ADORE, adapted from Doris Lessing’s novel The Grandmothers, is a compelling, dangerous meditation on the stifling nature of convention, and the fluid nature of emotional bonding when societal norms are put aside. At the center are two lifelong friends, Lil (Naomi Watts) and Roz (Robin Wright), best friends since childhood. They are not, as the film takes pains to reinforce, lesbians, but their emotional intimacy transcends mere sexuality, and as the film progresses, will be tested.
Early in the film, the Lil and Roz lie side by side on the South Australian beach their houses share. Fortyish, but still beautiful in their bikinis, they stare out into the surf watching two ravishing young men surf. Drowsily one turns to the other and opines that they did alright. The other agrees, adding that they are like gods. Certainly director Anne Fontaine takes pains to enforce the visual correspondences between them and images from classic Greek and Roman art. That the two ravishing young men, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville) are also their sons is slightly disconcerting. Each is a second son to the other. For each young man, each woman is second mother. They are also each other’s best friend, having also grown up together. When Roz’s husband, Harold (Ben Mendelsohn), suddenly announces that hes taken a job in Sydney, thousands of miles away, it comes as a surprise to him, and to him alone, that Roz refuses to go with him. Or that Tom, their son, isn’t pleased either, even though it means a better educational opportunity for him, as it means a better salary and more prestige for Harold.
With Harold on his way out, and Lil a widow of longstanding with no interest in the solid, but dull, man interested in her, it is only natural that the four should become even more tightly bound. It’s only the way that is happens, and the way it plays out that is intriguing. The four, already acting like contemporaries and best pals, soon become couples, with, it is worth noting, the young men instigating the sexual relationships, but they keep the relationships secret after weathering the emotional shocks themselves. And, in a progression that is as logical as it is natural given the emotional intimacy already in place, remaining a foursome so tightly enmeshed that there is little room for anyone else. They quickly see past imposed norms, and relish the ancillary freedoms. The tragedy is that they can’t quite get past all the received wisdom about younger men and older women, leading to a time bomb that cant be defused.
Watts and Wright are both suitably luminous. They are also, preternatural bone structure aside, look their ages. If the bodies are a bit too taut and toned, there is yet a jiggle here and there that acknowledges the cumulative effects of gravity. It is no stretch to see why they would attract the attentions of young men. Fontaine perfectly captures the atmosphere of beach living, where clothing is loose and revealing, the body displayed in all its unselfconscious glory, coupled with a cozy isolation. The serenity of the setting is reinforced when outsiders show up, or the foursome finds itself out in the world. The balance is subtlely, but unmistakably jarred, and obvious truths blur as conventional life muddles honest feelings.
ADORE is devastatingly subversive as, at each juncture, doing the conventionally right thing is what leads to the greatest pain in the long run. It takes on the provocative issue of what lines can be crossed among consenting adults, and who gets to make those decisions. The audience is left to ponder whether this is a folie a quatre, a subconscious transference of sexual feelings between the women and the young men that they can’t, or won’t, express in any other way, or if this is no different than any other sort of coupling, with echoes of past relationships inevitably reverberating through the present. Is it wrong? Is it right? Or is it just the way the heart works? And, finally, if the women and the men had coupled up instead of forming unconventional straight duos, would it be less unsettling, and why?