You have to wonder if Australia’s own variation on Fatal Attraction is now just a discredited footnote in the career of Naomi Watts. Surely she’s long suppressed all recollection of her demented schoolgirl act in Gross Misconduct (1993), directed unremarkably by George Miller (not to be confused with the George Miller who directed Mad Max). Too early, here, are signifiers of the impending subtext-rich pop psychology laid out: the opening tracking shot through a gloomy mansion at night trawls past an elaborate series of lit candles – a danger sign in any film, for only a certifiably mad person would go to all that trouble – before resting on a naked Jennifer (Watts), dreamily pleasuring herself in an inviting four-poster bed. Jennifer, it turns out, is a gorgeous blonde with an angelic countenance and a murky past. She lives with her wealthy father (Adrian Wright), her mother having died in a crash that he apparently still blames himself for, though in stock thrillers such as these car-crash deaths are never what they seem and either serve as red herrings or risible clues to later crimes.
Jennifer’s eye lingers longest on the man at the head of her University classroom; he’s art history professor Justin Thorne (Jimmy Smits), an American who has adopted Melbourne as his base. As well as being his most devout student, Jennifer doubles as babysitter for Justin and his wife Laura (Sarah Chadwick), allowing her unlimited access to their home where she creeps to his bedroom to inhale the scent of his clothes and smile knowingly at his stash of condoms. She’s besotted with the man, but this lustful admiration shows signs of crossing over dangerous borders into that strictly cinematic realm of obsession. It’s here that innocent gestures are misconstrued and ordinary men become objectified and vilified in the same breath. Justin’s life is about to be tossed down a well, but as a man it’s clearly his own doing. He’s that dangerously appealing type: rugged, effortlessly charming, and intelligent without a need for spectacles; he even moonlights as a saxophonist in a jazz club, giving Jennifer yet another reason to adore him. As if they don’t see enough of Justin in class, Jennifer and her friends congregate at the club as well, speculating about whether he’s the type to stray (undoubtedly yes, the consensus seems to be), tossing lurid visions into the gulf of Jennifer’s quickly unravelling subconscious.
When Justin offers a lift home after a night of babysitting, Jennifer makes her first real move, bemoaning her lowly status on the first rung of Plato’s ladder of love. A hesitant, probing kiss, which Justin neither resists or reacts to, is the dangerous first move in a game that will bring about his moral downfall. The inevitable sex act occurs, though Justin admirably resists many more advancements beforehand, and it’s under unusual circumstances that it finally takes place. It’s a standout sequence too: a stormy night reaching full steam, Justin’s harsh pronouncement met with violent rage from Jennifer – the kind that can only be quelled by physical restraint. Naturally this close proximity draws the calamitous spectre of arousal to the surface and neither party, it seems, is fully cognisant of what happens thereafter. The scene is rife with unsubtle metaphors such as Justin’s raging office hearth as a stand-in for his lust as it’s stoked to new heights; even more obvious is the branch bursting in through the window, symbolic of an alien, irrevocable intrusion into Justin’s life as they lay draped in moonlight, sweating and misty-eyed with confusion.
Always more comfortable on the small screen than in features, Smits at least emerges with his dignity intact, though even he must have been pondering the wisdom of his decision to be a part of this production at times. Case in point is the scene where Justin enters his lawyer’s office, only to be greeted with an ad-libbed limerick poking fun at the sexually provocative nature of his faltering reputation. Smits must have been tempted to turn tail at this point whilst perusing the finer details of his contract in search of an escape clause. For the alluring Watts, this is most likely a regular first casualty on Retrospective Night, the one credit long ago blotted out from her CV with a slathering of liquid paper. She has our full attention as a luscious, coquettish enticement in the throes of schoolgirl lust; she’s less convincing however when having to summon more complicated emotional responses from beneath the pulpy excesses of the unhinged vixen desperate to lose her virginity in the idealised way she describes in her diary.
The film’s straight-faced manner actually works to its benefit, even if its flirtation with aberrant psychology is fatuous and simplified to grease the tracks of Justin’s histrionic fall from grace to come. The construction and more intimate detailing of the film, adapted from a play by Lance Peters, feel wonky and absurd; note the soap-opera moves to a window to deliver or receive monologues; the accused and accuser interacting in the middle of a trial; the tacked-on incestuous overtones to explain all. A few simple alterations along the way might easily have plugged gaping holes in its interior logic.
The wrap-up too has its failings, bringing with it an almost unforgivable whiff of cheapest melodrama. And yet for reasons I can’t logically explain, Gross Misconduct remains a film with “guilty pleasure” scrawled all over it in jagged red lipstick strokes. In retrospect it’s easy to heap scorn on it, but there’s undeniable entertainment value here, if not staying power. For that reason, it’s actually worth savouring – surreptitiously, of course.