France-based director Anne Fontaine has a knack for turning lurid-sounding material into cozy, middlebrow melodrama. Despite its title, 2001’s How I Killed My Father dealt with violence of a strictly metaphorical variety. And 2003’s Nathalie… was the blandest movie imaginable about a woman who hires a prostitute to tempt her husband. Now comes Adore, called Two Mothers at Sundance (and still onscreen, in the version shown to critics), which is centered on best friends (Naomi Watts and Robin Wright) who sleep with each other’s sons. How They Screwed Their Mothers? Settle down. As in those other cases, the setup promises more intrigue than the film ultimately delivers.
Set in the country that provided the Murdoch tabloid, Adore opens with a prologue of the two protagonists as girls. Having grown up together, the women are exceptionally close, a condition fostered by the isolation of their Australian coastal town. Watts is widowed; Wright’s husband (Ben Mendelsohn) has accepted a job as a drama lecturer in faraway Sydney. The absence of a father figure apparently takes its toll, and the needier of the women’s well-toned 19-year-olds (Xavier Samuel) attempts to seduce his “second mum” (Wright). Catching them in flagrante delicto, Wright’s son (James Frecheville) goes over to Watts’ house to make his intentions plain.
No one much regrets these consummations—and in dialogue that does not find renowned screenwriter Christopher Hampton exerting himself (“How are you feeling?” “Good.” “Yeah, me too.”), the matriarchs soon commit to the arrangement. Mothers and sons begin to live their lives as couples, only occasionally betraying hints of guilt, shame, doubt, or anything else that might suggest a credible response to this not-quite-incestuous setup. Adore follows the pairs over the course of several years, as they begin to throw caution to the wind regarding their secret. With the passing of time, disruptions from the outside world—including younger rivals—become inevitable.
The selection of genders is presumably supposed to make this premise palatable; doubling down on its hypocrisy, Adore casts attractive stars across the board, more concerned with augmenting steaminess than making sure these characters convince as living, thinking human beings. Especially in the first half, the males show less evidence of inner life than their surfboards, and even such normally subtle actresses as Watts and Wright seem baffled by their roles. Clearly, it’s unfair to take the film—adapted from Doris Lessing’s 2003 novella The Grandmothers—on anything like a literal level, yet neither does it satisfy as an allegory on aging, insularity, friendship, or the mother-child bond. “Why not let these people be happy together?” is likely to be the overall takeaway. Given the would-be psychodrama roiling beneath the gauzy surfaces and seaside vistas, it’s hard not to pine for something more.