In most ways, "the 1990s in cinema" is a hard thing to define, aesthetically or otherwise. Mostly, it's the thing that transitioned between the 1980s (infatuated with narrative simplicity and violence) and the 2000s (CGI-driven franchises and a kind of pop-market humanism), with the constant, lecturing presence of the most artistically and commercially robust independent cinema scene in American history, to keep it guiltily aware of the traditions of the 1970s. It is a decade in which everything feels pulled and pushed and undecided about what it wants to be; a decade of one long identity crisis, marred by morbid levels of self-awareness unlike anything seen before or since.

And for all that, Indecent Proposal is a movie that absolutely could not have come out at any other period in all of human history than 1993. It feels exactly like the spirit of that age given form, which is probably how it managed to end up the sixth highest-grossing film in the U.S. that year; the last time, unless I have missed something, in which an R-rated film sold almost exclusively on the strength of its naughty, erotic sexytimes was able to end up in a yearly box office top 10. And that itself says a lot about both the film and the early-middle-'90s; this was the golden age of the chintzy erotic thriller, the glory days of Skinemax, mere months after Madonna's book of essays and photographs Sex forced a cultural conversation about sexuality, desire, pleasure, and prudishness that never really resolved into anything, but was quite heated and impassioned at the time.

But we don't have to get all high-falutin' about it: the film announces its essential '90s-ness early and aggressively, with opening credits in which the words of the title zoom away from the camera with ponderous intent, like a Star Destroyer cruising overhead. And the best part is that "Indecent" is out of focus and looks like the shadow of the word "Proposal", and a more perfect title treatment at evoking the graphic sensibility of the era or of the erotic thriller I cannot imagine. Even this, though, is not the moment that time-stamps Indecent Proposal first: by the time we can read the title, we have already seen the words "Demi Moore".

Now, I just called the film an "erotic thriller", which is misleading. To be a thriller, it would first have to be thrilling, and the most important and constant characteristic of Indecent Proposal is that it is disgustingly boring. Nay, that's not strong enough: it is the most lifeless, tedious film that could imaginably be made from its plot hook. And that plot hook, so ubiquitous in cocktail party conversations in 1993, is whoring out your wife. Oh, not in a tawdry way. The question, as many a married couple has asked themselves through the years (but more since 1993 than prior, I am sure), is whether it would be worth such and such a sum of money for the wife to have sex with a stranger. In this case, the sum being one million dollars, and the stranger being Robert Redford, who at 56 was still handsome enough that the answer would probably come closer to "wait, you'd pay me?" So it's high class prostitution, but as they say, now we're just haggling over the price.

There's never any doubt that the answer will be "yes", in this telling (it would be a 35-minute feature film, among other things), and so the interest here lies more in the fallout in the marriage being so exploited. You can almost hear the whirring noise as the film stars to consider itself: what if it's, like, the very best marriage ever, between the two most perfect, beautiful human beings that ever eloped as teenagers because of the wholesome, virginal purity of their love? And so, Amy Holden Jones's adaptation Jack Engelhard's novel (where, I am led to believe, this all is cast in terms of Israeli-Palestinian political intrigue) plonkingly sets out the story of David (Woody Harrelson) and Diana Murphy (Moore), the glorious innocents all set to be ripped apart by the great white shark of Redford's wealthy lust. By the end of the first ten minutes, the Murphys' marriage has been detailed in such angelic tones that I cannot imagine the viewer so forgiving that they aren't openly rooting for the most vile degradations to be heaped on the couple.

As the voice-over dialogue, handed off from one to the other, laboriously sketches out their life history - he's an unemployed architect, she's a laid-off real estate agent, and they're about to lose the house he's been building to prove the once-in-a-generation genius of his designs, which look angular and sickeningly modern in the best '90s tradition - director Adrian Lyne films them with all the soft focus, soft lighting, and windblown romanticism of a douche commercial. When they have sex, it is the most Adriane Lyne-ish sex that has ever been filmed: just saucy enough for an R-rating (here, the quick impression of Harrelson's butt; there, a cameo by Moore's nipples), with Sade's "No Ordinary Love" playing sexy-mournfully over their cozy, chaste fucking. It's the perfect blend of prurience and puritanism, the oh-so-American mix that birthed Lyne's entire career as a filmmaker.

