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Commentary : 'Fatal Attraction'--the Mad Woman's Case

October 04, 1987|NANCY WEBBER and LOWELL ALEXANDER | Webber is an artist/photographer and teaches art and a course in film appreciation at Los Angeles Harbor College. Alexander is a poet/art therapist and a psychiatric nurse at UCLA's Crisis Unit

It's easy to be hooked by the values we've been given in neat packages. Americans are raised to believe in the sanctity of the family. We tend to see things with clear boundaries of good and bad, sane and mad. We don't like our morality questioned or questionable.

So what happens when we are confronted with an attractive, complicated femme fatale like Alex, the one played by Glenn Close in "Fatal Attraction"? What do we think of this kind of woman who challenges all those rules of sexual game playing? Is she crazy, or are the games crazy?

The first tendency for most people, probably, is to accept her craziness and to want to wring her neck. And even that may be too tame for some.

We, however, believe that there is a case to be made for Alex.

Alex is not a vamp of the "detached sex" type as classically portrayed by Marlene Dietrich as Lola-Lola in "Blue Angel." After the seduction scene in the restaurant, she and Dan (Michael Douglas) agree that they will discreetly commit the "crime," which he tells her, however, will be up to her, abdicating his responsibility at the outset. He is married and has a child, after all.

But the involvement becomes more than sexual. Before their weekend is over she tells him directly: "So what are you doing here? I had a wonderful time . . . I'd like to see you again . . . I want to know where I stand." And later: "If you were so damned complete, why were you with me?"

Dan and Alex also share some hurt and tender memories from their individual pasts. While playing ball in the park, Alex comes to Dan's rescue when he jokingly falls down feigning death, triggering memories of the death of her father when she was 7, but which she then denies to fool him.

While listening to the tragic "Madame Butterfly," Dan reveals to her that the first experience of seeing it with his father was one of the only times his father was ever kind to him, comforting his terror as he climbed under the seat when Butterfly was about to kill herself. This later nearly becomes a reality as life imitates art when Alex slits her wrists. Even though Dan shows kindness, caring for her in the emergency, his subsequent ignoring of her seems a metaphor of his behavior as a boy--in his recoiling from Alex as he did from the horror of Butterfly's suicide.

If their encounter had been no more than sexual, the behavior Alex exhibits would be truly crazy. However, the two had an intense weekend relationship and a mutual connection until he broke it off: In that context, the behavior of Alex is "mad" only due to its extremity--an extremity fueled by betrayal and abandonment. If she is not justified, she is at least understandable. But what is justifiable or understandable about a man's double betrayal--in this case of his marriage and of his intimacy with Alex. What makes that sane?

Being shut out ignites Alex' obsession and she intensifies her pursuit of Dan. He becomes increasingly annoyed with her calls, and when they go from his law office to home at 2:13 a.m., disturbing his wife Beth (Anne Archer), he agrees to meet her.

He: "You knew the rules."

She: "What rules?"

He: "This has got to stop."

She: "You've had your fun, now you want a quiet life."

He: "I pity you because you're sick."

She further tells him she loves him, that she's pregnant, that it's his child because she does not sleep around, will not have the abortion he expects, but she wants to nurture his child.

The intensity of her obsession is expressed in her "Play Me--Alex" tape to him: "You walk into my life, turn it upside down without a thought for anyone but yourself . . . this is what you have reduced me to. Part of you is growing inside me and you better start learning how to deal with it. . . . I feel, taste, touch, think you." These are not the sentiments of the usual cold, ruthless and materialistic femme fatale. Instead, it's the picture of a woman deeply in love.

The hysteria builds relentlessly as Beth angrily lashes out when Dan admits he has had an "affair" with Alex, who by this time is waging a full attack on his family. The chaos and roller-coaster collision course for them escalates until the "mad" woman, persistent as guilt, will not go away and is killed, not by Dan but by the good and nurturing wife.

A woman and her unborn child are sacrificed. Alex's compulsion does not negate the legitimacy of her claims or rights. For the sake of its unity, this happy little family justifies the murder of this woman who at first sought only respect and fair dealing.

Early in the film Alex is a professional, quite sane and reasonable. But the more she was ignored by Dan the more extreme became her behavior--an extremity driven by a deep longing and the integrity of her claim.

Finally, she is driven to madness. How else could she have expressed her passions? She became monstrous, deadly. She had to wound herself and him in order to get his attention.

In the end we are given a final image of the family framed together, bound in the hard borders of their expectations, their limited morality and their complacent life. We can all identify with this family. The daughter's question to her father, "Are you going to stay with us . . . forever?" is not only the child's hope, but the hope of us all. It's the desperate begging of a culture that negates all claims outside its narrow frame, and in so doing, murders the unborn child of our darkest longings.

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