‘Adore’: Too much is not enough

September 6, 2013


I’ll say this about “Adore”: It never goes where you expect it to.

This Australian film, from director Anne Fontaine, was titled “Two Mothers” when it screened at Sundance in January, “The Grandmothers” when it was a short novel by Doris Lessing. “Adore” seems more descriptive, if more vague – but none of these titles prepares you for this strange little tale.

Naomi Watts and Robin Wright play Lil and Roz, two lifelong friends who live above a picturesque beach on the east coast of Australia. First seen as girls, they are then shown as women, then as the mothers of young boys (first glimpsed at the funeral for Lil’s husband). One more cut and they’re the mothers of strapping young men, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (Peter Frecheville). Roz owns an art gallery; Lil manages a yacht-building concern.

It’s an idyllic existence, with perpetually sunny skies, seemingly lots of beach time and no worries. Then Roz’s husband Harold (Ben Mendelsohn) gets big news: He’s been offered a job on the theater faculty at Sydney University, a position too good to pass up. So he wants to move the family to Sydney.

Roz is reluctant, so Harold heads off for his first weeks of classes. Roz and son Tom and Lil and son Ian continue to hang out together. Ian is the mopier, more sensitive one, still suffering the absence of his father. He obviously has a close relationship with Roz (“She’s like a second mother,” he notes at one point) – and finally acts on it, kissing (and then bedding) her one night after Tom has gone to bed drunk and Lil has headed home.

But Tom wakes up in the middle of the night – and spies Roz sneaking back to her own room. Rather than confront them, he takes the news to Lil, then makes the same move on her. She resists initially but, given her decade-plus without a man in her life, she finally succumbs.

She and Roz talk to each other about it, deciding it has to end. But it doesn’t – so instead, it turns into this strangely rapturous season of almost incestuous relationships (though with very little actual on-screen sex). When Harold asks Roz if she’s ready to move to Sydney with him, she refuses.

Nothing this perfect can last, of course. And it doesn’t, mostly because one of the sons eventually does move out of this little bubble. Yet the subsequent ripple effect on their lives is just that – ripples, rather than waves or even emotional tsunamis, which would be the go-to move of most story-tellers.

Instead, Fontaine quietly explores the ebb and flo of both attraction and discipline: Someone is always saying, “We have to stop now,” and they try. But they’re rarely successful for very long.

The fact that the film is based on a book called “The Grandmothers” tells you something about the time period that the film covers. Fontaine lets time elide easily, short-handing the transitions that occur in their lives. But even the addition of spouses and children for the two sons can’t douse the fire these strange couples seem to ignite in each other.

So why isn’t “Adore” either more erotic or more emotionally involving? Fontaine’s approach is so low-key that you assume she’ll be forced to crank the dial to melodrama at some point – big emotions triggering rash action – but it never happens. Which leaves a film which forces the viewer to consider those complex emotions from a distance, rather than dramatizing them in anything more than the most oblique or glancing way.

She has a strong cast, led by Watts and Wright, believable as lifelong (and exceptionally reasonable) friends who succumb to desire without ever really throwing caution to the wind (though Wright’s Aussie accent comes and goes). Frecheville has an open-faced likability, while Samuel gives Ian an understated passion that never quite bursts through.

“Adore” is surprising without ever being truly affecting. It manages not to bore but it seldom engages.

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