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► Deep Water will be available to stream on Amazon Prime Video from March 18. 

The vacant smile that Ben Affleck’s Nick Dunne flashes in Gone Girl (2014) – incriminating him in the eyes of the public for, if not murdering his wife, at least exhibiting a kind of sociopathic indifference – is wielded to thrillingly ambiguous effect in Adrian Lyne’s Deep Water, another lurid tale of sex, murder, and domestic strife.

Adapted from the 1957 Patricia Highsmith novel, a great favourite of Gone Girl writer Gillian Flynn, Deep Water sees Affleck as a stony-faced cuckold, peering through fogged-up windows and down vertiginous staircases at the blatant infidelities of his siren wife, played with alluring frenzy by Ana de Armas.

These ingredients could have made for a more fashionably chill satire of marital dysfunction. Instead, Deep Water is a love story for sickos.

The novel must have been catnip for Lyne, the Fatal Attraction filmmaker seemingly retired since the release of Unfaithful (2002). Twenty years later, Lyne, perpetually fascinated by adultery as a trigger for exposing deviant, often violent sexual pathologies, remains committed to the bit. The result – a potentially alienating one for audiences expecting crisp motivations – is an enthrallingly murky view of desire.

Living in the affluent suburbs of New Orleans, Vic (Affleck) and Melinda (de Armas) sleep in separate bedrooms and appear to be on the brink of separation. A tempestuous, Zelda Fitzgerald-type tethered to a champagne glass, Melinda finds motherhood a burden, tormented as she is by her daughter Trixie’s obsession with “Old MacDonald Had a Farm” and happily ceding childrearing duties to Vic and the babysitter.

At one of their social circle’s ritzy parties, Melinda parades around with a new “friend” – Joel, a surfer-blonde himbo – drawing exasperation from Vic’s pals, who view him as an all-around good guy hopelessly devoted to his floozy-of-a-wife. Indeed, he plays it cool.

That is, until Joel approaches Vic to kiss the ring, as it were, and express gratitude for his open-mindedness. With an impregnable poker-face, Vic claims to have killed Melinda’s former lover. It may or may not be a sick joke.

Vic eyes his next victim in Deep Water (2022)
Vic eyes his next victim in Deep Water (2022)
© Courtesy of Amazon Prime Video

A man of leisure, Vic dedicates his excessive spare time to vanilla hobbies, running a small publishing firm, taking long bike rides, and tending to a snail farm. The banality of these activities clashes with his increasingly apparent sinister side. In conversation with an acquaintance, Lionel (Tracy Letts), Vic reveals his wealth derives from having invented a microchip used by combat drones.

Vic is calculating to a disturbingly precise degree. He toys with Melinda’s boyfriends, gleefully inviting Joel – and later, Tony (Finn Wittrock) – to family dinners, alternating between menace and magnanimous nonchalance. Each time Vic takes command of the situation, Melinda strikes back: she openly canoodles with her new beau, and on one occasion, sends Vic away to read bedtime stories to Trixie, asking him to go extra slow.

Melinda’s men are pawns in the couple’s game of one-upmanship, which pits Melinda’s beguiling powers of seduction against Vic’s amoral cunning. The battle escalates when Vic – like Alain Delon in La Piscine before him – drowns one of his competitors at a mist-shrouded pool party, opening a new realm of erotic possibilities, not least of all because Melinda is convinced of Vic’s guilt.

The game is as intoxicating as it is appalling. In contrast to David Fincher’s mordant marriage story, Deep Water throbs with light, texture, and watery symbolism: pearls of moisture clinging to surfaces; thrashing rivers; the camera fixed on Melinda in the passenger seat of a vehicle, flickering between darkness and velvety-smooth images of her writhing body.

Is Melinda a projection of male fantasy? Forcefully sexual, and often captured by ethereally stylised means, she would seem to fit the femme fatale bill. But Affleck’s Vic – his gaze straddling blank insouciance and expertly suppressed rage with hairline cracks of perversity – could be as much a fantasy figure (albeit a creepily placid, serial-killer-esque one) were the film not fixed on his voyeuristic point-of-view.

Vic’s churning desires are activated by jealousy and a man as complex as him, Melinda observes, is easily bored. And who better than de Armas – her deceptively innocent eyes glimmer with hunger – to make alluring an otherwise nightmarish domestic arrangement?

Melinda twice takes the proverbial stage, leading a drunken singalong and twirling before an audience to her lover’s piano tunes. A jittery handheld camera captures the raucous in close-up, but her face and tousled hair is backlit with near-heavenly verve; she locks eyes with Vic, and he smiles. She is performing for him.

Highsmith’s novel concludes with a conventional kind of justice, but Lyne’s rendition allows the couple an unhinged, deliciously degenerate final turn. No mere battle of the sexes, theirs is a lethal and smoldering complicity.

Sight and Sound June 2022

In this issue, we join Mia Hansen-Løve on Bergman Island. Also, we speak to David Lynch and more on the digital revolution, take a trip to the movies with Joachim Trier, and hear from Terence Davies and John Waters.

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