starring Ben Affleck, Ana De Armas, Tracy Letts, Grace Jenkins
screenplay by Zach Helm and Sam Levinson, based upon the novel by Patricia Highsmith
directed by Adrian Lyne
by Walter Chaw Patricia Highsmith's closest analogue in film for me is David Cronenberg--insect anthropologists, both, who see human beings in terms of their emotionless, biomechanical tics and repetitions. Her books are insidious things, death by quicksand or, like the protagonist of her short story "The Snail-Watcher," drowned beneath a sea of the snails he keeps and breeds as objects of...well, it's more than fascination. The hero of Highsmith's Deep Water, Vic Van Allen, keeps snails, too. He names them, studies them, escapes to them when he can't bear the company of his licentious wife, Melinda. He finds profundity in their couplings and multiplications as well as tragedy in their deaths, and he sees in them a corollary to his relationship with a wife he despises and a child he adores. Vic Van Allen can be understood entirely as an insect in a man's clothing. He is slow, inexorable where Melinda is quicksilver, flighty, and resentful of their life together, seeking comfort and an escape of her own in a parade of lovers. At the root of it all, Highsmith is about forms of escape: the bomb shelters to which we retreat when stimulated, prodded, provoked like snails back into our shells.
The first adaptation of Deep Water was Michel Deville's 1981 Eaux profondes, starring Jean-Louis Trintignant as Victor and Isabelle Huppert as Melinda/Melanie. There's a moment in it where Melanie takes out one of Victor's snails and dances with it, causing Victor no small amount of irritation. Snails don't dance. Vic doesn't dance, either. It's so specific a tell that Vic not dancing is how Highsmith introduces his character in the first two sentences of her book: "Vic didn't dance, but not for the reasons that most men who don't dance give to themselves. He didn't dance simply because his wife liked to dance." Deville's is a fine adaptation that leans heavily into literary interpretations of the text. Huppert plays an entire scene after the discovery of a dead body with a breast absently exposed--the sort of detail that works better on the page than on film: the strangeness of an affect is more easily written off as a device when you're not confronted with it as a visual. The picture is faithful to the text, too, in how openly Vic patronizes his wife, to the point of hatred. For her part, however, Melanie is nearly as aloof as her husband. Her provocations, her flaunting of her adulteries, are transparent attempts to get him to pay attention to her, but Melanie/Huppert plays it cold and calculated. It's obvious she has a plan to use Victor's jealousy as a ploy for him to lose control and confess his murders. It's all very French. That's not a bad thing, though because these behaviours are planful rather than innate, it's not really Highsmith. Don't get me wrong: people make plans in Highsmith, but those plans are subject to the intractable peculiarities of programmed behaviour. When the end comes in Eaux profondes, it feels less like an undressing of Melanie's secret kink than like a domestic victory won over her by a righteously inflamed Victor. In the novel, Vic's rage at not being able to know his wife leads to a much darker outcome.
Trintignant's Victor isn't a weirdo, in other words. He likes snails, yes, but Deville's film doesn't get its nails into how it's not about "like" for Vic. Snails are Vic's Oracle at Delphi, his Bible. Adrian Lyne, on the other hand, understands weirdos. His shockingly scant filmography (I count only eight features before Deep Water) is a sideshow exhibition of men and women caught in the throes of sexual lunacy, with one side trip, Jacob's Ladder, that is nonetheless centred by a terrifying fever dream in which its hero sees his beloved being raped--impaled, really, and from behind--by a demon at a party. There's a variation of that scene in Deep Water, where this Vic (Ben Affleck) imagines wife Melinda (Ana de Armas) in a lustful clutch with her latest boy toy--a fantasy that is an expansion of various moments in which Vic witnesses Melinda dancing wildly for the fugitive pleasure of every other married man in the room. His friends (jettisoned in Eaux profondes), who function in the book and film as the ersatz family a neurodivergent man might assemble around himself, even comment at one point that it's wrong of Melinda to so openly consort with other men in front of everyone. Lyne has ventured into the realm of murderous spouses before, first in the studio-dictated ending of Fatal Attraction and again in the underestimated, mature Unfaithful. After a silence of 20 years (!), Highsmith and Deep Water provide the ideal vehicle for the filmmaker's return. A shame it comes to us delayed, dropped on a streaming service by a corporation that would like to distance itself from movies like this, and is taking shots, sight unseen, for its casting of a tabloid couple whose relationship flowered and wilted in less time than it's taken for this film to see daylight. Deep Water deserves better.
Deep Water is most like Unfaithful in Lyne's filmography in terms of its measured temperament and thoughtful, nay, wise look at the specific peculiarities that grow between people over the course of a long-term relationship. Vic is almost entirely projected inwards, and Melinda is (just as) compulsively projected outwards. Vic's friends love him but think he's weird, and indeed his equanimity regarding Melinda's physical affections towards hot young men doesn't track as entirely natural. Early in our relationship, my wife and I agreed that we would be circumspect about close friends of the opposite sex. Twenty-five years later, such a ground-rule feels, if not silly, certainly unnecessary. Our sexual jealousy has cooled in the same way as our relationship has matured. Still, Vic's coolness is unnatural to the point of being called out by his friends and their wives. Melinda disrupts the quiet suburban companionate love agreements of these well-off couples--she is Alex from Fatal Attraction, Alex from Flashdance, Annie from Foxes, or Elizabeth (to a point) from 9 ½ Weeks, forced into a role she can't help but reject: that of doting wife and loving mother. Highsmith describes Melinda's realization that she's forgotten to pick up her daughter as pointedly "non-maternal." The film's Melinda also appears to resent motherhood, and because Lyne is so keyed into his women characters, he has little daughter Trixie (Grace Jenkins) prod at her. "You're gonna drive your mother crazy," says Vic. "I know," says Trixie. But Melinda isn't "crazy." She's bored. And she's more than a little bit hurt by the idea that there's nothing she can do to make Vic react in a way she perceives to be "normal."
