Fifteen-year-old Giovanna’s (Giordana Marengo) life begins to unravel the day she hears her father Andrea describe her as “ugly”. No, he calls her something worse. In a low voice, he tells her mother, “I’ve already figured it out. She’s starting to look like my sister.” Vittoria is the monstrous aunt that the family doesn’t speak to; the sister Andrea has come to viciously hate. She’s a liar and a slut, Giovanna has been told. And now, Giovanna must meet her. She must confirm if she is really turning into the ugliness that is her aunt.
The Lying Life of Adults is a coming-of-age story, based on Elena Ferrante’s 2019 novel by the same name. Set in Naples in the Nineties, it’s a meandering, messy but moving look at girlhood, adolescence and adulthood. Over six episodes, Giovanna emerges from the experience of being an adolescent outsider to become that multiplicitous thing that is an adult, someone who stands shoulder to shoulder with the deceitful grown-ups she once couldn’t fathom.
From early on in The Lying Life of Adults, director Edoardo De Angelis hints at an undercurrent of restlessness in the seemingly cheerful world of Giovanna’s parents, Andrea (Alessandro Preziosi) and Nella (Pina Turco), who are glamorous and Left-leaning; and their mansion-owning close friends, Costanza (Raffaella Rea) and Mariano (Biagio Forestieri). Yet for all the wine-soaked bonhomie between the couples, tension brews underneath the exchanged glances and concealed sneers. Pregnant pauses take shape under the guidance of Giovanni Guardi’s almost-constant background score.
Giovanna senses none of this until she meets her aunt. Vittoria (a fantastic Valeria Golino) is everything her parents had called her and much more – perennially smoking, crass and a firebrand, she seems to talk about only two people: Enzo, the married man she had fallen in love with and Andrea, the vile brother who had outed her affair to Enzo’s wife. Enzo died from the pain of their separation and Vittoria has never been with another man. Yet through her conversations with Vittoria, Giovanna sees different, less flattering and more opportunistic sides to her parents, especially her father. “Watch your parents closely,” Vittoria tells her. “Or you’ll get lost.”
Through Giovanna’s eyes, we see the crumbling world of a child at the edge of free-fall adolescence. When she suspects her mother might be having an affair, her only concern is that it might tear her family apart – even as the dreadful knowledge that adults are inherently broken beings continues to dawn on her. When it is revealed that her father is having an affair with Costanza, Giovanna sees the rot that lay under the home life that had once seemed sacred. Her estrangement makes her see the world for how pathetic it can be: Her father, as he bangs his head against the wheel of his car, petulantly demanding empathy; her aunt, in the presents she gives only to demand them back later; her mother, who remains devoted to her cheating husband.
At one point, Giovanna herself brushes close to cheating – the very act that tore her own family apart and gave Vittoria grief. She finds herself stunned at how effortless it would be to sleep with a friend’s partner and for the partner to abandon the woman he claims to love. “Is it that easy?” she wonders. “To die in the lives of the people we cannot live without?”
“Is sinning like bitterness?” a character wonders at one point in The Lying Life of Adults. The clearer Giovanna sees things, the more bitter she grows and the more freely she lies. She indulges in different kinds of deception and it is left to the viewer, much like the people in her life, to figure out when she is being honest. More than rebellion, Giovanna’s lying feels like a necessary tool for surviving adolescence. In a life that feels a lot like drowning, must we not take what gives us comfort? Must we not create fanciful stories so that living is just a little more bearable? By the end of the show, we’re presented with the idea of “beautiful lies”, which suggests lying is a creative and vital exercise for surviving adulthood. It is only fitting then that The Lying Life of Adults is an adaptation of a fictional novel – a genre that uses falsehood to reveal the truth of human existence.