For a movie so easy on the eyes, Adore is incredibly hard to watch. Adapted from a Doris Lessing novella about two childhood friends who have affairs with each other’s sons, the film never musters the humor nor the sex appeal to carry off its study of ultra-Freudian arrested development. Director and co-writer Anne Fontaine forgoes character development for mood, spending nearly all of the film’s 111 minutes lingering on the tanned pores of her four stars. Mothers Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts) and their sons Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville) exist in a bubble of privilege, filling their days with long walks on the beach and sipping white wine, while their husbands remain conspicuously absent (Lil’s husband died in a car accident when Ian was little, and Roz’s is off teaching in Sydney). But the women's chic office jobs never interfere with their social lives, so every night is date night.
The film begins with a sequence in which Roz and Lil as romping preteens seamlessly morph into the perpetually sunbathing adults they are now. This stylish elision of time is repeated a few minutes later when Fontaine similarly skips over Ian and Tom’s adolescences. In conflating both the mothers’ and the sons’ childhoods at the very beginning of the film, everything that could’ve been transgressive about their intergenerational pairings is muted. Neither woman is disconcerted by their son’s impulse to sleep with their surrogate mother, and any guilt that Lil or Roz convey stems from what they describe as a fear of robbing the boys of their youth.
Not that there’s much to lose—Ian and Tom are probably about 20 years old, but there’s no sign of coltishness in either Samuel’s or Frecheville’s performances, only strapping muscles and chiseled jawlines. Mercifully, the actresses are as fine as ever: Watts has the hint of a beautiful woman aging, unused to such desperation in her loneliness, and Wright is truly enigmatic, delivering a surprisingly strong and powerful performance for a film and a script this superficial.
But Adore’s looks do deliver, and under Christophe Beaucarne’s beautiful cinematography the incestuous quartet is stunning to a fault. The cove in which the characters spend most of their time cradles the four of them in golden light, rocking them to and fro in beautiful teal waters, and reassuring them that when you look this good, you don’t ever have to grow up.