Set in a small Australian coastal paradise, Adore is the English-speaking directorial debut of French filmmaker Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel). Based on the novella The Grandmothers by Doris Lessing, the film traces the lifelong friendship between Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright) and their embarkation on sexual relationships considered scandalous in some social sets: They sleep with each other’s nearly adult sons.
Despite the language and locale, Adore remains a decidedly French film: From Fontaine’s slow and lingering shots of the beautiful Australian coast to the spare use of dialogue and a more open-minded approach toward the affairs of these older women with younger men. There’s not even an allusion to a particular acronym made popular in American Pie. In other words, Adore takes itself quite seriously.
Both blonde and beautiful, Lil and Roz could be mistaken for sisters—and their bond is as close to familial as possible. They each marry and have a son, and after Lil’s husband is killed in an accident, Roz sees her friend and her son Ian through the difficult times. (It helps that they live next door to each other, too.) We watch as Roz’s nuclear family expands to a fivesome with the boys growing into beautifully chiseled young men.
Things change for the families as Roz’s husband Harold (Ben Mendelsohn) is offered a job teaching drama at Sydney University, which he can’t turn down. Roz is hesitant about leaving her small town life and Lil, so she sends Harold ahead to Sydney, asking for a couple of weeks to adjust to the idea of moving.
It’s during Harold’s absence that passions bubble to the surface. Lil’s son Ian (Xavier Samuel) knows that his idyllic world will change if Roz and Tom (James Frecheville) move to Sydney, so he approaches Roz one evening, alone. She doesn’t put up much of a fight. Tom spies his mother leaving Ian’s bed after their tryst, and immediately tells Lil. After their initial shock and anger, Tom and Lil begin a semi-illict affair of their own.
Despite a few initial emotional spats, the Blue Lagoon-esque living for the foursome continues for a few years, and all parties seem content. But the outer world tempts Tom with a job offer with his father (who has moved on with a new family, unaware of the affairs back home). Relationships are tested and strained when Tom and Ian finally encounter attractive women their own age.
While Fontaine’s direction and Christopher Hampton’s script steer clear of imposing judgements on the relationships, we can’t help but think if the boys are merely proxies for their mothers. The two women are so close that they’ve been mistaken for “lezzos”—even by Harold—but they laugh the thought away. Despite the salaciousness of the subject matter, Adore is restrained in its sexual encounters—they’re brief and used sparingly throughout the film. (There’s more skin involved in an episode of Game of Thrones than here.)
Ian’s move on Roz is a bit jarring because we never see the buildup of years of unspoken love/lust; the film’s beginning instead emphasizes the relationship between the two women. The audience is also left wondering whether Tom’s move on lonely widow Lil is merely a reaction (or retaliation) to his best friend sleeping with his mother.
Lil and Roz only talk about their sticky situation in fits and starts, and with the exception of Ian, each of the characters is left relatively unscarred by their relationships, which is seemingly implausible. It’s not until the last 15 minutes of the film do we see consequences of the affairs on the young men’s families. We wished that there would have been more of these outbursts throughout the film instead of the dreamlike state in which Adore languishes. The ambiguousness of the ending is fitting. Neither happy or tragic, it’s suitably French.
Director: Anne Fontaine
Writer: Christopher Hampton, adapted from a novella by Doris Lessing
Starring: Naomi Watts, Robin Wright, Xavier Samuel, James Frecheville
Release Date: Sept. 6, 2013 (in theaters and on demand)