The Addictive Trashiness of Adore (2013)

illustration by Laura Tinald

In the mainstream canon of schoolyard insults, “I fucked your mom last night” is Franzenian—revered enough to remain ubiquitous at all the places you tried and failed to find a husband in college but growing increasingly more tired in the face of zoomers who’ve probably actually fucked your mom. But in 2013, when today’s oldest zoomers were just peeking around the corner of adulthood, Anne Fontaine’s film Adore bravely posed a hyper-feminist alternative to the fraternity’s favorite staple crop. What if my mommy fucked you?

And so is the premise of a largely forgotten “romance” starring Robin Wright and Naomi Watts as pointedly not-lesbian-BFFs who clear their schedules to pencil in dick appointments with each other’s probably 18-year-old sons. Set predominantly in a gorgeous, unnamed beach-side pocket of Australia—one mysteriously devoid of man-eating insects and microscopic serial killing octopuses—Wright and Watts spend two hours drinking an ungodly amount of pinot grigio while staring wistfully out at the ocean. But lest you think this is all Adore has to offer, Wright and Watts also weep over failed marriages and dead husbands while lusting over hunky reserves of son-flesh, keeping you, the viewer, in a perpetually open-mouthed state of “naurrrrrr” as they continue mommy-domming each other’s Abercrombie DNA. This is because Adore is not simply a film—it is a weapon best deployed against sexually uptight friends and party guests, Catholic mothers who knit after dinner with the TV on, and stone-faced fathers who alternate between their e-mail inbox and whatever is playing on the screen during mandatory “family time.” Allegedly based on the short story “The Grandmothers,” by Doris Lessing, Adore is what happens when an AI forced to screen-write develops a libido but lacks the necessary verbiage to articulate the desires that come with it. 

In my personal canon of films used to scope out how far a new friend is willing to indulge my rotted taste, Adore sits comfortably in the top five for a number of reasons. For starters, it’s an exquisitely framed trap card. Like a trans woman (me) who tells you she’s trans but you aren’t listening because you’re distracted by her perfect beauty, Adore is a film that sells you on its prestige aesthetics, only to cause you an existential crisis later on down the road when you discover, shockingly, that you were unprepared to reckon with what was in front of you this whole time. And to be clear, that’s a you problem. The crystal-blue water of Adore’s travelogue surface is a red herring. The elegant sounding title card “Directed by Anne Fontaine,” director of Oscar-nominated costume fare like Coco Before Chanel, is a red herring. The participation of otherwise great actresses Robin Wright and Naomi Watts? Call that the real red scare. But by the time you realize you’ve inadvertently committed to a lesson in girlboss camp, it’s too late. You are already complicit watching Robin Wright gyrate against the dude from the third Twilight movie.

Why do we like the things we like? Or more specifically, why do we like fucking garbage? David Hume’s 1757 essay “Of the Standard of Taste,” in which he argues that art can only be labeled “good” once it has been compared to other works and subsequently championed by the enlightened (ie: men), failed to account for the pleasure of watching Naomi Watts stare out at her ripped spawn frolicking in the ocean and remark, with a straight face, that he’s “a young god.” And yes, like watching a friend laugh too hard at a man’s joke that wasn’t funny in the hopes of getting railed later on in the night, I admit I am drawn to the spectacle of the trainwreck because I like to feel superior, but also because I know, deep down, that I too am guilty of wreckage. Ultimately, Watts isn’t wrong: Her son, played by former vampire Xavier Samuel, is hot in a visceral kind of way. The kind of hot that makes you angry you exist in the same timeline. Sporting swim trunks with a suspect dip across the pelvic bone—revealing both his defined pelvic gutters and the beginning stages of a metrosexual renaissance—Samuel, who plays a son with a name that is, like all things in this movie aside from sex, unimportant, snarls and grinds his way through two hours of Freudian roleplay. As a viewer, am I expected not to ogle alongside his mother’s friend as the camera pans up and down his taut frame with the giddiness of a teen girl watching gay porn for the first time? Does the film truly want me to feel disgusted by forcing me into the position of voyeur? I think not. The pleasure of watching Adore comes from the same source that breeds my disgust for it. In the exchange between the image shown and the image seen, I, alongside Watts, become “mommy.”  