When they're not having tender, Harlequin Romance sex, David and Diana call each other "D"; they fake terrible fights, with shoe-throwing and everything, just so they can collapse giggling into each other's arms; they stare with waxen emptiness through each other, since Moore was a pretty terrible actress at the best of times (one forgets, after enough years away, but holy shit, it's like human isn't her first language), and Harrelson's skill-set (which was not yet well-known in 1993, when he was still just the goofball from Cheers) is exactly ill-tuned to this part; he's good at sarcastic assholes, or menacing figures barely able to keep their rage hidden, or weary and disillusioned cowboy types. He's exactly not good at tortured romantic artists, which this film unimaginatively requires its bankrupt architect and passionate husband to be.

So anyway, they trundle off to Las Vegas, in the desperate hopes of putting together enough money to save David's precious house, and there Diana attracts the satanic attention of billionaire John Gage, who stares at her with blunt, sexualised looks, and craves the one thing that his money cannot have: the pure love of people like the Murphys. It would be maybe interesting if the film suggested that his goal wasn't simply to fuck Diana and make her his trophy, but specifically to destroy their goodness simply because he's wicked, but that would require more psychological sophistication than Indecent Proposal is aware exists. Instead, it turns into a labored series of dialogues where he says "I want to pay you money to ride my dick" in every way other than the direct one, and then a labored series of dialogues where the Murphys dither about accepting his offer, and that's when the film gets really tedious.

For anything and everything that's interesting here lies solely in that hook: the remaining hour and change, where Lyne and Holden indifferently explore the ramifications of the decision, are painfully disengaged from anything human. The writing and performances leave David and Diana as such hollow ciphers that it's simply not possible to give any trace of a goddamn about either of them; it's hard even to get a good head of seam up about the film's tacky sexual politics, which strip Diana of all her agency, since there's nothing in the script or Moore's performance to suggest in even the broadest sense that the character actually possesses an inner life. David is too bland for his torn-apart jealousy to feel genuine at all, and Redford, more charismatic and comfortable in his part than Moore and Harrelson combined, never indulges the script's absolute need for John to start coming across as menacing and stalker-ish (it doesn't help that he is given, almost verbatim, a speech about nostalgia and longing from Citizen Kane, the most humanising moment afforded to any of the leads at any point in the film).

The only human touches in the entire film come from the supporting cast: Oliver Platt as the Murphys' totally self-centered lawyer, smart with a turn of phrase and untroubled by ethics; and Seymour Cassel as John's elegant hatchet man, smiling and insinuating and snakelike (there's also a shocking, imbalancing injection of vitality from a pre-fame Billy Bob Thornton as gambler who does more with his strictly functional one-scene role than Harrelson does with his entire leading performance). It certainly does not come from the Lands End catalogue sensuality, carefully airbrushed by Lyne to titillate a mass audience without ever once troubling them with messy things like sexuality. The film has a child's idea of romantic relationships and sexual partnerships alike, and it has a perfect cast full of soulless, genderless mannequins with which to enact those ideas. It is, in short, the perfect embodiment of American cinema's brief but intense dalliance with tawdry sex, depicted in the most sexphobic aesthetic that could exist. Despite a shelf life that could be measured in months rather than years, it's perhaps the most definitive film from 1993 that I can name.

Elsewhere in American cinema in 1993
-Steven Spielberg's very good year includes birthing the Age of CGI with the massive hit Jurassic Park and growing up with the surprisingly large hit Schindler's List
-An era in American horror ends as New Line retires Jason Voorhees with Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday; it lasts for almost ten whole years
-Super Mario Bros. is the first film based on a video game, starting its genre off on a massive stumble from which it has yet to recover

Elsewhere in world cinema in 1993
-New Zealand cinema's leading light, Jane Campion, makes her greatest film, The Piano
-Krzysztof KieΕ›lowski makes the first in his trilogy of European life and culture in the '90s, Three Colors: Blue
-Kaige Chen's Farewell My Concubine is the first (and only) Chinese film to win the Palme d'Or