Is it OK to long for the days of the movie nymphomaniac? The woman who “just can’t help herself” and thus becomes a magnet for both the desire and scorn of men, and sometimes women? Though it’s convenient to think of her as a retrograde, anti-feminist symbol, maybe we should really be celebrating her, if only to free her from the doldrums of being an obvious scapegoat for male fears and anxieties. Can we ever make nymphomaniacs fun again?
Adrian “Bunny-Boiler” Lyne might be trying to do just that in Deep Water, his first film since 2002’s Unfaithful. But then, it’s hard to know exactly what he’s going for. Deep Water comes dressed up as an ‘80s-style erotic thriller, a genre that I, for one, would love to see revived. But it’s so tepid, so lacking in heat or even a pulse, that it’s about as sexy as a clogged artery.
Ana de Armas and Ben Affleck play Vic and Melinda, a young New Orleans couple who seem to have it all: Melinda, simply because she’s played by de Armas, is gorgeous—she spends much of her time padding around the couple’s charming antique house in slip dresses and bare feet, her hair hanging around her face in an alluring state of dishevelment. These two are loaded, since Vic made a bundle by inventing some nefarious drone technology. He’s taken an early retirement and spends his time mountain biking and tending to his little man-cave of snails, creatures he adores for no discernible reason. He’s also the one who’s most engaged with the duo’s child, a precocious tyke named Trixie (Grace Jenkins). It all seems good, or at least OK, until it becomes clear that Melinda is, you know, a nymphomaniac, a woman who “just can’t help herself.” She takes one lover after another—one of the hapless swains is played by Jacob Elordi, of the Kissing Booth movies. And she does it all right under Vic’s nose: We see him gazing at her as she flirts lasciviously with her conquests. You can almost see the veins throbbing in his temples. Meanwhile, she shuts him out of her bedroom—except once in a while, when she’s in the mood, generally instigated by Vic’s having acted out in a jealous rage, she allows him to stay. On these rare occasions, the two have really hot sex, discreetly shot but featuring much suggestive rolling around and panting.
This is the dynamic of their relationship. And hey, whatever works. Then Vic threatens one of Melinda’s boy-toys by claiming, as a joke, that he killed one of her previous lovers. A local smartie writer played by Tracy Letts begins wondering, to himself and aloud: Is Vic really joking? That thought bubble then dogs the movie like a dumb, fat thundercloud. Meanwhile, Melinda drinks too much, undresses in front of the baby sitter, and stands atop a neighbor’s grand piano—not all at once, but almost. Party girl! Who can resist her, when she’s right there for the taking?
Vic accepts his highly public and private humiliation with hangdog equanimity. Until he doesn’t. But nothing happens in Deep Water that you don’t figure out in the first 30 minutes, and that seems to be by design. (The script is by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, adapted from a novel by Patricia Highsmith.) The did-he-or-didn’t-he question isn’t even the point; the movie is more fixated on inviting us to gawk at Melinda and Vic’s twisted mind games, and to wonder why he puts up with it as Melinda repeats her signature moves of giggling, pouting, and drinking wine lustily from whatever goblet is readily available.
Lyne, the director of slick, steamy ‘80s entertainments like Fatal Attraction and 9 ½ Weeks, is trying to riff on his greatest hits. But there’s nothing remotely interesting about watching Affleck—who has been terrific in some recent pictures, like George Clooney’s The Tender Bar—shlep about his neighborhood in baggy jackets, his face the very picture of bitter emasculation. And de Armas, as alluring as she is, practically wears a pattern in the carpet with her dogged seductiveness, doing a disservice to film nymphomaniacs everywhere. A movie that could have been a hot ticket in a retro way isn’t even stupid good fun. Deep Water is sluggishly gray as Vic’s world o’ snails, the garden shed where he keeps his beloved little slimers tucked away, protected by big, opaque plastic drapes. Their only reason for existing is to keep the plot from moving along too quickly, and their noble efforts are duly rewarded.
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