I’ve been thinking lately about two films this year that riff on the same theme: the wife who has the audacity first to have an extramarital affair, then to fall ill and die, leaving her bereaved but also humiliated husband to care for their teenage daughter, herself in the process of entering the world of sex and whose purity becomes even more a source of anxiety for her father than it normally would be, haunted as it is by the specter of female promiscuity. The films are Contagion and The Descendants. (Spoilers for both ahead.)
Contagion opens with a close-up of the face of Beth Emhoff (Gwyneth Paltrow) as she chats with a man later revealed to be her ex-boyfriend, with whom she’s just slept while on a business trip. Her hook-up in Chicago will effectively begin to spread the fatal neurological virus she unknowingly contracted in Hong Kong even before she returns to her husband Mitch (Matt Damon) and children in Minneapolis. It’s there that she dies in the hospital, whereupon Mitch becomes determined to shield Jory, his fifteenish daughter from a previous marriage, from possible infection, locking her at home and forbidding her to see her would-be boyfriend. In this one of the film’s several plotlines, the virus is coded as a sexually transmitted infection that can be traced back to an unfaithful wife and from which Mitch must now try to protect his daughter, herself on the cusp of adult sexuality. (She spends most of the film sullenly texting the boyfriend from her domestic prison; when her father discovers them wrestling around in the snow together, he freaks.) Mitch eventually gives his blessing to the boyfriend, but only after both of the teenagers have been vaccinated, ensuring that Jory will not be vector for illness like her (step-)mother.
The Descendants also functions as a film about fatherhood and the crisis of female sexuality, but its metaphor of choice is land rather than disease. Part of the film’s plot hinges on the fate of a “virginal” (the film’s term) expanse of Hawaiian countryside belonging to Matt King (George Clooney) and his extended family, which he eventually decides not to sell to developers. It’s hard not to dissociate the horrific thought of despoiled virgin territory with the abject figure of Matt’s once-beautiful wife Elizabeth, who languishes in a coma and who had previously been carrying on an affair with—no joke—the very same real estate agent who stands to profit from the development of Matt’s property. Add to this Matt’s discomfort with his teenage daughter Alexandra’s (Shailene Woodley) bad behavior at school (“drinking, drugs, older men”) and his distrust of her doofy boyfriend and you have a film that centers on a man’s determination to correct his wife’s infidelity by keeping the rest of his family property—including his daughter’s body—intact, as it were. Like Contagion, it’s a film about a husband haunted by the dead wife who cuckolded him and consequently obsessed with using his daughter to exorcise the memory of her betrayal.