Turning 35 this year and soon to be remade by Paramount+, Fatal Attraction was a genuine cultural sensation at the time of release. Its tale of a one-night stand gone bad touched a nerve with audiences and spawned phrases that entered the vernacular. A genuine snapshot of the attitudes of the late ‘80s, Fatal Attraction scratched at the deep-seated fears of the upwardly mobile folks of the time with its heated mix of erotic thriller and slasher movie.
In Fatal Attraction, lawyer Dan Gallagher (Michael Douglas) has a sexual liaison with editor Alex Forrest (Glenn Close) while his wife, Beth (Anne Archer), is out of town for the weekend. After a suicide attempt, Alex begins to stalk Dan and demands that their relationship continues.
From the outset, director Adrian Lyne sets up Dan and Beth’s life as a middle-class idyll. They live in Manhattan, drive a Volvo, and have great jobs – or Dan does, at least. Beth doesn’t appear to have a job outside the home, although a brief scene with her parents suggests that she’s from a more moneyed background than her husband. They have a young daughter and a Labrador. They’re on the verge of moving to the countryside and Dan is clearly an up-and-comer at work. What could possibly go wrong?Pressures and
For all its surface sheen, the film hints that all is not well in paradise. Dan and Beth attend a swanky workplace party – an oh-so-80s book launch for an Art of War-style business manual with sushi on the menu. However, it’s shot as a claustrophobic scrum, full of over-dressed types pressing in on one another. Dan and Beth’s chances of intimacy are repeatedly thwarted by the demands of their kid and friends. The perfect house in the countryside is clearly a little too close to Beth’s parents and too far away from Manhattan for Dan’s liking. When he sees off Beth and his daughter for the weekend – awkwardly pushing the kid’s bike in a subtly emasculating image – there’s an expression of relief on his face as they drive away.
At first glance, Fatal Attraction is the story of an impulsive one-night stand (albeit one that lasts a weekend). In the early stages, the film portrays Dan as a hapless “nice guy,” not least when Alex rescues him in the rain when he can’t get his umbrella up (another sly piece of imagery). However, there are suggestions this isn’t his first fling. When Alex asks him whether he can be discreet, he answers that he can, without much hesitation. During their tryst, there’s no suggestion he feels guilt at cheating on his wife, only concern over Alex’s encroachment on his life. “You know the rules,” he tells her when she demands he stays longer. Just before his eventual confession, when Dan mentions that Alex was a woman at the book launch, Beth says knowingly, “the one with the blonde hair.” Perhaps Alex isn’t the first interloper in their relationship, only the most troublesome.
These details are interesting because, in the popular imagination, Fatal Attraction is remembered as an erotic thriller and a tale of a single mistake that has terrible consequences. Director Lyne was known for the sweaty Flashdance and the softcore 9½ Weeks, although the sex scenes in Fatal Attraction are more comic than erotic. The first encounter starts off on the kitchen sink (complete with dishwater being splashed all around), before Dan waddles across Alex’s lounge with his pants around his ankles. A sex scene on the way to Alex’s trendy loft apartment is also played for laughs when she stops the lift, leaving Dan awkwardly exposed as a neighbor walks past. Perhaps these scenes of sex on the kitchen counter and in public spaces suggested a kind of illicit thrill at the time, although they seem more ridiculous than exciting.
Which leaves the cautionary element of Fatal Attraction. The name of the film itself entered popular usage to suggest a situation of uncontrollable lust or one where someone (usually a man) is maliciously pursued by a sexual partner. The demeaning term “bunny boiler” arose from the scene where Alex chops up the family rabbit and leaves it simmering in a pot for Beth to discover in the new house. The blame for all the chaos and the attack on the family unit is put squarely on her, a female outsider who clearly doesn’t fit into the comfortable middle-class plan. Alex drives the sexual encounters with Dan and listens to opera (‘80s cinema shorthand for someone with dangerous appetites). Despite its touted thrills, there’s something resolutely conservative in the film’s attitude to sex and extra-marital liaisons. A French offering, such as Bertrand Blier’s 1989 film Trop Belle Pour Toi, might present an affair as a complex, perhaps liberating event. In a typically American take, Fatal Attraction ends in murder.