Sam Brooks reviews the latest Netflix movie of the week: the mildly erotic sex thriller Fatal Affair.
It has to be said that most rip-offs of Fatal Attraction usually have the sense of mind to change both words in that title. We’re all familiar with the plot of Fatal Attraction, even if we’ve never seen the original film (although you really should. It doesn’t quite reach the bar of “good”, but it more than clears the bar of “fun after two drinks”).
Basically: a person has an affair with a mentally unstable person (often undiagnosed), mentally unstable person falls in love/develops obsession with the person who had an affair and goes about ruining that person’s life, mentally unstable person ends up dead either because of the person who had an affair or they fall on a knife or something.
Fatal Affair is not just fully in the Fatal Attraction wheelhouse, it’s basically living rent-free in a wing of that particular lurid mansion. Ellie (Nia Long) is a high-powered lawyer, and we know this because her first lines are her tutting about her opposing council, and she’s romantically frustrated with her husband Marcus (Stephen Bishop), who was in an accident a few years ago. She runs into an old friend David (a terrifically unsubtle Omar Epps), they go on a date, and almost do something that counts as cheating, but she turns him down. But, uh oh, it turns out that he’s obsessed, and his obsession turns into, well, a fatal affair. The title is quite literal.
Nia Long is great as Ellie, or as great as playing the noble hero a sex thriller allows her to be. She looks appropriately conflicted in the first act of the film and sits fully into Ellie’s predicament as someone being hounded by a man she barely remembers from college. The one thing Long has to do is be watchable and make Ellie believable, and she sails past both of these goalposts handily. This film should be a reminder to producers to give this woman a movie. Or, you know, a better movie.
It turns out that the closest relative this film has is not Fatal Attraction, but another, sadly forgotten, affair-turned-murder camp classic: Obsessed. Despite featuring perennially most-famous-woman-in-the-world Beyonce, that film seems to have fallen from people’s minds. That might be because it’s riotously boring until the final fight scene, also directly ripped from Fatal Attraction. Whereas that film turned itself – perhaps unwittingly – into a film about a white woman ruining the lives of a happy Black family, Fatal Affair limits itself to little glances towards commentary here and there.
An especially clever moment is the opening, in which a woman who looks suspiciously like Nia Long is wandering through her house to try and find her lover. She, obviously, does not end up finding him, and we cut immediately to Ellie. It’s a disorienting choice that’s meant to mess with the (presumably white) viewer a bit – what the hell just happened? Who was that? Who are we watching now? The film revisits this later when Ellie uses her vague resemblance to her friend to sneak into David’s house. These are cool little moments that show that writers Rasheeda Garner and Peter Sullivan (who also directs) know how to twist the formula when it needs twisting. Unfortunately, the film is mostly content to play around in the trash, right up to the point where it ratchets up the body count for no particular reason, and it turns an engaging but silly film into a lurid and stupid one.
The appeal of these films is that they should be more fun to watch than traumatising. It’s telling that the original ending of Fatal Attraction was not the bathroom curtain shock ending, but Alex Winters (spoiler alert for a film that you’ve seen, even if you haven’t seen it) committing suicide and blaming it on Michael Douglas’ Dan Gallagher. You can see why audiences went for the former: it demonised Alex, the enemy of the American Family™, and gave us a villain to hate. That’s why audiences absolutely loved it. Fatal Attraction was nominated for Best Picture, you guys.
The problem with Fatal Affair, at its core, is that it doesn’t go far enough in any direction except towards the lowest common denominator. The joy of these films is that they allow us, as an audience, to watch people do bad things and get punished for them. That’s why Michael Douglas’ character in the progenitor is a genuine dick, someone who cheats on his wife because he can. It was fun to feel conflicted about him getting some sort of comeuppance; we rooted for him rooting, even while we wanted him to get punished for rooting. But at some point, probably the 90s, producers decided that we wanted our protagonists to be squeaky clean, especially in these sorts of films.
There’s little emotional complexity to Ellie beyond what Long injects into her; she never truly wants to have an affair, she’s merely frustrated in her relationship, and the movie leans as far away from allowing her to indulge her frustrations as it possibly can. She’s a goddamned saint, while David is a stone-cold villain. It makes the film shallow, dumb, and more than a little bit unsatisfying. The audience is robbed of emotional conflict so we know who to clap for and who not to clap for.
But hey, it’s a Netflix movie. There’ll be another one next week, and the week after that until cinemas start opening in America again. You could do worse, but you could also do a whole lot better.