Fidelity and Its Discontents
Written by Jason Starr
Artwork by Dalibor Talajić
2021 (AWA Upshot)
Adrian Lyne´s erotic psychological film Fatal Attraction, starring Glenn Close and Michael Douglas, was the highest-grossing film of 1987, and was nominated for multiple Academy Awards. Since then, the picture has occupied a significant place within our collective cultural imagination, serving as a kind of narrative blueprint for mainstream Western society, and reinforcing a number of complicated tropes--the "crazy ex-girlfriend", stalking, responsibility being in opposition to pleasure, and more. Shot in slick photography with gorgeous lighting and sensual editing, Fatal Attraction is a ultimately cinematic morality play about what all the bad things that can happen if you "cheat", and have the nerve to be non-monogamous even once. As its title suggests, sexual desire can kill you (the implication being that marriage and family are supposed to "temper" this desire, if one is responsible and "good").
In the nearly thirty-plus years since the movie´s release, there have been numerous critiques unpacking these and other messages within the film, using this cultural object to examine the who we were in the ´80s, and how far (or how little) we have progressed since then. There have also been a number of articles & interviews articulating the vocal frustrations of Close, who played Alex in the film--the "psychopathic bitch" who threatens the life and family of Dan (played by Douglas). Infamously, the original ending to Fatal Attraction has Alex staging her suicide to implicate Dan in murdering her, so that even after death she can get revenge for all of the misery his actions caused her. This did not do well with test audiences before the film´s 1987 release; and after more than two weeks of Close protesting, they created the ending we all are now familiar with, with Alex being shot to death in the bathtub.
Sex and pleasure threatens the fragile foundation of the monogamous family, but ultimately, through violence, order is restored.
Casual Fling, the four part graphic novel released in October 2021 written by Jason Starr with art by Dalibor Talajić, gives multiple nods to Lyne´s film, but thankfully turns the trope inside out, making it new. In their story, the protagonist and primary breadwinner is Jennifer Ryan, a high-powered lawyer in Manhattan, who is doing her best to prioritize the huge work-load and long hours of her demanding job while her stay-at-home husband, an IT consultant, takes care of their two kids. Already, Starr and Talajić provide a welcome dose of reality to what it is like for two working parents to make it within New York today.
Jennifer resists gender-stereotyping, and doesn´t have any innate ability to raise her children very well, especially when she is running on fumes and giving the bulk of her energies to her intense job at the law firm. She forgets her daughter´s ballet recital, snaps at her husband, is annoyed when she comes home after a long day of work to their messy apartment. In short, she is a Real Person, with needs, desires, ambitions, and limits. So when a colleague introduces her to Alex, a suave and handsome stranger, it seems almost inevitable as well as understandable that the two would have passionate sex in his hotel room before he returns to Los Angeles.
Except, he doesn´t. Through deception and humiliating video of them having sex, Alex begins to wage a psychological war upon Jennifer and her life, threatening her career as well as her family. To have any hope at surviving her ordeal, she must ask for help--including from her husband, who deploys some IT tools he´s learned through the dark web.
In addition to Fatal Attraction, the #MeToo movement threads through Casual Fling, particularly in its later chapters. Proactive and responsible, Jennifer informs both her partners at the firm as well as police detectives, asking for assistance once Alex blackmails her with a substantial ransom. Their reactions are frustrating, but also realistic, highlighting the legal limitations for women who need protection before harm comes to them, and it is too late. The story arc with her husband is also grounded in authenticity: there are hurt feelings, betrayals, and disappointments. There is also a lot of love and care there, and efforts on both to see what can be salvaged. Starr and Talajić wisely choose to conclude Casual Fling before any sentimentality can creep in. Will Alex face meaningful consequences for his actions? Will Jennifer´s marriage survive this storm? Will she remain with the firm? Instead of answering these questions, Casual Fling focuses on the immediate aftermath of desire. It´s a graphic novel which is both sexy and intelligent, at times creepy but always rooted in contemporary realism. Highly recommended!