Talking About Adultery. The mathematics of love

11 September, 2020

ADULTERY, -IES, (…) 1. Adj. (Regarding spouses) An act that transgresses conjugal fidelity. 2. Noun. An infraction that consists of transgressing conjugal fidelity by one of the spouses. From fr. adultère, lat. adulterium. (translation from Romanian fundamental dictionary, 2009)

Is this a correct definition? Is “adultery = infidelity” a valid formula? May it function in a healthy way and does the word “adultery”, which is charged with negative connotations, have any place in a non-monogamous equation, for example? What lies at the basis of a relationship? We don’t get a definite answer out of Talking About Adultery, but Bara Jichova Tyson does propose a series of valid answers and extends the concept of adultery onto several planes, perspectives, and variation, which she mixes up in a collage-film that is somewhat related to video art, while still keeping itself firmly rooted in documentarian practices.

Talking About Adultery is documented across the span of five years and is based on 53 interviewees, but it’s not at all rigorous from a journalistic point of view, nor is it a detached and rigid investigation. The director opts for an essay film format, a sort of poetic video-rhetoric on the theme of “adultery” (well, sort of, but more on that later). Supported by its structure, which is based on fragments from interviews (some long, others mashed together in palimpsest sequences which render them unintelligible), the film’s visuals are constructed from pieces of videos that were amassed or shot by New York-based Czech filmmaker and visual artist Bara Jichova Tyson, which the author then collides together, working as both the director, editor, screenwriter and producer of the film.

There is nothing shocking about this, since the structure is a highly personal one. Her voice is present in all of the interviews, and fragments of a discussion with her (then-)future partner are strewn across the film. Having once been a woman who had a relationship with a married man (“I was the hidden woman, or, maybe, the hiding woman.”), Tyson researches couples (most of them heterosexual and married – a strange choice, given that the LGBTQ+ community has a radically different sexual culture, that has shaped itself while disregarding the nuclear family pattern) while looking for arguments and mechanisms that explain the functioning of erotic triangles (or other more complex geometric shapes).

“Adultery is kind of boring”, says one of the websites which she uses to headhunt for subjects. “Adultery may be kind of boring, but betrayal is interesting”, the filmmaker responds. This is the starting point for the conceptualization itself, for the mental exercise. Slowly but surely, the film’s subject is increasingly less that of adultery, but rather more about monogamy, about intimacy, about ways in which power dynamics in couples can be defined, and, in fact, about the role that sexuality has to play in this complicated diagram. 

Still Talking about Adultery
Still Talking about Adultery

If Talking About Adultery is painstakingly constructed in terms of ideas and sound design, its visual composition doesn’t fall behind either. While still playing with the concept, Jichova Tyson juxtaposes long shots of small domestic details, observational shots of domestic recesses, which are practically a series of static natures, with collages that she assembles live (by exclusively using portraits) and moments in which she and her family are directed in a non-realistic fashion, again conceptually (for example, one such shot features herself and her husband in a fifties-style domestic decor, wearing animal heads and fighting over a knife). She constantly generates conflict, tension, and discrepancies through the usage of color, the texture of her shots, their grain, their subjects (or lack thereof).

Truth be told, the film isn’t about a “concept”, which is the idea of adultery, but about all of the tense and conflictual relationships that it generates. And that is the search for lust and intimacy, the question of the relationship between sexuality and intimacy, or sexuality and the institution of marriage. If sexuality is seen as an evolving matter, something that constantly changes all of its physical variables (changes in the body, in age, and so on), can a relationship that is based on sexual monogamy work in the long term, or does it have an expiry date, a critical moment in which sexual exclusivity becomes unnatural?

As I was saying at the outset of this piece, there isn’t one answer, but rather several, each of them calibrated to itself, each of them negotiated with a partner, each of them re-tried and re-negotiated after some time. Talking About Adultery is just a collage, an extended invitation to participate in an (inner) dialogue that holds different perspectives, a film that invites one to spin in a fluid dance around one’s own personal definitions. 

Talking About Adultery screened at the Astra Film Festival 2020 Open Air.

Alex Mircioi Alex Mircioi
Film and theatre critic, sometimes dabbles in theatre-making. Has written and edited texts for Film Menu and Acoperișul de Sticlă, and collaborated with a number of other cultural publications like AperiTIFF, Scena9, All About Romanian Cinema and Film. Desperately in love with female filmmakers and writers, could always go for a queer coming-of-age.