that she does so with questions and innuendos shows how she tries to let him have some control over the situation. He remains, however, in denial of his own responsibility in deciding where that evening will take him. “I don’t know, I haven’t made up my mind yet,” Alex replies. Dan has willingly let her take the reins.

Following his affair with Alex, Dan is consumed by fear — first of being found out and then of being killed. While Lyne employs every trick in the book to present Alex as dangerously insane, he also revels in how Dan’s soon-justified paranoia makes him look ever more pathetic and ridiculous: again, it’s the source of the film’s ambiguity and much of its comedy as well. Finally returning home after his weekend with Alex and just before Beth’s return, a panicked Dan is shown quickly getting into bed, then jumping out of it, only to make it seem like he slept in it. Later, every time a phone ringing threatens to get Beth talking to Alex, the camera focuses on Douglas’ anxious face and the editing elongates his suspense, to then have it dissipate ridiculously: he fails all attempts at discretion when he drops a heavy piece of furniture he was moving to answer the call, which is coming from his secretary rather than the “other woman.” Dan is as ridiculous and weak as Alex is crazy and dangerous.

However lethal Alex may be, Lyne introduces notes of empathy in an ingenious way: he places her next to Dan on a shared emotional and visual plane. After a series of cat and mouse pursuits, the director creates a parallel between Dan and Alex in one of the film’s most engrossing and ambiguous sequences. Dan finds an audio cassette in his car and plays it as he drives up to the house in the country where he has moved with his family. Lyne alternates close-ups on Dan’s anxious face with similar framings on Alex’s sad and angry expression as she follows him closely in her car: both are distressed. Turned in the other direction, the camera is then engulfed in the darkness of a tunnel that the cars are passing through, as Alex’s desperate and threatening words on the tape overwhelm the soundtrack. Both characters are drifting into obscurity as if being unintentionally carried away by their growing paranoia. Dan is constantly looking over his shoulder for Alex, while Alex suspects that Dan is trying purposely to hurt her by ending their affair. They are united by their mutual fear of the other hurting them.

When he reaches his destination, Douglas’s tense expression relaxes as Dan hugs his daughter and kisses his wife, relieved to find the comforts of home. Upon seeing this image of a perfect family through the window, a deluge of sadness and anger hits Alex suddenly and she feels physically ill. On this shared journey to the country house, both Dan and Alex have been yearning for the blissfulness of marriage and family, albeit from different angles — the insider and the outsider. Later, Alex will kidnap Ellen and take her to the amusement park; their ride on a swooping roller coaster corresponds to Alex’s out of control emotions, but she returns the child perfectly intact — she’s playing out an innocent fantasy of motherhood. Both are driven crazy by their fear of losing family or never reaching it. Although opposed by circumstances, they are united in their anguish for the same ideal of home, which in return appears less and less appealing.

Fatal Attraction was famously re-written in the editing room; the ending that was eventually chosen for the theatrical release finds Lyne bringing Dan and Alex closer together while simultaneously distancing himself (and the audience) from them, subjecting both to generic humiliation while placing a third character on a pedestal. Reduced to hysterics, Alex finds her way into Dan’s apartment while Beth is having a shower, and advances on her (she’s gone Psycho).  Even though Dan eventually hears Beth’s screams and suffocates Alex in the bathtub, it is Beth who successfully kills Alex when the lovelorn, white-eyed woman surprisingly rises again from the waters, brandishing her knife. Now armed with a gun, Beth shoots her just once in the heart, with an expression of pain and determination on her face.

Although mostly absent from the film, Beth distinguishes herself in key moments as the perfect personification of the Family: in the climax, evidently (since she kills the intruder), but also when, earlier in the film, she talks to Alex on the phone after Dan has finally confessed his affair to her. With the same collected and tenacious attitude Beth adopts at the end, she threatens Alex, puts the phone down and quietly walks out of the room. Now, at the film’s denouement, she’s turned her menace into action, and after Beth and Dan have embraced, the film ends with a shot on a family photo. Having Beth as the hero at once defends the familial ideal and revises it: instead of the father, it is the mother who has proven herself to be the real building block of the family unit. (As Pauline Kael sarcastically noted: “The family that kills together, stays together”). Beth’s impressive efficiency and self-control when defending her home stuns Dan, however, and with a low-angle long take on her as she calmly lowers her freshly used weapon, Lyne grants her an ominous majesty. The final close-up on the family portrait feels too close for comfort and the picture’s narrow framing is claustrophobic. The disparity between the smiles on the picture and the horror that the characters and spectators have just witnessed is also disquieting and makes for an unsettling happy ending. The convenience of family appears just as quietly asphyxiating at the film’s closure as it did at its opening, and again, a woman — the wife — is to blame.

The original ending of the film — available on YouTube for the curious and the brave — ultimately arrived at the same contempt for determined women, but showed much more empathy for Alex. Driven to absolute despair, Alex decides to try and frame Dan for murder by committing suicide with a knife that he had covered with his fingerprints. Lyne’s agonising long take as Alex slices her own throat would have been by far the most shocking scene in this already gruesome film, while also marking the moment at which Alex would have seemed less threatening and more pathetic than ever: the psycho killer turning her knife on herself. In this version (which hews closely to the plot of screenwriter James Dearden’s 1979 short film Diversion, which inspired this film), Beth also saves her husband and family, by finding proof of Alex’s plan, and the good-by-default family order is here too restored by the strong wife. Alex’s suicide, however, makes Dan (and the family he has come to so desperately want to preserve) seem even more austere and morose than in the final cut.

With such a violent ending, Fatal Attraction was bound to make a visceral impression on audiences. Yet the bombastic slasher-movie horror of its final sequences also undermines the script’s critique of family life and feminism through absurd and cartoonish overstatement. Perhaps the film’s forest of emasculating and powerful women — whether they be wives or mistresses — can’t be seen for the Forrest, and maybe Glenn Close’s anecdote about male fans thanking her for keeping them on the faithful path confirms this theory. The husband’s anti-heroic ending, however, is unequivocal, and places Douglas’ Dan in complete opposition to the always successful hardbodies played by Schwarzenegger and Stallone: Lyne does not believe in the “New Man.” In Fatal Attraction, not only is the return to the family not all that satisfactory, but it isn’t even attained thanks to the patriarch’s own efforts. After escaping from the authority of his wife for a weekend, then getting chased by an even more demanding liberated mistress, Dan finds himself recaptured by his angry and imperious spouse, crawling back to Beth with his tail between his legs.

Manuela Lazic (@ManiLazic) is a French film critic based in London, UK. She regularly contributes to Little White Lies Magazine and SPARK. Her work has also appeared at The Film Stage and the BFI, among other publications. 

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