A tale of love, lust and friendship, which charts the unconventional and passionate affairs of two lifelong friends who fall in love with each other’s teenage sons. Based on Doris Lessing's story, The Grandmothers.
SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL*: Almost all of Adoration, French director Anne Fontaine’s painfully miscalibrated 11th film, is set in a gloriously private, golden nook of Seal Rock, an Australian beach town. Lifelong friends Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts) appear to be the only residents of the nook, a scrap of beachfront paradise, where they live with their husbands and sons. Though Lil’s husband’s funeral is shown during the opening sequence, little of the outside world seems to touch these lives. Their isolation is idyllic but near complete, and thus a source, it might be suggested, of what happens next.
We have little sense of [the boys] as more than what 30 Rock would call 'sex idiots'.
Adapted by Christopher Hampton from a 2003 Doris Lessing story called The Grandmothers, Adoration returns Lessing’s story to its source: though she set it in England, Lessing told Fontaine that the true story it was based on took place in Australia. The new (or old) setting’s end-of-the-earth quality is stressed: Roz and Lil pass freely between their adjacent luxury compounds; the beach is theirs alone. Again and again they are shown strolling a vast, empty shoreline together. Their 19-year-old surfer sons, Ian (Xavier Samuel) and Tom (James Frecheville), have the waves all to themselves. 'They’re like young gods" out there, the mothers observe of their shirtless offspring with awe and longing.
Despite all that shore skimming, up until the moment it’s crossed there is little sense that the quartet has been riding a line. When Roz’s theatre professor husband (Ben Mendelsohn) is offered a job in Sydney, she is faced with leaving the protections of home and her best friendship, which several people suggest is too close to be altogether decent. While her husband is away it’s not Lil but Ian who pounces on a wholly receptive Roz in the middle of the night. Tom, having sensed the story’s wicked right turn into soap opera, is roused from his bed to catch them in the act. He promptly marches over to Aunt Lil’s to initiate revenge sex; once Lil hears what’s been going on up the hill, she gives in without much fanfare.
The teenagers initiate sex in both cases, but we have little sense of them as more than what 30 Rock would call sex idiots. Why the women are game is the bigger question. Both are lonely and worried about waning looks, despite their near-constant and very impressive appearance in eye-patch bikinis. Another possibility, one I thought might save the story from its deadly credulousness, is that faced with the unthinkable—Roz’s departure—the friends seek to explode their bond, if only to create a path out.
How else could such a situation play out? Well, Fontaine gives us one idea. In the wake of sleeping with the boys they raised together, after a brief, wounded period, they will sit down over Nespresso and say things like, 'What have we done?" 'We’ve crossed a line." 'How are you feeling?" 'Good, actually." 'Yeah, me too."
Then all four will sit down on their sweeping veranda and divide an apple four ways for dessert. In case you missed it, the idea is that temptation tastes pretty good, the garden need not fall, and they can live in pseudo-incestuous isolation for two blissful, orgasm-filled years. Roz’s husband presumably falls away without learning the secret, though after two years it is time for the men to join the world while the supposedly haggard, used up women remain in exile.
The instant Tom steps away he is snatched up by a young lady, and though Lil is devastated we are to believe that the real trauma here is suffered by the men, particularly Ian. Though they are happy to carry on the arrangement, the women agree to martyr themselves to the cause of their sons’ conventional happiness. By this point the emotional fraudulence, having already taken the viewer’s breath away (the screening I attended was broken up by laughter where there should not be laughter), begins to fill her with an icky feeling.
I have no doubt that the story her Australian friend told Doris Lessing was true. Writing about Lessing’s transformation of that story, a Guardian critic noted that the events are presented as 'cankerous self-indulgence rather than daring liberation". In Adoration that scheme is reversed, and the truth suffers badly for it.
*EDITORS NOTE: Adoration screened at Sundance 2013 under its original title, Two Mothers