Before the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, the director most commonly associated with getting down was Adrian Lyne. His films — Foxes (1980), Flashdance (1983), 9 1/2 Weeks (1986), Fatal Attraction (1987), Jacob’s Ladder (1990), Indecent Proposal (1993), Lolita (1997), and Unfaithful (2002) — have received their fair share of bad press, but underneath the sex and glitz is a message: Relationships are the pits. So, before you question why anyone would find the Fifty Shades series sexy, let’s explore the filmography of Adrian Lyne, who reminded us that sex can be amazing but that catching feelings is your downfall.
Lyne has courted controversy with his skewed depictions of love. Susan Faludi cited Fatal Attraction as evidence of the late ‘80s backlash against ambitious women. A 1986 New York Times article criticized Lyne for pushing Kim Basinger toward a mental breakdown during the filming of 9 ½ Weeks. But while the subtext of his features and off-screen tactics are worthy of criticism, Lyne’s goal is to remind the audience that sex always involves a relationship, and that through that relationship, with its various expectations, a good thing is ruined.
Seven of Lyne’s eight films feature the prototypical narrative of “boy meets girl/boy loses girl to a rival.” This rival can manifest as another male, another woman who threatens the male’s domesticity, or an intangible object the male cannot provide. What makes Lyne’s films different than other “boy loses girl” movies is that, more often than not, boy and girl don’t end up together. In fact, parting is often the only way to end up truly happy.
Lyne’s antipathy toward romantic relationships comes through clearest where the rivals are physical persons. Indecent Proposal and Unfaithful both follow two men competing for the love (or at least lust) of one woman. The film’s females — Diana (Demi Moore) in Proposal and Connie (Diane Lane) in Unfaithful — are supportive of their husbands. They have their own careers and personalities, but there’s never a hint of competition with their significant others. The point is that the relationships may be stagnant, but the couples keep to their separate spheres, and if anyone is compromising, it’s the female.
The male rival is what turns the relationship on its head because he offers women a fantasy specifically geared toward them. Robert Redford’s billionaire John Gage may offer David (Woody Harrelson) a million dollars to sleep with Diana, but once John and Diana spend time alone she realizes he’s a kind-hearted, lonely man who genuinely cares for her. Connie in Unfaithful gets a chance to be seduced by the passionate Paul (Olivier Martinez) who doesn’t expect her to be the wife and mother she is at home. The female becomes the controller of the relationship. And for Lyne, it’s not just this skewed power balance that causes problems but the long-term relationship that precedes it. Lyne points out that what makes brief flings so intoxicating is their brevity, and anything longer than that only brings pain.
Fatal Attraction takes this in a different direction, turning its controlling female into a monster because of societal expectations of what marriage and monogamy should look like. The affair between Dan (Michael Douglas) and Alex (Glenn Close) starts because of Dan’s staid relationship with his wife. Alex is strong, confident, and Dan’s equal. But Alex’s drive for a legitimately acceptable relationship as dictated by society — one that includes a home, a child, and a husband — turns sex into the enemy. For Lyne, it’s the devil you know that’s preferable, and Dan finds more comfort and stability in his tried and true wife — who knows her place — than in a woman with her own desires and expectations. Regardless of Dan’s intentions, Alex is driven mad by what a monogamous relationship is meant to provide. In the end, Dan is left with what he started out with, Alex is dead, and no one wins.
The idea of being “driven mad” by love — or at least one’s interpretation of it — is also seen in Lyne’s adaptation of Lolita. The audience is not meant to sympathize with Jeremy Irons’ Humbert in his quest for the heart of the young girl, Dolores Haze (Dominique Swain). Unlike Indecent Proposal or Flashdance, where the age difference is pronounced but legal, the interactions between the two in Lolita is wholly wrong; Humbert is the only one who attempts to justify it. For him, it is society who says their relationship is wrong — this despite the fact that the audience sees Dolores sobbing and making numerous attempts to escape him. Where Lyne’s films perpetuate the idea that love and relationships are dangerous and traumatizing, he clearly indicates they are between consenting adults. Humbert’s “madness” over Dolores then becomes the deranged rantings of a man who doesn’t understand how dangerous he is and that he’s traumatized someone else.
In Lyne’s films, love is trauma. The psychological drama Jacob’s Ladder follows a Vietnam vet, Jacob (Tim Robbins), as he copes with the loss of his young son and other mental instability. Jacob’s seemingly normal relationship with a woman named Jezzie (Elizabeth Peña) lacks emotional punch and stands in the way of Jacob’s real love for his child. It is only through death — the longest relationship we all have — that Jacob finds true peace and contentment. Romantic love and sex don’t hold the same satisfaction as love for a child. Though other Lyne characters have children who aren’t placed at the forefront, Jacob’s relationship with his son is also a sharp rebuke against the conflict of sex and family found in Lolita.
Trauma through love also manifests in 9 ½ Weeks. As in nearly all of Lyne’s films, sex is a liberating way of discovering a different part of yourself. The sex games between Elizabeth (Kim Basinger) and John (Mickey Rourke) give Elizabeth a sense of unpredictability. She feels she’s capable of new things, but it comes at the expense of her sanity as John becomes more domineering in his control of her, which leaks out of the bedroom. John refuses to learn anything about Elizabeth as a person or open up to her. Unlike Lyne’s other sexual dramas, 9 ½ Weeks sees the long-term relationship as the only way to sustain Elizabeth and John’s passion. John’s inability or unwillingness to let his guard down puts Elizabeth in the position of walking away. Unlike what happens in Fatal Attraction, Unfaithful, and Indecent Proposal, Elizabeth leaves John and ends the film on her own, possessing the knowledge about what she truly wants out of a commitment. 9 ½ Weeks is one of the few positive films in Lyne’s oeuvre, saying that long-term commitment can be beneficial and that refusing to take that step can cause true love to disappear.
The passion that endures the longest is one free of sex entirely. The two earliest Lyne films, Foxes and Flashdance, focus on women who find love, respect, and commitment in relationships that lack men entirely. In Foxes, all of Jeanie’s (Jodie Foster) friends find themselves enamored with sex and boys, and how the two can provide independence. Jeanie doesn’t want any of those things, becoming an adult by acting responsibly even when her own parents won’t. For Jeanie, having a fruitful life and trying to care for her close friends is more important than the fleeting lust that accompanies chasing boys. And after the death of her wild bestie Annie (Cherie Currie), Jeanie finds the strength to live her own life on her own terms.
Similarly, though the ending of Flashdance sees Alex (Jennifer Beals) united with her boss boyfriend Nick (Michael Nouri), it lacks the punch that comes from watching Alex achieve her dream of dancing for a professional ballet company. As with Foxes, the enjoyment Alex derives from achieving her dream holds greater weight than a relationship that might not last beyond the end credits.
With the decrease in explicit sex in mainstream cinema, Adrian Lyne has disappeared into the filmic ether; he hasn’t directed a film in over 15 years. But his view of romantic relationships — that they’re traps, constructed by our fantasies and society — still resonates. So while watching the latest Fifty Shades, don’t be surprised if your significant other looks at you askance.
Kristen Lopez lives, laughs, and loves in Sacramento.