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film review

Deep Water stars Ben Affleck, right, and Ana De Armas, as a married couple who play twisted mind games with each other.Claire Folger/Courtesy of 20th Century Studios / Amazon Prime Video

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Deep Water

Directed by Adrian Lyne

Written by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

Starring Ben Affleck, Ana de Armas and Tracy Letts

Classification R; 115 minutes

Streaming on Prime Video starting March 18.

There is a vast mystery at the centre of the new erotic thriller Deep Water, starring Ana de Armas as a woman who tortures her husband (Ben Affleck) with her flagrant infidelities. And that mystery is: Who in God’s name thought this was a good idea?

Let’s forget for a minute that the script, based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, is a mess. (It’s written by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, the latter of whom is currently in hot water among fans of his HBO series Euphoria for the way he puts his teenage characters in peril.) Neither spouse feels like a real human being; nothing either one does makes any sense, psychologically or practically.

Instead, let’s drill down to the central problem: Someone hired Adrian Lyne to direct this. Which means they must have known what they’d get – a movie so outdated in its view of women and relationships, and so outlandishly pervy and reductive, they should have called it Male Gaze.

Lyne turned 81 this month, and this old dog is sticking to his old tricks. Born in England, he began his career in commercials, where he learned how to burnish everything to an impossibly silky, glossy glow. He whipped up a stir with Flashdance (1983), the welder by day/club dancer by night fantasy that raked in more than $200-million worldwide. Then he unleashed a string of hits where women were either docile objects or vile harpies: 9½ Weeks, Fatal Attraction, Indecent Proposal, Lolita, Unfaithful.

His films had a formula: an obsession with sex that drove everything and ruined everyone; sex scenes shot with hand-held cameras, which made you feel like you were spying on the act, except that the only close-ups were on female body parts; and a moral reckoning at the end that undercut how modern and ambiguous everything was pretending to be. Yet, he did have a sense of the zeitgeist – in fact, when I interviewed him in 1993 for GQ, I called him the Zeitguy – and almost all his films were hits.

Neither spouse in Deep Water feels like a real human being; nothing either one does makes any sense, psychologically or practically.Courtesy of 20th Century Studios / Amazon Prime Video

Unfaithful came out in 2002; Lyne hasn’t directed since. Perhaps, like Rip Van Winkle, he has been asleep for the past 20 years, because he seems to have missed #MeToo and every other way in which the zeitgeist has evolved. It’s like Deep Water is throwing down a gauntlet: I bet, deep down, people are still like this and you’ll still enjoy this.

Nope.

In the novel Deep Water, which was published in 1957, the marriage of the central couple has gone cold, but they make a pact: She can have affairs, as long as they stay married. The film tosses that basic underpinning, and replaces it with, “She’s crazy! She drives him crazy! He hates it! But he loves it!”

Vic (Affleck) created a chip used in drone warfare, so he doesn’t have to work any more. He spends his days riding his mountain bike through the Connecticut woods, and his evenings peeping out windows or over staircases at his wife Melinda (de Armas) as she frolics by the pool or shimmies on the dance floor with a succession of human Ken dolls. Does anyone remember the jingle for Charlie perfume, “Kinda young, kinda now, kinda free, kinda wow”? Melinda is like that, but on meth. She’s the Manic Pixie Nightmare Wife: a tease, a mother (of the most neglected child in filmdom), a hypocrite.

Lord, the way Lyne shoots de Armas, who was so lovely in Knives Out and No Time to Die! Melinda owns a closet full of slinky black slip dresses, which she cannot seem to keep on. (Unless it’s one of her few “maternal” scenes, for which she wears girlie flowered frocks.) She can’t sit at a piano to sing – she must kneel on the bench, fetchingly. When she dances, she is obligated to press her bum into the crotch of every nearby man. The notes I took while watching are positively hilarious. “Will we find out she’s brain damaged?” “Is she a figment of his imagination?” “Wait is she dead and she’s a ghost?” My favourite: The moment after I wrote “I’m soooo tired of her,” she says to Vic, “You would be so bored with anyone but me.”

And Vic! Everyone in the film makes sad frowny faces at how abused he is, and we’re treated to close-ups of his knuckles whitening as he grips banisters, but he never says, “We have an open marriage.” He retreats to his moodily lit shed, where he keeps snails, which, it turns out, serve no metaphorical or plot purpose whatsoever. Oh, and Melinda’s lovers start to die and maybe Vic is the murderer.

I do see one bright future for this film: the Deep Water drinking game, where the Bingo squares read “Melinda’s dress falls off,” “Vic clenches his jaw,” and “Naked breast.” Everyone will end up very, very drunk.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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