Fatal Attraction is rather curious film. It’s one of those movies that has slyly dived into our societal memory bank, simultaneously ticking the boxes of cautionary tale and popular culture phenomenon. Not to mention the fact that Glenn Close single-handedly freaked an entire generation of men out of cheating on their wives. Part psychological thriller, part unrivalled sleaze-fest, Fatal Attraction remains as inherently watchable as it must have been 26 years ago.
Life really is fantastic for Dan Gallagher (Douglas), a New York attorney with a gorgeous wife and an adorable little girl. With the family gone for the weekend however, Dan indulges in a torrid affair with a colleague, the successful career woman Alex Forrest. As the weekend draws to a close, Dan wants to end it, Alex does not —fairly basic stuff. The greatness of Fatal Attraction lies, however, not in its surprising plot (for even the twists are admittedly obvious) but in the faultless execution of this conventional story.
The film starts off with a seductive foreboding, with Dan and Alex enjoying each other’s company, listening to Madame Butterfly no less. As the hopelessness of her situation dawns on Alex, she slits her wrists as a haunting farewell to her lover. This marks the beginning of Alex’s stalkerishly horrifying actions, each more desperate than the last, and each contributing to the thickening tension which spills over spectacularly in the film’s final moments. In particular, there are two instances which stand out as especially significant.
There is a scene at about the halfway mark in which the family are getting ready for a move to the country. (The suburbs are thought to be a good change for their daughter, though undeniably there must be other reasons behinds Gallagher’s decision.) Dan finds his wife discussing their apartment and the new house with a potential buyer —Miss Alex Forrest is sitting in his home drinking tea. Underscored with rumbling timpani, the audience feels a rush of fearful admiration for the ingenious Alex.
Perhaps the most suspenseful scene of all though is the one in which Alex kidnaps the little girl. Beth, the wife of Gallagher, drives frantically, searching for her daughter. This is mirrored through the erratic camera movements, flitting and zooming all over the place as if through the eyes of the distraught mother herself. All the while, this scene is juxtaposed with one of Alex who has taken Dan’s daughter to a carnival. The camera is fluid and easy, even still at times, which exaggerates the already unbearable tension. Suddenly, the positions are switched. Alex and the kid are on a coaster and the camera moves with a frightful irregularity just as Beth’s scene grinds to a sudden standstill. The little girl screams; we cut back to Beth, who has crashed her car.
There is also no doubt that a huge reason for the success of Fatal Attraction is its superb cast. In the role of Alex Forrest, Glenn Close epitomises the ex-girlfriend stalker character. By the end of the film, Close shapes up to become the ultimate bunny boiler (she did, after all, boil a bunny) who still somehow manages to generate a twinge of sympathy. Now that really is laudable. Douglas too, however smarmy he may have come across at the start, becomes an oddly sympathetic character. We see a flawed man, but a man who loves his family and is truly ashamed of what he has done.
For me though, it is Anne Archer’s Beth Gallagher that really shines. In what is perhaps the least obvious role, Archer creates an intimate portrait of a mother cruelly torn out of her untroubled existence. The episode in which Douglas finally reveals the affair to his wife is a truly heartbreaking one. Together, these characters creates a ring of unbreakable relatability, and may provide an insight into precisely why Fatal Attraction smashed at the box office.
Some feel the chosen ending of the moviesells out and goes all “Hollywood.” I guess the statement is true to an extent. (When audiences won’t stop screaming “Kill the crazy bitch!” what can you really do?) After viewing them both carefully, I think it’s fair to say that they both have their merits. The original carries on the ominous Butterfly theme and seems a tad more plausible, but that the second is clearly the slap-bang finale that we’ve all been hoping for. Moreover, I think there is also a satisfying reversal of the roles; the timid Beth ultimately shoots the woman who threatens to harm her family. Which one do you prefer?