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Earlier this year, Mike Pence, the Vice President of the United States, shared some stellar advice. He warned us that married men should not dine alone with women, aside from their own wives. The fact that Fatal Attraction has spawned an entire bunny-boiling genre since its release 30 years ago shows the timeless nature of Pence’s stance.
This film packages itself as a cautionary tale against engaging in casual sex with women – this is what happens when you trust them to know what they want! Sure, you might have one hell of a weekend but they’ll only try to ruin your life, sabotage your wedded bliss and destroy your sense of security. The turning point in Alex’ (Glenn Close) characterisation is fascinating, in our very first glimpse we see her as a professional, self-possessed woman scarcely noticing the interest of an unworthy married lawyer (not Douglas). We watch her exchange coy suggestions with Douglas’ character Dan Gallagher, a bland soon-to-be-suburbanite husband who is painstakingly pedastalled as a doting father and considerate partner and Alex seems cool, collected. But once they have sex, a flip switches. The Alex we came to know is gone, replaced with a clingy, desperate shell of a woman. At least, this is what’s happening on the surface.
Alex is the polar opposite of Dan’s wife Beth, the sweet, suburban caregiver we watch fawn over a man who really should be able to handle feeding himself for one weekend. There’s a slight suggestion she’s responsible for his adultery. Ladies, don’t leave your man alone! Meanwhile, from her name to her wild hair and make-up, Alex is masculine, predatory and frighteningly available. The film is at turns titillated and disgusted by her overt sexuality, probably clearest in that elevator scene where Alex is in her element in the grubby caged-in surroundings while Dan looks around in distressed awe. But there’s an underlying vulnerability to her character that takes Fatal Attraction from being a trashy thriller with questionable sexual politics and elevates it to the cult classic status it enjoys 30 years on. If we take her at her word, Alex is upset that Dan thinks he can just use her and walk back to his ‘normal’ life unscathed. Is she wrong to feel that way?
When Douglas’ character comes clean to his wife, it’s an act of domination against both his wife and Alex. Rather than facing the consequences of his poor decision-making, he wants to take away Alex’ power over him and disempowers Beth in the process. Alex is an extreme representation of a fight to hold onto her autonomy. Throughout the film, she openly says Dan can’t just discard her, he can’t just use her and then leave, she deserves more. When she reveals her pregnancy, he doesn’t skip a beat in assuming she’ll have an abortion and he also makes it clear he assumed she was on birth control. He takes no responsibility whatsoever, the scene in which he admits to the affair is laughably brief. He doesn’t even take a breath between revealing the fact that he slept with someone else and lamping all of the blame onto her.
Still, the film is so finely crafted that on first viewing it’s hard to spot the cracks. The deep-space scene, where we see Dan in silhouette walk away from his office – order, the known, the everyday – towards Alex in the torrential rain, holding an umbrella out and giving him no choice but to end up in her clutches, is simply masterful. The scene which intercuts Beth’s car crash with Alex and a kidnapped Ellen on a rollercoaster will linger in your minds’ eye for weeks on end. And for me, Glenn Close’s performance never quite manages to turn Alex into a caricature. She lends the character a certain softness that is endlessly watchable.
Fatal Attraction‘s most interesting and heartbreaking legacy is that it inspired a genre of monstrous women who are never as in control as they may appear. Alex loses the run of herself because a milquetoast lawyer looks at her twice and it costs her her life, and her dignity. Just a few short years later, Michael Douglas starred alongside Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct, where life grimly imitated art – the director included that infamous uncrossing legs scene against her knowledge and without her prior consent. It’s disturbing how these films frame these women as 100% to blame for all of their monstrosity. Even Norman Bates got to fall back on his mommy issues. Maybe in 2017, it’s finally time to admit that if we can’t eat alone with women, it may not be down to them.