Vic's friend Horace, in the book, says:
I've always said all Melinda needed to straighten herself out was a little firmness from you, Vic. She's been asking for it for years--just a little sign that you care what she does. Now don't lose the ground you've gained. I'd like to see you two happy again.
In Lyne's film, this friend is Grant (Lil Rel Howery), and his statement about Melinda is "she's not right. She's not a good person." The solution, traditionally, to wayward wives is to suppress them, to peanut-butter them into a Stepford mold of acceptable conduct and desires. Instead, what Lyne's Vic does is quietly and calmly threaten her boyfriends in private, telling them, quite rationally, that he's going to kill them. Highsmith's Vic is angrier, and it's clear that unleashing him is as dangerous and ill-conceived as repressing Melinda. Lyne's Vic is angry in the way a snail might be angry, recognizing that his space has been violated, his mate has been ambushed, and his sense of peace has been temporarily disturbed and in need of possibly violent redress. It's a brilliant interpretation of the character, this decision to push Vic closer to the creatures he venerates. To that end, Lyne keeps the truth of Vic's attempts to maintain the status quo of his quotidian hothouse a mystery for as long as possible. What's laid plain in the book and in Deville's version becomes fantasy and unreliable flashback in this Deep Water. Has Vic killed the men sniffing around his much younger, much livelier wife? Or are these the frustrated skylarks of a man frozen inside himself? Lyne's Vic is the walled-in framer Trevanny of Highsmith's Ripley's Game and he's Tom Ripley, the sociopath and agent of motion, and he functions as a Rosetta Stone in understanding Lyne's entire gallery of philanderers and sexual avengers. Affleck is magnificent as a man who's all potential energy and occasional explosions. It's what made him the perfect Bruce Wayne.
Ana de Armas, to extend the parallel, complements him as the perfect Selina Kyle. Here, as in No Time to Die, she functions as a source of untameable vitality presented against an old, white man who can't seem to muster up the strength for his next drink. She tells Vic at one point that while one of her men, Joel (Brendan Miller), may not be smart, he sees her how she likes to be seen, and that act of being seen turns her on. She tells him this as Vic, in a disinterested way, applies lotion to her legs. For him, tending to Melinda is like moisturizing his snails. On its surface, it's ridiculous to think massaging the naked body of one of the most desirable women on the planet would carry no rise of sexual interest in a heterosexual man, but the story of companionate love tells a different tale. Familiarity doesn't have to breed contempt, but the new does by necessity become familiar in time, and expressions of ardour gradually become less unpredictable and spontaneous. Lyne makes it clear that these people still fuck (and well), but seeing each other in their domestic roles is now more common than seeing each other in their sexual roles. What Melinda wants is instability, risk. She doesn't recognize the way Vic's instability and danger manifest themselves.
There's a wonderful scene in the middle of Highsmith's book where, at a dinner with Melinda's latest dalliance, Tony (played in Lyne's film by Finn Wittrock), Melinda suggests they broil a few dozen of Vic's snails for the main course. Melinda and Tony tease the increasingly incensed Vic until Vic says that snails need to be purged for a few days before consumption. In the Deville film, Trixie pipes up from her piano lesson to offer this note; Lyne's adaptation has Vic say it, but Affleck's Vic adds that not purging the snails makes them deadly for humans to eat rather than just unsavoury. "Fun fact," Vic says--but it's clear by Tony's face that he's taken the loosely-veiled threat seriously. Tony understands that Vic only seems placid. That even snails will cannibalize one another for the calcium in their shells. I mention this scene because it underscores Lyne's command of the text--and I'm giving Lyne the bulk of the credit over screenwriters Zach Helm (Stranger Than Fiction) and Sam Levinson (Malcolm & Marie) because I've seen this sort of thing consistently in Lyne's work. Vic will preserve the family reserve at all costs. When Melinda later discovers damning confirmation of one of her suspicions tucked away in a snail terrarium, it only magnifies the tightness of the movie's theme of how maintaining fidelity in a relationship derives from any number of brutal strategies and feints.
The true delight of Deep Water isn't that it's a mystery or a thriller, but that it's a psychological study of marriage and a character piece about two extreme personalities growing old together. You could even interpret the film as a look at how a non-neurodivergent person learns to accept and modify her expectations for a neurodivergent partner--a reading that explains in part the ending of Lyne's picture, a departure from both the source material and Deville's own deviation from Highsmith. Of them all, Lyne's is the best. Highsmith's conclusion betrays a certain misogyny and unexamined self-loathing, Deville's a different kind of misogyny rooted in the patriarchal gender roles embedded in a nuclear family. Lyne's film, on the other hand, ends with the couple as essential equals and, moreover, not as antagonists at a stalemate, but as lovers reunited. They have been reintroduced to their spouses midway through their lives and rekindled their attraction under more honest presumptions about their respective characters. Lyne shows this by bookending the film with Melinda, unseen, watching Vic take his clothes off after a bike ride. In the first instance, she sees in him an endless drudgery of habitual movements meaning nothing in their repetition; in the final instance, she sees a thrillingly strange creature who hides every hint that he might be a remorseless predator behind a carefully-constructed veneer of rote normalcy. For Vic, who genuinely loves and needs Melinda more in Lyne's film than either of his two previous incarnations do, the "new" turn-on in their relationship is that Melinda can see him as he truly is, at last. Deep Water is a movie for grown-ups. Not for prurient interests, mind, but for students of behaviour--of snails and other things.