When you think of the act of cheating on someone, you would typically think of sex or physical acts of intimacy with somebody who is not your significant other. Even the dictionary definition of “to cheat” is “to be sexually unfaithful”. But what about infidelity in an emotional sense? Is it not worse to discover that your partner has real and invested feelings or interest in another person, although not physically acted upon? Is that scenario, more personal and intimate, better or worse than a meaningless one-off sexual encounter? Which is a worse betrayal? And are either of these possibilities morally superior to one another? All of these questions are asked and left open for answers in Massy Tadjedin’s 2010 film Last Night, starring Keira Knightley and Sam Worthington. This film is not plot driven; rather, it explores an idea in the abstract, with the characters merely existing to illustrate. It excels in asking us to consider ourselves and our own responses to the situations that arise.
[The plot in brief; Last Night opens with a young and successful married couple, Joanna and Michael, attending a cocktail party. Joanna spots Michael flirting with his very attractive co-worker Laura (Eva Mendes) and later on picks a fight with him over it. It emerges that she was present during one of Michael’s recent business trips and will also be with him on another the next day; he has failed to mention this or her to Joanna until now. The couple argue, but ultimately Michael insists that there is nothing to be concerned about. The next morning after Michael has left Joanna runs into an old flame, Alex (Guillaume Canet) who asks her to join him for a drink that evening. The rest of the film follows the two couples through the night as they navigate temptation, guilt, lust, conscience, hard truths and old feelings which have never quite faded.]
Laura: Are you happy in your marriage?
Michael: Yeah. [Pause] But you can be happy and still be tempted.
Really the main question that Last Night raises is that of emotional vs physical infidelity, and whether one is better or worse than the other. That is a loaded killer question in itself, but there are so many more layers to be addressed than simply what appears on the surface. This is one of the movies that we watched during our Bo(she)mia Reunion – a rewatch for myself and E, a first time watch for Q. As we openly reacted to the events that unfold, it was interesting to note with whom our sympathies aligned and for what reason. Soppy romantics that we are, we swooned at French Alex’s intense, enduring and brooding love for Joanna and squee-d at their impossibly glamourous rendezvous. Meanwhile, we scorned Michael for his seedy, sordid lust; we tutted at and openly criticised Laura for actively and knowingly encouraging him. Then we felt bad for shaming Laura for Michael’s infidelity – he is a grown man, he has autonomy, he is capable of making his own choices and could totally have chosen to refuse Laura’s advances. Joanna, on the other hand, ultimately does resist Alex’s physical advances but instead indulges herself emotionally, allowing herself to be wrapped up in nostalgia and rose-tinted versions of the past. Who, if either, is the worse person in this scenario? Just as Michael failed to mention Laura, until now an insignificant figure in their lives, Joanna has never mentioned her months-long involvement with Alex whilst she and Michael were on a break three years’ prior to now.
We spent the entirety of the movie flip-flopping in this way between sympathy for one then the other, making excuses for each and chastising each. We tried to discuss why our initial response was boo hiss at Laura and swoon swoon at Alex. Laura is a bold and confident woman who knows what she wants and goes after it. We’re taught that this is wrong, especially when what she wants is sex with a married man. Alex is a charming and impossibly romantic French writer who comes looking for Joanna like a lost puppy with sad eyes. We are taught that this is endearing and flattering and every woman’s dream. Internalised misogyny told us to scorn the ambitious and sexually empowered (also Hispanic, very sly move by the casting directors) woman and sympathise with the sad French man who wants to win back the love of his life. This also very slyly attempts to shift the blame of Michael’s infidelity to Laura as a ‘temptress’.
Patrick: Are you faithful?
Patrick: Would he forgive you if you weren’t?
Joanna: He’s always said that he wouldn’t.
Patrick: Does that stop you?
Joanna: Yeah, probably.
We inevitably do sympathise more with Joanna due to the way the film presents her side of the night, but it’s Michael’s double standard that really cinches it. Joanna tells us that he always said he’d never forgive her if she were to cheat, yet he admits to Laura that he has considered it in the past and partially regrets not acting upon his desires. Joanna displays a conscience. She tells Alex she won’t sleep with him because she would never be able to look her husband in the eye again. Michael displays somewhat of a checkered conscience, then disregards it, then seems to find it again when it is already too late. Joanna also displays total confidence in her husband when it comes down to it, insisting to Alex that “Michael isn’t doing anything”.
Having discussed these ideas with a wider spread of people, it seems evident that whilst physical infidelity has a far greater social stigma attached, emotional infidelity would be most hurtful and is considered a greater personal betrayal or a sign of deeper rooted issues. This is true of the affairs conducted in Last Night. Michael and Laura hide their affair; it’s a quick fuck, a one night stand, not to be discovered because it is socially unacceptable. Joanna and Alex spend their evening in public places around New York, not partaking in illicit behaviour although appearing outwardly as a couple and openly discussing their feelings, past and present, for one another. It’s a totally different sort of intimacy, yet it still infringes on the generally accepted boundaries of a monogamous relationship, and she still wouldn’t tell her husband about it.
Last Night sticks with me because it raises difficult questions which remain unanswered. It frames emotional infidelity as an epic love story rather than a devastatingly negative insight into lukewarm marriage, yet we root for Joanna and Alex because their dalliance has stakes, has depth, has meaning. They have significant history. This makes it worse and makes it more romantic. I asked the people that I discussed emotional vs physical infidelity with a hypothetical question; if they had committed one type of infidelity and then discovered that their partner had committed the other, would they be as bad as each other? Would you feel justified in being angry? Each of them answered that in that scenario it would be an indicator that they probably shouldn’t be together. Last Night ends ambiguously with Michael and Joanna reunited. They say little, they embrace. Joanna pulls away and opens her mouth to speak, and the film ends. We don’t know the outcome. We don’t know if they acknowledge it or discuss it. All we know as the audience is that we are watching two people who should probably break up.