Any erotic thriller has two jobs: it needs to arouse and it needs to make you feel uncomfortable about your own arousal. Usually, the former is accomplished by casting two extremely hot actors in the lead roles and the latter by making one of them a potential murderer. The erotic thriller trades on the allure of the forbidden and the illicit. The thriller part is ostensibly the premise but it’s never the point. Sex is.
Adrian Lyne’s cinema comeback marks his return to the genre that he helped shape in the late 80s: the erotic thriller. The director hasn’t made a film in 20 years and, during his absence, eroticism has left the big screen and turned into an online cocktail of thirsting, horny headlines and endless TikToks about sex spitting.
Back in the eighties, Lyne made his name with titles like 91/2 Weeks (1986), where Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger went at it in a bare, modernist flat to the tune of Phil Collins, and Fatal Attraction (1987), a culture-shifting story of an affair between married man Michael Douglas and Glenn Close (also featuring lots of sex in a bare, modernist flat). Lyne’s newest film, Deep Water, starring the now-broken up Ben Affleck and Ana de Armas as a married couple, has been sold as a return to the genre that made him and, possibly, hopefully, an alternative to what The Independent’s Clarisse Loughrey calls “the sexless drought of modern Hollywood”.
Every other week, Film Twitter has a meltdown over whether sex scenes are ever necessary (most recently, about a New Yorker roundtable discussion). Most of us argue that yes, they are. Sex scenes, however, are not erotic by default. We are seemingly starved for a bit of high-minded eroticism, while films feel more neutered than ever. In this ratchedly unhorny state of affairs, is there room for horny high-budget movies anymore? And is Lyne really the person we should task with reinvigorating the erotic thriller?
The genre dominated the late eighties and early nineties. The rise of VHS tapes, video stores and widespread accessibility of the new format meant, quite simply, that you could watch anything in private. If movie stars engaging in food play in bare modernist flats was your thing, you could comfortably enjoy rewinding, pausing and rewatching that scene as many times as your little pervert heart wanted (the scene of Sharon Stone uncrossing her legs during a police interrogation in Basic Instinct became one of the the most paused scenes in movie history). This technological opportunity multiplied the demand.
This might seem quaint now, but it was revolutionary at the time. In her groundbreaking study of the genre, The Erotic Thriller in Contemporary Cinema, Professor Linda Williams wrote: “The VCR has always been identified with the illicit.” Without this technology, the erotic thriller couldn’t have thrived in the way that it did, for a brief and scintillating moment.
The popularity of the format allowed it to exist at the same time across the spectrum of high and low art, the high end of Hollywood and the dankest shelves of video stores. Erotic thrillers were the meeting point of cinema and sleaze. On the video store shelf, VHS tapes of both ends of the erotic thriller spectrum could co-exist side by side. Because of the high demand and the booming video market, there was a parallel direct-to-video industry of horny murder movies that thrived, with its own star system. These lower-rent erotic thrillers aped the titles and vibe of prestige erotic thrillers that were being released in cinemas and featured A‑list talent. You could find Basic Instinct next to Killer Instinct and right beneath Animal Instincts: The Seductress. Due to this oversaturation, the genre cannibalised itself by the late nineties, with acclaimed entries becoming fewer and farther between. Lyne himself made one of the last truly great erotic thrillers, the 2002 study of infidelity Unfaithful. But his latest shows that the genre’s only hope to be revitalised is an entirely new erotic sensibility.
Deep Water, the second big screen adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s 1957 novel after the French film Eaux profondes (1981), chooses to ignore the erotic possibilities of a marriage that’s glued together only by resentful attraction and an appetite for control. Melinda (de Armas) is openly having flings and affairs with other men in front of her husband Vic (Affleck), a retired tech designer who reluctantly entertains her parade of lovers and maybe – maybe – is also killing them.
But I regret to inform you that the film is not, in fact, going to save the erotic thriller. Deep Water is barely erotic and not thrilling at all. But its positioning as such and its failure to conjure up any eroticism at all is just as interesting. The only sneak peek we had at the film was a breathy teaser. Shot in 2019, the film’s release has been pushed back several times – during which time Affleck and de Armas dated for a year and broke up – eventually bypassing cinemas entirely and landing on Prime Video this week.
The failure of Lyne’s film to conjure up thrills or sexual tension between any of its characters (aside from Ben Affleck and his pet snails) has little to do with the amount of sex on screen and more with a dated visual language of the erotic. If desire is located in the act of looking, this film is as uninterested in its own characters as they are in each other. In their roundtable debate over the state of the contemporary sex scene, critics from The New Yorker said that audiences “are looking for a taboo to break”. So what taboo can an erotic thriller break in 2022?
The thrill of banging a potential murderer feels dated and corny. There is a parasocial voyeurism of watching a real-life couple play a fictional couple, but that has more to do with our appetite for celebrity gossip than actual on-screen chemistry. The cuckold husband’s perspective both dominates and languishes limply throughout the film. In its heyday, the erotic thriller was a playground for dangerous women, but Deep Water is uninterested in exploring Melinda’s infidelity (or polyamory – it’s unclear). The genre, at its core, was about desire overpowering a character’s logic and even morality. Until a filmmaker interested in figuring out where those lines lie today, it’s best the erotic thriller stay dead for now.