The perfect romance. High School sweethearts who fall in love and feel invincible. The idyllic opening to ‘Indecent Proposal’ could warm the heart of anybody. Allowing ourselves to believe that such pure love is possible. However, screenwriter Amy Holden Jones and author Jack Engelhard, who wrote the book upon which the film is based, force the viewer to consider their own interpretation of love. Despite the flattery, I will shower this film within its premise, at times the film can come across overly dramatic and corny. However, in this article, I am solely concerned with the premise and how the film explores the themes of love and monogamy to an ending which we shall discuss later.
The premise is simple. A young couple faces financial ruin until a rich, older, attractive billionaire enters your life who can solve all your problems. The billionaire only asks one thing in return, a night with your wife. The beauty and intrigue in the premise being that it can be reversed and changed to suit any number of combinations. Such as reversing the gender roles or the sexuality of those involved. Therefore, the applicability of the film’s hook is never-ending. A casual ‘what if’ conversation among friends or an interesting discussion between partners; the premise will suck anybody into its compelling narrative. This is due to the central theme of the play, love. However, if we deconstruct love we can see that the tension and drama of the film is monogamy. A traditionally key component of a relationship. The film puts a price on the foundation of relationships and asks us to question what we would do.
The opening of the film presents David (Woody Harrelson) standing alone on the pier where he proposed to Diana (Demi Moore). The flash forward to the end of the story then cuts to a montage of how the couple met. This is accompanied by narration by both David and Diana as they explain the origin of their relationship. However, this typically weak cinematic tool of expository narration is used well in this case. This is because as the viewer we grow closer to the characters as they personally recount their experiences. Therefore, creating a connection between their relationship and the viewer to allow us to empathize with their love. This emotional attachment is then manipulated in the film with the introduction of John Gage (Robert Redford) as he enters the story. After we are caught up on the couple’s history, financial recession hits causing the couple to almost certainly lose everything, shattering their dreams and plans as a young couple. In a later scene in the bathroom, Diana breaks down at the pressure of their situation. At which point David says ‘I’ll take care of you’. Through Harrelson’s skillful performance we can see him assume the provider/protector role to care for his wife. Consequently, foreshadowing what Diana will find attractive in John later in the film as he showers her with gifts and offers her financial liberation. Such as the black $5000 dress he purchases for her on the first day they meet in Las Vegas. This is an example of the narrative asking the viewer to consider if they prioritize security and wealth over love. This dichotomy is explored further throughout the film with the turning point of the film’s narrative. This occurs after the couple has attempted to gamble their remaining money in Las Vegas to win the $50,000 they need to survive. In the infamous and pivotal scene around a snooker table, Gage propositions the couple with $1,000,000 to sleep with David’s wife. Screenwriter Amy Holden Jones foreshadows this revelation with dialogue in an earlier scene as Gage asks David, ‘Would you mind lending me your wife’. This dramatic technique builds the tension of the film’s narrative as we can see Gage’s predatory intentions. The double meaning of borrow implies, in the context of the scene, to firstly help him gamble but also to borrow her sexually. Moving back to the snooker scene, the game is used as a metaphor for the competition the two male leads are having over Diana. As the game progresses the subject turns from hypothetical to reality as Redford masterfully delivers the line, ‘$1,000,000 for a night with your wife’. His delivery exudes confidence and a lack of respect as he objectifies Diana and disrespects David by even asking the question. This is where the film’s controversial dilemma comes into play. As the viewer, we are shocked but also intrigued by the question as the context of the couples difficult situation makes it a possibility. This is also captured through the cinematography as the line is delivered as Gage pots the black, therefore, winning the game as he has forced the couple to consider his offer. The themes of love and monogamy are questioned as Diana says, ‘I’d do it for you’re placing the responsibility on David. Therefore, forcing the characters to conduct some introspection on what they hold dear and consequently, the viewer as well.
