Fatal Attraction was the world’s highest-grossing film in 1987, on the cover of every magazine, nominated for six Oscars, the subject of dissertations and scholarly books.
Another racy work, Josephine Hart’s novel Damage spent 18 weeks on The New York Times bestseller list in 1991, was translated worldwide and was adapted into a Louis Malle film starring Juliette Binoche and Jeremy Irons.
So it’s no wonder that Paramount+ and Netflix, respectively, thought these two erotic thrillers – cautionary tales about the consequences of untoward carnality – might be rebooted into juicy limited series. Unfortunately, the elements that made them sensations in the last millennium feel toxic in this one. (All four episodes of Obsession, the new title for Damage, are available now; the eight-episode Fatal Attraction began April 30. And in case you haven’t seen the originals, there are spoilers below.)
Damage and (especially) Fatal Attraction spoke to a conservative cohort panicked that the nuclear family was failing. Hard-charging career women were the enemy, and the eight million people who’d been infected with HIV were a reminder that sex outside straight marriage literally was dangerous.
Fatal Attraction’s Alex (Glenn Close) was a perfect villain: an unmarried New York book editor so undomesticated that she didn’t even wash her dishes (we see this when she has sex in her sink). Edgy, nervy, needy, she’s nothing like the placid, lovely Beth (Anne Archer), a married suburban mother whose purity is evinced by her simple white underwear.
Alex doesn’t deserve to die simply because she shares a weekend romp with Beth’s husband, Dan (Michael Douglas), an attorney, or because she refuses to tiptoe away afterward and let him return to Beth with a secret smile – though that’s bad enough. (Close’s line, “I won’t be ignored, Dan,” instantly entered the canon. It shows up in the new series, too.) She deserves death because she actively sets out to ruin his domestic life. She pours acid on his family sedan, pukes at the sight of his Christmas-card coziness, kills his furry pet, threatens the safety of his daughter and finally breaks into his home to murder his wife. Dan shames her – “You’re so sad,” he says – and tries to put her down, but in the end it’s Married Mom who deals Homewrecker the fatal blow.
Damage’s sensibilities were more art house than blockbuster. Stephen (Irons) is a doctor-turned-politician whose son Martyn (Rupert Graves) is about to marry Anna (Binoche). But the moment Anna and Stephen’s eyes lock and hold, they are doomed. Binoche plays her carnality as a willful blankness; Irons is tortured and helpless. An innocent person dies, and the guilty are sentenced to go on living. But still, we are led to believe that the affair and its tragic aftermath are more Anna’s fault than Stephen’s: “Damaged people are dangerous,” she warns him. “They know they can survive.”
Both new series try to update the films by incorporating modern psychology, and in Obsession, mixed-race casting. In that series, we learn that Anna (Charlie Murphy) – who does something on a computer at an office when she’s not shagging brilliant married surgeon William (Richard Armitage) – was abused by her brother, who eventually killed himself; their mother knew and did nothing.
And Fatal Attraction’s new Alex (Lizzy Caplan) – a paralegal who works for victim services in Los Angeles, where she has a fling with hotshot DA Dan (Joshua Jackson) – is herself a victim of childhood neglect, abuse and trauma. She probably has narcissistic personality disorder; she certainly self-harms. Paramount+ describes the series as “a deep dive reimagining … through the lens of privilege, personality disorders, family dynamics and murder.” Dan even has a daughter (Alyssa Jirrels) who’s studying the Jungian concept of the medial woman, “who draws men into chaotic turmoil … who becomes the carrier of evil.”
Supporting characters in both series yammer about the overwhelming number of crimes against women, and how privileged white dudes think they can do whatever they want and get away with it, and how people who are struggling with their mental health should not be described as evil. But injecting 2023 talking points doesn’t fix the problem inherent in both shows, which is that they remain utterly devoted to and dependent on the trope of the femme fatale, the black widow who binds her victims and renders them helpless, the praying mantis who bites off her mates’ heads when she’s through with them.
Obsession’s Anna is still a blank that William projects his fantasies onto; her claim that her passivity and withholding are her choice doesn’t change that. (In one risible retro moment, William smiles in bliss because he orders Anna to get him wine … and she does.) For all of Damage’s flaws, Binoche and Irons brought gravity to it; you knew their affair was painful for them both. Obsession’s Murphy and Armitage just can’t pull that off, and end up looking ridiculous. The night they meet, Armitage feeds Murphy an olive as she stares at him with blank shark eyes; she takes it into her mouth so “seductively” I was waiting for her to tie a knot in it with her tongue.
Meanwhile, on Fatal Attraction, Alex’s mercurial, unsettling nature is still played as scary rather than sad. In Episode 1, the minxy way she winks at Dan gives us a chill, and in Episode 8, a horror-movie chord prangs on the soundtrack when her unconscious eyes pop open. Though one empathic character laments that Alex “knows she’s not okay,” whole episodes invite us to shudder as she plots to run into Dan in the elevator, plots to set off the sprinklers in a bar, plots to burn down a house with Dan’s wife, Beth, in it. (All hail the great Amanda Peet as Beth, injecting so much humanity that she almost defeats the nonsense.) Close’s Alex kills a rabbit. Caplan’s Alex kills a person. It’s hard not to see her as a villain after that.
For all their attempts at contemporary relevance, these series feel much more retro than zeitgeisty; they don’t seem to have figured out what in our current moment they’re reacting to or fighting against. It’s not a modern update if the “fun” in both still comes from watching a woman be delusional and dangerous.
But brace yourselves, because the crazy-lady retreads aren’t over: Amazon recently announced that it’s doing a series update of the 1999 film Cruel Intentions, aka Dangerous Liaisons in prep school, in which Sarah Michelle Gellar dares Ryan Phillippe to seduce Reese Witherspoon. In the new series, malevolent step-siblings at an elite Washington university team up to seduce the daughter of the U.S. vice-president. Shooting begins in Toronto in June. Casting hasn’t been announced, but I guarantee the stepsister will have a wicked smile.
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