In 1987, the haunting flirtation that Glenn Close and Michael Douglas shared in Fatal Attraction created a template that almost every contemporary film about an obsessive woman has stuck to since. From Alicia Silverstone’s lethal Lolita in 1993’s The Crush to Erika Christensen’s lovesick athletic supporter in 2002’s Swimfan and Ali Larter’s sociopathic assistant in 2009’s Obsessed, fans pretty much know what to expect when they sit down for one of these infatuation flicks.
The illicit flirtation will seem alluring at first. There are shared jokes as the pair’s undeniable chemistry builds. And just when it seems like there might be a reason for him to risk it all, our leading man rebuffs his pursuer’s most aggressive come-on and shouts something along the lines of “I love my wife” as her sanity snaps.
Although the collateral damage will differ — sometimes a bee allergy is exploited (The Crush), other times a pet bunny gets boiled (Fatal Attraction) — the film will climax with an elaborate fight in a symbolic location: the man’s seemingly perfect home, a childlike carousel, or the high school pool. But no matter the series of events that leads to this crescendo, the end result is always the same: The wholesome couple punishes the homewrecker, usually by killing her.
Unforgettable, which opened this weekend, looked like it was built using the exact same blueprints that have been passed around Hollywood since the ’80s, based on the trailers. In the promotional footage, Katherine Heigl is in full, wild-eyed hysterical mode as Tessa, the seemingly perfect ex-wife of David (Geoff Stults). Tessa is shown maniacally smoking a vape while peering out from the darkness, polishing silverware with a chilling intensity, and verbally sparring with David’s warm and compassionate new girlfriend, Julia (Rosario Dawson). She steals Julia’s most prized possessions, and eventually, brandishing a knife, brawls with Julia, screaming, “This is my life!”
But Unforgettable is so much more than what those ads imply. Yes, it’s a deliciously fun, over-the-top thriller about infatuation, but unlike Fatal Attraction, The Crush, Swimfan, and Obsessed, the male character isn’t at the center of Unforgettable — in fact, in the grand scheme of things, David is almost a non-factor.
Unforgettable is not a movie about Tessa’s preoccupation with David or a movie about Tessa’s hatred of Julia, it’s a movie about Tessa’s unwavering obsession with fulfilling the role of Pinterest dream wife — it was a carefully curated life she lived with David and their daughter Lily (Isabella Rice) that Tessa believes Julia does not deserve. “It’s a cautionary tale of what happens when you hang your entire identity on being desirable to the perfect man — it can literally drive you crazy,” Unforgettable producer and director Denise Di Novi told BuzzFeed News. “I call it the tyranny of perfectionism. Women feel like they have to have the perfect body and the perfect hair and the perfect job so they can find the perfect guy and have the perfect house and the perfect kid. I have lived with that pressure and I understand it, as all women do.”
Because Tessa’s motivation is so specific to women’s experiences, Di Novi knew Unforgettable had to be written and directed by women. “I really just felt instinctively that these characters needed to be seen through the female gaze [because] they go to very dark extreme places and it was important to me that we maintain compassion for them and understanding for them and empathy for them,” she said. “We need to see that they’re pushed to these limits because of social conditioning and family conditioning.”
Di Novi — who wound up directing Unforgettable after Amma Asante dropped out to make a different movie — and her producing partner, Alison Greenspan, turned to Christina Hodson (Shut In) to write the screenplay. The three instantly found themselves on the same page when it came to rooting Tessa’s issues in jealousy and not in sexuality.
“I think very often, when it’s a guy telling the story, it just tends to go into the same places,” Hodson told BuzzFeed News. “It tends to be the crazy, passionate, lustful woman going after the guy at all expenses, but I don’t know any woman who has ever gone that crazy just because of sexual attraction. Whereas I know women who unravel themselves in smaller ways because of that feeling of losing who you are and losing your identity and becoming someone else.”
After Hodson wrote her first draft, cowriter David Leslie Johnson took a pass before Hodson and Di Novi reunited to shape the final script. “I wanted to avoid telling a story about two women fighting over a guy [and] tell a story about two women fighting over one identity,” Hodson said. “That was the stuff I got excited about — the idea of warfare, not just catty fighting.”
