Glenn Close: 'Nobody would say: well, why did that happen?' Credit: Fatal Attraction /via IMDB

May 3, 2023   6 mins

The erotomaniacal villainess of Fatal Attraction is something of a cipher. Only once in the 1987 film do we see Alex Forrest alone. Really alone, that is — not stalking Michael Douglas’s Dan Gallagher at a distance, or obsessively calling his home. She’s slumped on the floor wearing nothing but an oversized t-shirt, listening to Madame Butterfly, methodically turning a light on and off, as if she’s in a fugue. Her character is like the living embodiment of a failed Bechdel test: Alex’s obsession with Dan so defines her that outside its boundaries, she hardly even exists. Who is Alex? Where did she come from? What does she do when she’s not breaking into her married boyfriend’s house and boiling his daughter’s pet rabbit alive?

The original Fatal Attraction was uninterested in these questions, but the new reboot — an eponymous TV series — evidently thinks they’re important. Starring Lizzie Caplan as Alex, and Joshua Jackson as Dan, Fatal Attraction 2023 subverts its predecessor simply by being curious about its villain. Although the first two episodes reproduce both the plot and perspective of the original — Dan sparks a connection with Alex and then impulsively has an affair with her while his wife and daughter are out of town — the show then flips the script in episode three, depicting all these events again, but from Alex’s perspective. In the parlance of the contemporary culturati, it centres her.

Perhaps this was inevitable. We live in a moment in which every bad girl seems destined for a sad origin story. What began as a call for strong, complex female characters has evolved over the years into a conviction that lady villains in particular deserve better — and that their misdeeds must stem not from a deep-seated character deficiency, but from that oh-so-trendy contemporary explanation for everything: trauma. This is how Cruella deVille’s aspirations of dalmatian genocide become the product of a childhood tragedy, while Maleficent — a powerful woman whose name literally means destruction — is reimagined as a misunderstood victim of the patriarchy.

Whether these reimaginings truly improve the story in question is debatable; I, for one, found Maleficent much more intriguing when she was not a sympathetic figure shaped by suffering, but rather a deranged etiquette obsessive, incensed by nothing more or less than her exclusion from an infant’s birthday party. But there has always been a certain cohort of cultural critics who, under the auspices of feminism, take umbrage at such characterisations — who interpret the existence of a bad female character as veiled commentary on the state of women at large. When Fatal Attraction was first released in 1987, the LA Times review lambasted it for being “hateful” — “a clear attack on women’s sexuality, the independent woman and the career woman”.

Of course, in 1987, this wasn’t necessarily an erroneous assumption. The “career woman”, financially autonomous and sexually independent, was a controversial figure in a country consumed by panic over the prospect of ladies working outside of the home. The central concern surrounding the career woman was less that she would eat married men alive than that she would emasculate her own husband by out-earning him — but still, she made people nervous. If men in the Eighties were frightened of encountering a character like Alex Forrest, they had to be even more worried that their wives might look at her — with her successful career, cool New York City loft apartment, and penchant for acrobatic sex — and find her at least a little bit relatable, even aspirational.

The notion that Alex had a tragic backstory of her own, one that might render her more complex, if not outright sympathetic, was in fact nascent during the filming of the original Fatal Attraction — at least in the mind of the woman who played her. In a recent interview with the Guardian, Glenn Close recalled consulting psychiatrists to understand Alex’s motivations:

“There’s no way for the audience to know what her past was. It’s only hinted at when she looks at him giving the bunny to his daughter and then throws up in the bushes. Nobody would say: well why did that happen? Whereas I asked that and the psychiatrist said if she was molested at an early age, and what she was made to do made her gag and throw up, then that’s her trigger.”

Whether psychiatrists were using this word in this way in the late Eighties, the notion of the trigger is, itself, very now. It also conveniently subsumes any sense of control over a character’s decision-making under a slick veneer of therapy-speak. To envision yourself being set off in the manner of a loaded weapon is a different sort of objectification from the one feminist critics so often excoriate, but objectification nonetheless. A gun, after all, can’t fire itself.