But circling back to the central question: what compels me to mark my allegiance to the gutters of media, of films in desperate need of ideas, plot, and characters that feel remotely human? Renata Adler, the cis-woman’s Andrea Long Chu, would call me an “angry trash claimer,” one of many who “claim some movie they have enjoyed is utter trash, and then become fiercely possessive about it.” Adler would want to know why I cling to Adore like Gollum in his man-cave, stroking the DVD case and muttering “my precious” to the surrounding walls. It’s a fair question. Of all the films to love and cherish in the world, why go for the film about not-quite-incest except to proclaim to everyone that you might be mentally ill? The easy answer is that it’s fun to pop in a film you know will elicit a certain reaction in the uninitiated. The laborious answer is that there’s nothing else as shamelessly horny in cinemas today. One need not re-hash the contemporary discourse surrounding whether or not movies need sex. However, I’d argue that without sex, Adore would be a slog. Two hours of merciless edging. And this isn’t to say that all of Adore’s sex scenes are entirely crucial—some feature such poor lighting it’s like watching a sleep paralysis demon drop it low in the dead of night. Wright and Samuel are the more convincing duo, with chemistry that is palpable, hungry. Watts and James Frecheville, who plays Wright’s son, attempt the same spark, but the eroticism they exude is flat, dare I say flaccid, about as sexy as a Courtney Stodden 9/11 tweet. But their struggle to convince the viewer that they are irresistibly attracted to one another doesn’t drag the film down as one might suspect—instead, the limpness of their love elevates it. In classic gatekeep, gaslight, girlboss fashion, their scenes together make you wonder if you’ve missed something key, something that must be dug out from the pristine cinematography to make sense of the pairing. At the Sundance premiere of the film, director Fontaine was surprised to hear laughter emit from the audience during what she assumed would be the emotional high points of the film. But Adore’s emotional register must have been jarring for an audience expecting something more controlled and unsentimental like Coco Before Chanel. During the post-film Q&A for Adore, she said: “I thought it was [received as] a comedy, more or less. I don’t know what it means exactly.” What it means is that something was lost in translation, a vital organ pulled from the celluloid corpse, a crucial circuitry gone awry. And the film, in my humble opinion, is better for what was left out. The Adore we got is equal parts boring, salacious, over-the-top, nonsensical, wondrous, expensive, and cheap, like a Madame Tussaud statue in motion. 

For example, the opening shots luxuriate over the beach’s idyllic qualities, including sand so white it appears like snow and water so translucent you could take a selfie in it. The picturesque nature of the images are so carefully crafted you half-expect a Chanel logo to appear in the center of the screen. From the jump, money seems to ooze from the film’s every pore. But later on, during a party-scene, we hear not the underrated Kylie Minogue bop “2 Hearts” off her 2007 album X, but a deflated cover of it, despite the film being set in Minogue’s homeland of Australia. One wonders if Minogue simply said no to the prospect of a throwaway in her discography being the most high-quality feature in a film starring two screen icons, or if she just missed the email. Regardless, it’s a distracting detail, almost as distracting as the film’s continued insistence that the mothers Wright and Watts play are heterosexual women. Their game of gay chicken is absurd, constantly referenced but never acted upon. They don’t kiss, leaving us to imagine what the film could’ve been if they ditched their sons and got freaky with each other. And the sons, who at some point go off to experience adulthood away from mommy dearest, have to convince their new, age-synonymous partners that they aren’t gay before bedtime rolls around. Despite the utter commitment to tragic heterosexuality, the film reads like an elaborate game of gay chess where every piece is a queen. It’s classic schoolyard logic—the more that you, as a straight person, talk about gay shit, the more suspect you seem on the subject of straightness. Just kiss already. 

It’s no spoiler to tell you the obvious: the sons eventually crawl back into the arms of their mothers. The final shot of the four of them tanning on a wooden raft in the ocean is the perfect punctuation mark in a perfect film about stasis. No one learns a lesson. No one grows old and shifts perspective. We end where we began, in an accidentally utopic farce, wondering how our mothers viewed us as we grew older. Wondering if wondering about our mothers viewing us in any way other than platonically maternal is a sign that we—the angry trash claimers—need to go out and get better hobbies.