During a later scene, the couple lies in bed and discuss the offer. Diana says ‘It’s just my body, not my mind, not my heart’. This line displays the fatal flaw in choosing to succumb to the dilemma and taking the money. In relationships, our bodies are controlled by our minds and hearts. But also what happens to our bodies causes a change in our minds and hearts hence the physical gifts and intimacy Gage bestows upon Diana causes her to fall for Gage. However, the film makes a point of displaying that what happens to our bodies is temporary and attempts to present the idea that our heart overrides the mind and body, due to the films ending. The rest of the film details the breakdown of the relationship between David and Diana and Diana’s affair with John. The film also places the character of John Green (Oliver Platt), the couple’s lawyer into the situation. This comedic character embodies the audience’s viewpoint and the hypocrisy that we may potentially believe. During a scene where John attempts to console David as Diana is spending her night with John he says ‘You gotta look on the bright side’, ‘I know we could have gotten $2,000,000’, ‘not that I’d do that but it’s okay you did’. Green’s focus on the money is juxtaposed with his own firm reluctance to participate in the deal if he had to. Therefore, displaying the deep discomfort that we the viewer feel that our partner would be shared. The possessive nature of monogamy is the underlying truth of love in a western sense. The film questions if it is necessary and brings in the only western motivation that could possibly change that, money.
The majority of the remainder of the film is then taken up with David’s mental decline and inability to trust Diana after her affair with Gage. Also, the details of Diana’s affair and how her and Gage interact. However, the ending epitomises the message of the film, that love will win. When Diana leaves Gage for David and chooses a life of happiness despite little wealth it depicts love as an invincible force. The shallow nature of Gage’s actions, such as the aptly named $1,000,000 dollar club, provides Diana with all the information she needs to decide that her true love with David is more fulfilling than what money can buy. The film perfectly explores the abhorrent nature of cheating and that monogamy is crucial to a successful traditional relationship. Furthermore, that love can supersede financial issues, and that wealth is not essential for a happy life. The film presents an aspect of irony as the couple could have avoided the situation as both characters, in their separation, find jobs and could have survived. It was their greed and materialism that almost cost them their relationship as David becomes an architecture teacher and Diana continues in real estate. True it may be that they would have lost their house, but the simple and poorer life is undeniably more desirable compared to the stress, mental torture and pain that greed cost them. Simplified the film’s stance is that love and monogamy are crucial and money is not.
In regards to the film’s lackluster critical rating in 1993, it may be down to the public perception of cheesy romantic films. In today’s modern cultural environment it could be its treatment and presentation of women. The dramatic framing of David’s and Diana’s love can be seen as Romeo and Juliet’s esque. Their relationship appears to be set under the guise of a pair of star-crossed childhood sweethearts who are under threat from an evil force. This causes some viewers both at the time of release and almost 30 years later to see it as contrived and unrealistic. However, I see the film’s commentary on the fragility of love as excellent and underrated. The film displays a scenario where, when pushed into financial distress and the allure of financial freedom is present, love can falter. Therefore, in my opinion, the film is grounded in its concept and surrounds it in a palatable romance drama. Therefore, mitigating the initial distaste at the partially overly dramatic romance and presents the viewer with unique social commentary. Granted there are vastly better films that tackle the societal issues of greed and money, however, I feel Indecent Proposal’s take on love, monogamy and greed is special and compelling. Several critics such as Susan Faludi branded the film in a negative light due to the position Diana takes as submissive, appearing to be controlled by men. However, Diana within the film takes a defiant stance several times. Such as her initial hatred of Gage for buying their land, her refusal of him on several occasions such as the snooker scene. She challenges him by replying to David after the proposition, ‘He’d say go to hell’ and ‘you can’t buy people’. In addition, David’s respect for her as an equal is qualified several times such as their first encounter when Gage asks to borrow Diana, David replies, ‘you’d have to ask her’. Therefore, on the surface it may seem the film objectifies women however, this argument is best tackled with Diana’s constant autonomy throughout the film. This is best illustrated by Diana’s choice to leave Gage and reject him. Consequently, regaining control of her life and choosing what she desires.
In conclusion, the film’s take on love and monogamy is a brilliant cause for introspection at what we, the viewer, value in a relationship and in life. We vicariously live through the tragedy of the couple and see the horrors of greed and the voluntary rejection of monogamy/love in the pursuit of said greed. I highly recommend that you watch the film if you have not, as, despite some cliche aspects, the plot and acting and most importantly the message are enjoyable and valuable. In a modern society where social standing and wealth seem the most important things in life, you only have to look at the rate of a successful marriage is the most successful to see money and greed are a hindrance to love and happiness when they control your life. You only have to see the failed marriage of the world’s second-richest man to see that wealth does not breed happiness or love.