Just from watching the film trailer you can intuit that Adoration, the recent Australian/French co-production directed by Anne Fontaine (Coco Before Chanel), would screen to some unsympathetic audiences. Adapted from a novella called The Grandmothers by the recently departed Doris Lessing, Adoration (originally titled Two Mothers and Adore in the US) is about two beautiful best friends, Roz (Robin Wright) and Lil (Naomi Watts), who take on each other’s 17-year-old sons (also besties) in a long-term arrangement as their lovers. Reviewers have pointed to how ‘tasteful’ this exploration of taboo romance is but Adoration has also generated at least three different types of critical scorn.
The principal strain of hostility appears to be directed toward the film’s very earnest dramatisation of its (not literally incestuous but incestuous feeling) intergenerational romances. American critics in particular have said that it is ‘totally unbelievable’. Variety scathingly called it ‘a softcore cougar fantasy’, bristling that its director would take such a ‘solemn’ approach to what should have, in the reviewer’s opinion, been ‘handled as an over-the-top sex farce’ (the performances, writes Justin Chang, ‘lend the material more dignity and interest than it warrants’). That Lessing’s strange ménage a quarte morality tale might be rendered as a serious love story on screen is apparently a joke. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers appeared to take special pleasure recalling that the first showing was ‘nearly laughed off the screen’ at Sundance.
The second derisive strain is that unique form of contempt reserved for the cluster of generic characteristics that constitutes a cinema of the ‘art house middlebrow’. There’s a long history of hating on these types of films, with their easy viewing pleasures and frequently women-oriented domestic dramas, especially among devoted cinephiles. Think of that special loathing reserved for heritage films (i.e. anything by Merchant Ivory or Miramax) and for anything that can be written off as ‘sentimental’ or ‘melodramatic’ in the pejorative (as opposed to descriptive) sense.
But the harshest criticism has come from critics annoyed that Lessing’s caustic morality tale has been transformed into a film that reserves judgment. ‘There has been a serious glitch in translation’, writes Sandra Hall in the Sydney Morning Herald: ‘Lessing’s astringent tone has become a casualty… As a result, a morality tale has turned to mush’. Director Fontaine is
‘so mesmerised by the visual potential of bronzed young bodies flexing their muscles against blue water and golden sands that she has difficulty aiming the camera at anything else… The lovers come across as being so delighted by their own beauty and audacity that the story’s darker implications are in great danger of being bleached out of the picture by sex and sunshine’.
But the source material makes it very clear that this is a study in relationships wrought by an unusual combination of beauty, privilege and isolation. ‘These lives were easy’, Lessing writes in the novella. ‘Not many people in the world have lives so pleasant, unproblematical, unreflecting: no one in these blessed coasts lay awake and wept for their sins, or for money, let alone for food.’
Adoration’s impossibly beautiful, hermetically sealed world is plainly portrayed by the omnipresent symbol of the jetty, where the tight friendships of both Roz and Lil and later their sons, Tom (James Frecheville) and Ian (Xavier Samuel) are forged, and then later where dangerous intergenerational liaisons unfold. The fantasy image of this beautiful foursome, lying forever under an Australian sun that won’t age or destroy them, captures the essence of the film: it’s an impossible fantasy.
Scorn has something of disgust in it, which has something of anxiety. That Adoration has received mostly negative reviews, however justified on performance or scripting grounds, also suggests a discomfort with the subject matter. And fair enough. Intergenerational sex and intergenerational love is troubling. This is classic taboo territory. There are good reasons why these relationships are kept a secret among the characters.
George Orwell famously wrote that ‘by age fifty everyone has the face he deserves’. The scandal of Adoration is that neither Roz nor Lil appear all that much the worse for wear, despite the wreckage caused by their forbidden entanglements. Fontaine treats her subjects with a sort of distanced compassion, using their failings to suggest our own potential for the same. That’s what makes Adoration a bold, provocative and troubling film. That no one in it is unambiguously held up to the moral scrutiny of its gaze is precisely the unnerving, uncomfortable point. As Lisa Kennedy wrote in the Denver Post, ‘what’s shocking here is how not shocking all this is. Watts and Wright provide interesting portraits of two friends who really do appear to have an unconditional fondness for each other. They make the unfathomable believable–almost’.
Dion Kagan is a Killings columnist, academic and arts writer who works on film, theatre, sex and popular culture. He lectures in gender and sexuality studies in the screen and cultural studies program at Melbourne University.