Romance movies run to every extreme of the rose-strewn gauntlet. There's the simpering stuff that's too-cute-for-words and showcases the starlet of the moment. There's the recent trend toward bongs and raunch as favored by Judd Apatow, and the tame stuff for tweens. And then there are films that take love as a deadly serious emotion. It encourages murder, ends in suicide, inspires wars, rips bodices, and powers art. Love is lit by candles and punctuated by cries such as "No matter how long it takes, no matter how far, I will find you!" Somehow, Hawkeye manages to exist next to the virgin Andy Stitzer, The Wedding Singer cuddles in the genre with Casablanca, and we still believe in cinematic romance. It's never a joke, and it's never too operatic.
Buried within every variation of the genre is what I think is the guiltiest pleasure of all -- the adultery movie. It can be comedic or cute, but it's best served dark, anguished, and dramatic. While you have the occasional "How could you!" movie like Fatal Attraction, more often than not we actually sympathize with our illicit lovers. It's an odd thing. In real life, we're crushed when we're cheated on (and we feel indignant rage for friends and family who are betrayed in the bedroom), but we often cheer it on in fiction. They can hardly undress or leave their spouses fast enough.
With that voyeuristic spirit in mind, I've listed the movies I think are the very best of the sultry adulterers. I've eliminated the cinematic scoldings (No Presumed Innocent, Dial M for Murder / A Perfect Murder, Fatal Attraction, or Dressed to Kill), kept out poor Anna Karenina and Hester Prynne (no adaptation's good enough in my view), and left in a few gorier picks. After all, you can't expect to enjoy the forbidden without a bit of punishment ...
Because I'm terrible at ranking and hate the quibbles that ensue, I'm listing them not in order of best or favorites, but simply in alphabetical order.
The Age of Innocence
"Don't you see? I can't love you unless I give you up." Newland Archer and Ellen Olenska never get more than a corseted kiss -- their planned tryst is thwarted by Archer's not-so-innocent wife, May -- and you hate their stifling society for denying them the freedom to live and love. It's a love story that begs for crude terms like "mistress" and "divorce" not to exist, but they do anyway, then as well as now.
One might say it's a cinematic scolding, but Body Heat seduces you so thoroughly that you play along with it. After all, Mattie tells us her husband is a bad man, involved in dubious business, and keeping her in a bit of a gilded cage. We agree she deserves to have whatever she wants, and we admire her sexual confidence. I would even venture to say we like her more than Ned Racine, but if she wants him, we'll go along with it. Oops. But dang, did it feel good at the time!
The Bridges of Madison County
"If you want me to stop, tell me now." Francesca's hand on the car door. Robert Kincaid's cameras, carefully preserved. The actual tears that slide down Clint Eastwood's stern and craggy face. The tears that slide down hers when she receives his last letter, decades after their four-day affair. It's easy to mock this film and its source material (it was like the middle-aged Twilight in 1995 and enjoyed a similar cottage industry of tie-ins) but there's no denying that it packs some powerful moments. Who doesn't want Francesca to leave her life of Iowa drudgery and enjoy her final years with a poetic photographer? And who doesn't understand why she can't? The pain!
This may be the most demure adultery story ever made. (Its gentle sympathy was still too shocking for Irish censors back in 1945!) The beauty of it is in how utterly ordinary the characters are. Celia Johnson and Trevor Howard are distinctly unglamorous and tweedy, and therefore they might more easily be you or I. Their affair conducts itself almost entirely over cups of tea and on train platforms, and the film never allows Laura or Alec to have more than a few passionate kisses. Many of their most tender moments are shredded by crass third parties. The ache is in what might of been, and whether it was really "so very heppy" to suffer so acutely.
It says something about romance in popular culture that one of the most romantic movies ever made is completely based around adultery. Remember, the entire plot rests on what man Ilsa will choose -- her stoic husband Victor or the dashing Rick. The poor girl can't even fall back on "But I thought you were dead, Victor, and I've met someone else!" because he's just so darn noble and important. In the end, the problems of three little people just don't amount to a hill of beans, and marriage proves to be necessary to saving the free world.
One of my favorite films of all time, Doctor Zhivago is also a film that makes you feel terrible for all involved. Yuri and Lara are both married with children, and you like their families (well, barring the awful Pasha) enough to feel their betrayal just as much as you sigh over the wartorn couple. Tonya's letter to Yuri with its hesitant postscript acknowledging his affair is heartbreaking, but forgotten the moment Yuri and Lara embrace again.
The End of the Affair
Even the heavy religious themes can't keep this movie from bursting out of its tweed and giving into fervent and overblown emotion. Sarah succumbing to Maurice and a taste for onions is admirable and romantic, and it seems as though only an affair can provoke the kind of love that's jealous over buttons and shoes.
The English Patient
Another tweedy marriage, another rapturous affair that becomes so wrapped in guilt and stiff upper lips that World War II pales in comparison to it. It's all doomed before it begins, of course, but it's one of those stories you tell yourself could turn out well if only Almasy said this, or Katharine did that. By the way, why exactly does Ralph Fiennes filmography read like the cheating woman's crumpet?
That Hamilton Woman
The only selection on the list that's a true story of adultery, and the only one to have a real-life couple playing secret lovers. Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson and Emma Hamilton shocked Britain when they began openly living together, a brave admission of an affair that had been going on for several years. It played out much as it does in the film, and is a nice contrast to those guilt-ridden adulterers I've just listed above. Horatio and Emma just go for it, darn the Empire and darn their spouses, and our hearts pound for it.
This movie is writ large across the 1990s, and sparked a party game that lasts well into the present day. Robert Redford's John Gage is both reprehensible and alluring -- he continuously uses his money to get between Demi Moore and Woody Harrelson. But Woody turns so mean, and Redford is sitting there waiting ... you just want to tell her to go on and enjoy herself. And she does.
The Postman Always Rings Twice
Quite possibly the only film to combine deceitful sex with hamburgers, thus making you hungry for both. Who doesn't understand why Cora is drawn to the rakish Nick?Go ahead, run away with him. Who needs a greasy spoon and a daffy older husband, especially when you're Lana Turner? She should have the man she wants ... and maybe the financial security of an independent business, too. A little murder isn't such a bad thing, is it?
This film veers into the "Oh no, why? You have it good?" cautionary tale territory, but it's awfully hard to resist Frenchmen bearing poetry books. Diane Lane's Connie needs some fire, she needs to feel alive, and sometimes being married to Richard Gere just doesn't do that. You hate what she's doing, and yet you utterly sympathize with her. It's too bad the movie doesn't just let her sort it out for herself, and instead starts smashing heads. Imagine if Bridges of Madison County played out this way!
A Walk on the Moon
It's a Diane Lane double feature! I vastly prefer this trip down infidelity lane to Unfaithful, though it's just as painful to a perfectly nice husband. It's the Summer of 1969, and Pearl has never gotten a moment to herself. She lives with her mother-in-law, for heaven's sake. The lure of Walker Jerome, his cute little bus, and his waterfall prowess is something few women could resist. You really want her to go West, and yet you want her to stay with Marty. Wait, isn't this why they invented free love and communes?-