Like a slow-building avalanche of interior conflict, Silvio Soldini’s meticulously paced Come Undone collapses the façade of emotional connection by highlighting the small erosive moments of deception rather than grandiose melodramatic tirades. A casual glance, an innocent smile, a fleeting flirtation carry all the weight of a wrecking ball, pummeling expectations of happiness until there’s nothing left but romantic uncertainty. These subtle cues of torment organically mix into daily routines and rhythms, revealing the undercurrent of doubt plaguing each couple. Even more staggering, life’s traditionally important benchmarks (the birth of a child, a retirement party, and a promotion) are minimal afterthoughts to the narrative, while the seemingly arbitrary crossroads of everyday life are given an unmatched immediacy and impact. It’s this focus on the mundane elements that makes the film’s sudden sex scenes and the continuous betrayals so striking, and the downfall of each person’s inability to trust so believable.
Petite Anna (Alba Rohrwacher) and robust Alessio (Giuseppe Battinston) seem to be a content modern Italian couple, commiserating with family and friends naturally and lovingly while going about their pleasurable middle class existence. In the hurried opening moments of Come Undone, the two happily drive Anna’s pregnant sister to the hospital in the middle of the night, acting as sturdy anchors to the younger woman’s manic hysteria. But Anna’s cold, almost repellant reaction to the experience shows her to be someone who sees the violence of childbirth rather than the beauty. As she and Alessio return home the next morning, her worn face and slouched posture affirm the kind of doubts that will plague her decision process throughout the film. Later, when Anna’s eyes light up for the first time when she meets a charming waiter named Domenico (Pierfrancesco Favino), the contrast is fascinating. Even thought their first exchange is short, it’s riddled with sensual chemistry. This chance meeting evolves into a full-blown affair, but it feels more like an accident than classic love at first sight. Both are pulled toward each other, not necessarily out of unhappiness with their lives, but because of some magnetic pulse that cannot be denied.
Come Undone delves into Domenico’s more complicated blue-collar world (children, wife, family) only after firmly establishing Anna’s relationship life with the kindhearted Alessio. While Anna has no problem hiding her affair from her trusting spouse, Domenico experiences a tough foreshadowing the first time he returns home after cheating. His wife, in the middle of yelling at their son, says, “Look at the mess he’s in,” sending Domenico into the bathroom to hide evidence of his exploits. It’s just one of the many uncomfortable moments the film favors, a trend that will begin to include Anna’s segments with Alessio as well. Soldini mirrors the experiences of both Anna and Domenico as they try and subvert their respective relationships to be together, detailing interior spaces and colors of both their short-lived trysts and their regular lives. The blood reds of the hotel room where they first make love stand out just as much as the cramped yellow walls of the bathroom in Anna’s apartment. This aesthetic pattern gives equal importance to the flourishes of character while flushed with passion and mired in apathy.
If Alessio represents Anna’s comfortable, worn in, and predictable lifestyle, Domenico offers a sexy, alluring, and breezy change of pace. This is a tired and occasionally cliché setup, but Soldino executes the evocative exchanges between Anna and Domenico with an acute attention to detail, melting away the conventionality of the plot with palpable moments of human connection and panic. As their affair expectedly becomes more complicated, the walls begin to crash down around them, the lies growing more elaborate, the brazenness of their sexual encounters more ambitious. But the slow burn of their romantic suffering is far more interesting than the tired end result, culminating in an unfulfilling denouement where everyone puts their cards on the table and hearts are momentarily broken. The brilliant ambiguity of the affair is shattered, and the characters fall prey to the genre conventions they’ve so effortlessly skipped over for most of the film.
So Come Undone works best as a time capsule of momentary self-indulgence, a passage in someone’s life when they purposefully make the wrong decisions about sex, love, and physicality just because it feels right. Late in the film, as both lovers begin to question the validity of their affair, Domenico asks Anna, “Can’t you just live in the moment?” Anna hesitates, thinking about her future instead of lusting after the hard body in front of her, wondering about the virtues of predictability over the craziness of lying. The fact that she can’t fully answer the question speaks to the film’s ability to transcend its often trite material with complex characterizations. Like most films that dramatize adultery, Come Undone is about the fantasy of attraction evaporating over time. But Soldini manages to express the somber hesitations within this construct just as much as the feverish flights of fancy, the seconds of waiting and yearning just as much as the sweaty hot sex. Such a balance makes all the difference.