Overused and much misused, the word "provocative" has become a double-edged sword, especially when it's swung in the direction of independent cinema. At its best, the genuinely provocative film — off the top of my head, anything by Bunuel, Shaun of the Dead, Holy Motors — shocks in order to expand our vision of the world it encompasses. At its most dispiriting, it's an exercise in cheap thrillage, designed to goose a presumptively stuffy bourgeois audience while positioning a director as some sort of iconoclast. (Steve McQueen's Shame comes to mind, along with Leaving Las Vegas.)
But faux provocation is found most commonly and, perhaps, forgivably, among novice directors bent on getting noticed — and Anne Fontaine has no such excuse. The French filmmaker showed early promise with the goofily anarchic 1997 comedy Dry Cleaning, about an ordinary couple who become obsessed with a drag artiste.
The movies that followed (Nathalie, Chloe) lean toward the merely naughty, and Fontaine's latest, Adore, seems downright desperate to wave her fetish for "illicit" desire under our noses without having much to say about it.
Not having read The Grandmothers, the Doris Lessing novella that inspired the movie, I can't say whether the source material bears more or less of the blame. But Fontaine's treatment of this foray into cougar country plays like a romance novel from the genre's bodice-ripping margins.
To begin with, how painful is it to watch actors as intelligent as Naomi Watts and Robin Wright mug their way through the story of two hard-bodied middle-aged Australian besties, Lil and Roz, hitting the sack with one another's teenaged sons?
Tom (James Frecheville) and Ian (Xavier Samuel) are monosyllabic surfer dudes; having lost his father at a young age, Ian mopes around in a permanent broody funk, while Tom has no personality to speak of.
This is Fontaine's first English-language movie, and its credibility is not helped by Christopher Hampton's lame dialogue, which appears to have been drawn from a Harlequin tip-sheet. "What've we done?" "Crossed a line." "It can't happen again." "No, of course it can't."
The women snicker a bit about this, and about Roz's husband's suspicion that the two women are sexually involved: "He's not saying we're lezzos, is he?" they snort, and fall about laughing at the outlandish thought.
Then away they go again with the offspring, with frequent pauses to sun their four sated bods on an oceanside dock. Time stands still when the heart wants what it wants, and isn't that romantic and brave — so long as it stays heterosexual? And so long as the cougars are smart, the youngsters dim, and the middle-aged husbands and suitors just this side of pathetic.
There's a germ of genuine transgression to be located in this four-way affair, and it has to do with the overlap between maternal and carnal love. But it's less explored here than it is sidelined, not least by the camera's obsessive travel over the sons' gym-pumped torsos as they drape themselves around the house like off-duty calendar boys. Next of kin or no, what self-respecting mature woman would carry on with such vacuous himbos for more than a night, let alone several years?
After much shirt-removal, bun-baring and vigorous congress-having, all set against an idyllic background of sea and sand, the movie tacks hard into self-serious waters, piling on the consequences by the ton. The ocean begins to roil, Tom takes off for Sydney and finds a saucy nymph his own age to be boring with, and when Ian follows suit, the hand-wringing begins in earnest.
Will Lil and Roz pursue their forbidden passion to the bitter end, or settle for becoming the world's sexiest grannies? I'd tell you, but I'm not a hundred percent sure you're still with me.