There are signs that the new Fatal Attraction has taken to heart the criticisms of Close and others — and not just when it comes to the portrayal of Alex. The most famous thing about the 1987 film is its ending — in which Alex is shot dead by Dan’s wife after she attacks the couple in their home; but almost as well-known is the fact that this scene was re-shot at the last minute: in the original script, Alex slits her own throat and frames Dan for her murder. Close reportedly hated the new ending, as did several critics who found it tawdry and out of keeping with Alex’s character — and the new Fatal Attraction seems to have jettisoned it in favour of the original. The series features a dual timeline: one depicts the circa 2010 seduction. Another takes place in the present day, where Dan has just been released from prison, having been convicted of murdering Alex.

But rather than a win for the original film’s critics, the new Fatal Attraction may be sending them a cautionary message: be careful what you wish for. In this iteration, Alex does indeed have more depth. We see how her fear of abandonment — the “I hate you, don’t leave me” mindset that is characteristic of Borderline Personality Disorder — both poisons her relationships with other people and makes her a fierce, competent advocate for victims of violent crime. At one point, she provides a somewhat brutal reality check to a man who’s being defrauded by his grandson but is hesitant to press charges: “You get to decide if you want to be with the people that hurt you, or alone. But it has to be one or the other, because those are the choices that you have.” One gets the sense that she’s speaking from experience, that as a victim is how Alex moves through and perceives the world herself. She is vulnerable and manipulative, tormented and tormentor. But while seeing the world through her eyes is riveting, it is also deeply unsettling.

As it turns out, to see the fullness of a person does not necessarily make that person good; sometimes, it only makes them more terrifying. Yes, we all contain the capacity for evil. Yes, some people are motivated to do terrible things not because they’re sadistic monsters but because they’re unwell, or desperate, or traumatised from an abusive past. But at the end of the day, we are still talking about a woman who breaks things and hurts people. Faced with the kind of romantic disappointment virtually every person experiences at least once — and a disappointment that is not just ordinary but, considering the married status of her paramour, entirely predictable — Alex chooses to go to extremes.

All of this makes Alex Forrest both a natural yet somewhat uncategorisable addition to the current entertainment landscape. Today’s Hollywood is a place where the only thing more bankable than a female anti-hero is a nostalgia property. But it is also a place where truly dangerous women go to die — or at least, to be rendered toothless by retellings that chalk all their bad acts up to PTSD. They are thus robbed of the agency that made them such interesting and effective villains in the first place.

There is a fine line between revealing a character’s humanity and excusing her behaviour, a balance that seems to present a particular struggle for television in the post-#MeToo era: writers are too quick to explain away the moral ambiguity of female characters with some kind of sexually traumatic backstory. Critics are too quick to accuse those who don’t do this of just hating women, full stop. Nobody has quite come out and said that women can’t be straight-up villains anymore, but in this tepid, fearful climate, it’s no surprise that people struggle to create female characters: bad, strong, or otherwise.

And yet, if the first two episodes of Fatal Attraction threaten to make you root for Alex — Dan, as played by Joshua Jackson, is so smarmy, and so entitled, that the prospect of seeing him taken down is not without its appeal — the third-episode twist reveals that Dan is not, and never was, the catalyst for what comes next. This is Alex Forrest’s show; this is Alex Forrest’s game. And while all of this makes Alex more interesting, crucially, it does not redeem her. It does not make her relatable.

In fact, in centring Alex, what this new take on Fatal Attraction really does is to hold her accountable. She is human rather than supernatural in her badness. She makes up stories to justify her choices, the way all human beings do. But she is bad: she orchestrates and manipulates. She tests people in the cruel and imperious manner of an Old Testament God, just for the dark pleasure of lashing out and punishing them when they fail her. Because however sorry you are for disappointing her, you can never be sorry enough. Because in her mind, you’re the bad guy.

Kat Rosenfield is an UnHerd columnist and co-host of the Feminine Chaos podcast. Her latest novel is You Must Remember This.