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Life is a con, no one tells the truth, and the biggest liar wins the prize. This worldview, celebrated by such early-’70s Hollywood hits as The Sting and Paper Moon and more recently fetishized by David Mamet, has lost much of its capacity to startle or even entertain. Yet writer-director Fabian Bielinsky makes the old ploys feel new again. How? In part, simply by being from Argentina.

Bielinsky’s first feature, Nine Queens, is a story of two grifters that gets its kick from balancing parallel possibilities: When cold-blooded veteran Marcos (Son of the Bride’s Ricardo Darin, rendered reasonably demonic by a goatee) and seemingly naive Juan (Gaston Pauls) plan a scam, there’s always the possibility that Marcos also intends to fleece Juan—or vice versa. Although the two meet when Marcos rescues Juan from a clumsy attempt to swindle a convenience-store clerk, that could be just part of Juan’s game. Midway through the movie, Bielinsky can’t resist hinting at who’s playing whom—but hey, he could be fibbing, too.

The younger, baby-faced Juan says he’s a confidence artist’s son who learned the old man’s tricks but never wanted to use them. Now Dad’s in jail, however, and to rescue him Juan must raise big money in a hurry. Marcos lacks a similarly noble back story; in fact, he happily admits to having cheated his siblings out of their shares of an inheritance. This accomplishment becomes problematic when Juan and Marcos start working on a scheme that requires use of the hotel where the latter’s resentful sister, Valeria (Leticia Bredice), is a manager.

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Explaining that his usual partner is missing, Marcos recruits Juan, who insists that he’ll work with the veteran for only one day. It turns out to be quite a day. The two begin with simple hustles to bilk trusting old ladies and coffee-shop waiters, but then a bigger deal suddenly appears: An elderly forger has a set of phony rare stamps—the “nine queens”—and a potential buyer, a posh thug who’s leaving Buenos Aires the next morning. Negotiations ensue and continue for the rest of the film, with each person who takes a momentary advantage demanding a bigger cut. And when Valeria is granted a crucial bargaining chip, it’s revealed that some people will negotiate for something more abstract than money.

Like most scam flicks, Nine Queens won’t withstand careful post-screening examination; both Bielinsky and his characters rely on developments that play out more tidily than they would in actuality. As in one of Mamet’s stagey con games, the players sometimes seem to be putting on a show for their own amusement rather than for any possible gain. (This theatricality contrasts strongly with the forlorn gambits of Time Out, a deeper, darker film.) There’s also a recurring bit involving Juan’s efforts to recall an old hit song that’s more in the spirit of a sitcom than a sting picture. Still, the narrative is sufficiently taut to hold most doubts in abeyance until the final credits.

Entertainment value aside, Bielinsky has made an eerily prescient film. Released in Argentina in 2000, Nine Queens seems to have anticipated the recent collapse of that country’s currency. Early in the movie, Marcos surveys a typical downtown Buenos Aires scene for Juan, identifying the many threatening species of homo griftus he can see. He doesn’t look beyond the people on the street, but viewers can follow the implications of his gaze into the city’s banks, office buildings, and government ministries.

Adrian Lyne is good in bed. The director conjures erotic possibilities with candor, zest, and—something for which he’s rarely credited—wit. Although Lyne vexed kiddie-porn-obsessed America with his remake of Lolita, it’s more notable that he’s one of the few Hollywood filmmakers who can conceive of over-30 actresses as something more sensual than mommies or maiden aunts. The charmed moment in Fatal Attraction came when Michael Douglas (and the camera) contemplated 40-year-old Anne Archer getting dressed, and Lyne’s new Unfaithful takes even more entranced stock of 37-year-old Diane Lane.

Of course, the director’s appreciation of his leading ladies is only a small aspect of his work. He doesn’t write his own screenplays, and he seems a careless judge of other people’s scripts. Thus he usually ends up supplying predictable gloss, if surprising warmth, to projects that are hopeless, from the likably ludicrous Foxes and Flashdance to the irredeemable Indecent Proposal.

Occasionally, Lyne’s movies start unpromisingly and then get better, but generally the opposite is true. So it’s no great surprise when Unfaithful travels from intriguing to routine, via a lurid development. (No, it doesn’t involve a bunny.) Still, this sideways sequel to Fatal Attraction, unlike that film, never plays like an upscale, 40-something Friday the 13th.

The story opens in the Westchester County paradise where Connie (Lane) lives with husband Edward (Richard Gere) and their 8-year-old son (who does eventually don an ironic bunny suit). Edward runs a trucking company in Manhattan while Connie concerns herself with house, child, and worthy causes. One windy day in Soho, she’s knocked down by a gust and skins her knees. A passer-by, Paul (Olivier Martinez), offers to tend the wounds in his nearby loft. He turns out to be young, beautiful, French, and a rare-book dealer—a rather more romantic profession than hubby’s. He’s also a skilled seducer, moving from dispensing Band-Aids to removing underpants in a few short meetings. (For those in need of tips, Paul’s strategic maneuvers include a small volume of poetry, a book in Braille, an Ali Farka Toure album, and a few slaps.)

Connie’s dalliance soon becomes a consuming passion, and her lies to her husband become sloppier while the lovers’ public displays turn more brazen. (They even screw during a matinee of Mr. Hulot’s Holiday.) One day, Connie is late picking up her son; another, she comes home unaware of the heart Paul has doodled below her navel while she was dozing. Edward starts checking his wife’s alibis, ultimately hiring a detective to follow her. This leads to the lurid development and then…not much. Married life returns to something resembling normal, as Gere himself plays the movie’s faux-Debussy piano theme for the end credits.

Unfaithful could be described as a post-Clinton Fatal Attraction, a hushed, tastefully art-directed acknowledgment that adultery is a fact of life, not the end of it (well, for some people at least). In fact, the scenario is both pre-Clinton and un-American. Alvin Sargent and William Broyles Jr.’s script is based on Claude Chabrol’s La Femme Infidele, a 1968 film that reflected the French new wave writer-director’s customary blend of Hitchcockian anxiety and Gallic nonchalance. But whereas Chabrol knew exactly what he thought about the struggle between civilized mores and savage impulses, Lyne is vaguer. It’s hard to tell if the film’s calm is meant to be suave or merely numb. CP