The ways Tessa wages war on Julia vary in approach and intensity, but none truly stem from Tessa’s desire to get David back. Instead, as Hodson said, Tessa “is deliberately undermining Julia psychologically, sexually, and socially.” “I didn’t want them to always be like, ‘He’s my man. Battle, battle, battle,’” she said. “I prefer that dangerous interplay where there’s manipulation.”
The prime example of that involves Tessa leading a carefully curated conversation with Julia that appears to be a détente on the surface, but is actually a low-key declaration of war. As the two sip margaritas, Tessa begins by kindly complimenting the emotional bond Julia shares with David. And as Julia smiles, Tessa goes in for the kill. “Ours was a more physical thing. We always had incredible chemistry,” she says, a mix of confusion and sorrow overtaking Julia’s steely facade. “David was insatiable. It eclipsed everything. Frankly,” Tessa says with a almost imperceptible smirk, “it was a little exhausting.”
“She’s using talking about sex to usurp power,” Hodson explained. “I’ve been in those conversations where the alpha girl in the group is trying to show how bold she is and how strong she is through her willingness to talk about sex and deliberately making somebody else feel uncomfortable in that situation. It’s a power play that girls know in a way that guys don’t, because when men talk about sex, it’s often in a braggadocious, superficial, tits-and-ass kind of way, whereas for us, there’s all these politics involved in how much you open up — and if you’re opening up to be kind and to relate or whether it’s opening up to show up and dominate.”
But the passive subterfuge doesn’t last long. Soon, Tessa launches a plan to reclaim her former life. She creates a fake Facebook page for Julia, designed with a single purpose: to get in touch with Julia’s abusive ex-boyfriend. There are hints throughout the film that Julia is a domestic violence survivor, but it’s not until Tessa makes contact with Michael (Simon Kassianides) and begins sending him X-rated messages — and underwear — that the audience fully understands the lengths Julia has gone to to hide from Michael. It’s an unconscionable act, the ultimate woman-on-woman crime. “That’s why we went for it. It felt so wrong. So, so, so wrong,” Hodson said.
The unconscious ways people harm one another is a huge theme in Unforgettable — particularly when it comes to mothers emotionally damaging their daughters, damage which is then passed down from generation to generation. For Tessa, who is deeply controlling of her daughter and even chops off all of Lily’s hair as a punishment at one point, that behavior was learned from her monstrous mother, played by Cheryl Ladd. Everything Tessa does is picked apart by her mother, from how she sets out appetizers to the fact that her marriage to David failed.
“The way Tessa’s mother treats her and then how she treats her daughter is something a lot of women have lived with,” said Di Novi. “I’d always wanted to root what happens … in Tessa’s psychology, so I’d done a lot of research into narcissistic personality disorder and what kind of person Tessa was and why and where that makeup would come from rather than just randomly crazy,” Hodson added. “I wanted her to be really specifically crazy, so having the mother involved was such an awesome idea.”
Arguably the most unique way Unforgettable twists tired tropes comes in the grand finale scene. Just as the film looks to be veering back toward Hollywood’s old blueprint — Julia is rushing to Tessa’s house to rescue Lily and David, who’s literally asleep for the film’s most important moment — it does something we’ve never seen before. Julia gets Lily out of the house and is returning to save David when she encounters Tessa and, of course, they tussle: Tessa throws Julia across the foyer and onto the floor, Julia slams Tessa’s head into an extravagant mirror, and they continue to trade blows until Tessa gains the upper hand and has Julia dead to rights. But then, Tessa catches her reflection and she sees something far worse than her bruised and bloodied face: She finally sees what years of living under her mother’s thumb has done to her and can’t bear to inflict the same future on Lily. So she turns the knife around, and instead of murdering Julia, Tessa kills herself in a desperate attempt to break her family’s insidious cycle of emotional abuse.
It’s a jaw-dropping moment in its own right, but Tessa’s decision is exponentially more shocking given the well-worn cinematic DNA for “This Is How You Punish An Obsessed Woman At The End Of The Movie” that Di Novi and Hodson very intentionally ignored. “Somebody said to me, ‘The biggest reason you can tell women made the movie is no guy would have done that ending, a woman sacrificing herself for the sake of her daughter,’” said Di Novi. “You understand that no matter how low you go, there’s a biological thing that makes you want to protect your child, no matter how much you’ve messed them up … when Tessa looks at her face she thinks, I’ve gone too far and she’s going to be better off without me and kills herself. Every time I see it, I start to cry. I find it so moving.”