Backlot Bitch: It's not Oscar Season, It's Affair Season

Kiera Knightly as Anna Karenina

So. Many. Oscar. Movies.

I'm almost drowning in the amount of movies left to see before the end of the year, which means I'm spending an awful lot of my time either at my computer or at the movie theater. But honestly, not much more different than any other week. But I was in the lobby of one of the smaller theaters in the area when I realized a common theme in several of movies playing. Three of these movies' plots center on affairs, which I guess feeds into some sort of tabloid-driven fascination with these things (Are we still talking about the Petraeus affair, US Weekly?).

It could be a coincidence of timing—but more likely, the release of seasonal Oscar-bait films has much to do with Hollywood's understanding that audiences love the sordid drama that follows extramarital affairs.

First up is the Danish entry for the Oscars, A Royal Affair. It's right there in the title! The story is told from the perspective of Queen Caroline of Denmark, as she struggles with her resentment of her loveless marriage to the mentally ill King Christian VII. The king prefers the company of prostitutes to that of his wife, and it's not long before she becomes enamored with Johann Struensee, the royal physician and a covert convert of the Enlightenment. The story's drama hinges on Queen Caroline's concealment of the affair and its subsequent love child from the unbalanced king, while the physician rules the kingdom as regent. A Royal Affair is based on the true story behind Denmark's revolution. And while the audience is meant to be on the side of the queen, it is ultimately her affair (as opposed to the dozens conducted by her husband) that unravels the kingdom.

The king's actions are permitted because, well, he's the king. Ultimately, Queen Caroline and her are severely punished, in line with the era's mentality—and, one could argue, a continuing double standard in the realm of hanky-panky.

The next contender is pretty well-trod literary turf—a new cinematic adaptation of the Tolstoy novel Anna Karenina. The titular Anna starts her journey trying to repair her brother's broken marriage, and is essentially stalked and wooed by a creeper known as Count Vronsky. Her husband, Alexei Karenin, gets much credit for loyalty, an ever-suffering husband who never abandons his cheating wife. Until, you know, she asks to run away with her lover. Then he's the perfect picture of a vengeful ex, stripping Anna of the right to see her son. Ouch.

As the melodrama plays out, we get the sense that Anna's brother is essentially getting away with the same thing she's being punished for (adultery) by a society that's more than ready to slut-shame—again, a mentality that apparently hasn't changed much, judging by some of the mean-spirited headlines about Paula Broadwell. Anna protests too much about her lover, and she is subsequently punished further in a karmic sort of way. Protracted and switching its setting between a stage and outdoors, the movie makes Anna's lust for love more of a cartoonish pursuit. I couldn't take her conundrum seriously, but given that this is the 12th adaptation of the book, we can assume director Joe Wright was trying to put a fresh twist on a centuries-old narrative.

And then there's Hitchcock, our next case of cheating cheaters and their tortured spouses. It's difficult to gauge how true this quasi-biopic stays to Alfred Hitchcock's life, since multiple gimmicks threaten to steal the picture. At various points in the movie, Ed Gein, the serial killer who served as inspiration for the central character in Psycho, appears to Hitchcock as a therapist. However, the acceptance of the scandalous plot of Psycho is only half the battle. The other bitter drama in the auteur's life is that his wife might be cheating on him. Alma Reville was one of Hitchcock's bosses in the early days before becoming his closest collaborator and wife. But when he becomes suspicious of her collaboration with another screenwriter during the filming of Psycho he becomes apoplectic, making himself sick and falling behind schedule. Which would be some sort of justified moral outrage, except that the filmmakers (with a degree of historical accuracy) portray Hitchcock as a creepy peeping Tom, hoarding pictures of his former leading ladies while moaning about being left by all of them. (A picture to which HBO's recent biopic The Girl added even more creepy depth and shading.)

Are Anthony Hopkins's puppy-dog eyes supposed to get us on his side while Alma is railing against being watched and questioned? Yeah, I didn't buy it either. But for the sake of movie history, Alma and Alfred stuck it out and continued working together. The movie ends with one of those soft-focused saccharine scenes that leave you with a proverbial stomachache when her affair is depicted as being all in Hitchcock's head. It was just a big misunderstanding. You know, the ones that can come from spying on people.

Movies have clearly moved away from the rigid Production Code that censored any sort of adulterous affairs. And for once, there are more options than the limited spectrum of fallen ladies or femmes-fatale stories. Much more sympathy is shown to Queen Caroline and Alma in their stories than to filmic female adulterers of the past. Women still bear the brunt of punishment for infidelity, but that should come as no surprise, since all of these movies take place in not-so-modern eras. But what does Hollywood's love affair with affairs tell us, ultiimately? Is it something in our collective psyche that searches for escapism?

by Monica Castillo
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Monica Castillo is a freelance film critic. You can usually find her on Twitter talking about the movie she just watched at @mcastimovies.

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2 Comments Have Been Posted

But are these films

But are these films necessarily sexist I the portrayals of women's affairs, or are they trying to depict a realistic depiction of how society holds a double standard for women who enter into affairs?

A Royal Affair

Thanks for the article. I just watched "A Royal Affair" last night, and I had been wondering what others thought of it. I hadn't thought of the movie in the context of a Hollywood fascination with the extra-marital affairs of women before, why we're fascinated with those, why the "commonplace" affairs of the men featured bore us on screen in these movies, etc. So thanks for that. I would like to add, though, that I liked this movie a lot. The reason that I liked it was because the protagonists fell in love because of their ideas. The physician, Johann Struensee, very clearly falls in love with Queen Caroline because she is intellectually inspired and exciting to talk to. This is a rare plot these days, let alone during the 18th century. The only other movie about a couple like this that I've seen recently and comes to mind immediately (and I'm not a film buff), is REDS with Dianne Keaton, a lovely depiction of revolutionary minds coming together. It's nice that someone saw fit to make a movie about a man infatuated with intelligence. It happened then, it happens now, and crazy as it may seem it's actually the primary reason lots of women and men get fallen in love with at all.

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