SIGNS & WONDERS
(director/writer: Jonathan Nossiter; screenwriter: from a story by James Lasdun; cinematographer: Yorgos Arvanitis; editor: Madeleine Gavin; music: Adrian Utley; cast: Stellan Skarsgard (Alec), Charlotte Rampling (Marjorie), Deborah Kara Unger (Katherine), Dimitris Katalifos (Andreas), David Simonds (Kent), Alexandros Mylonas (Police Captain), Dimitris Kamberidis (Sotiris), Arto Apartian (Police Interpreter), Ashley Remy (Siri), Michael Cook (Marcus); Runtime: 108; Strand Releasing; 2000-France)
“Feels like a film that could have been shot by Nicolas Roeg.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
Signs & Wonders is a grievous romantic melodrama about the troubles of an American couple living in Greece, that takes off in all different directions until it winds up as a muddled mystery story. The last 30 minutes of the film, when it leaves Athens for a feast in the countryside, is an example of incredibly bad filmmaking and almost ruins all the interesting ideas the pic presented until then. But because of the ridiculous way the film concludes, none of what happens remains convincing. The story itself seems superficial and pretentious, and only some of the ideas thrown against the wall seemed to stick; such as, a global world affected by multinational corruption, greed and political ambitions; political causes forgotten by the next generation; America’s global influence and strong economic presence affecting countries in a negative way around the world; infidelity and guilt in a marriage becoming a deep psychological problem for many couples in the modern world; children who must adjust in a broken home; and, the many problems for those living as displaced people in an alien culture.
The film shot on a digital camcorder, does look beautiful. Director Jonathan Nossiter and screenwriter James Lasdun, who collaborated on Sunday (1997), reunite for this more ambitious work. Nossiter is an American who grew up in Europe, and Lasdun is an Englishman living in America. Their failure here is greater than in Sunday, but the film was still fresh looking and provocative. It also had a masterful performances from Charlotte Rampling. The shame of it, is that it never got untracked and never focused on what it was trying to eventually say. To love this film, is to love only its odd moments which offered so much promise for this to be a great film but failed to deliver the goods.
The film is set in contemporary Athens, where the Swedish-born American commodities trader, Alec (Stellan Skarsgard), is happily married to an American whose mother was Greek, Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling). He is apparently doing very well in business, as money is not the problem here. Marjorie works in the American embassy and is busy raising their young boy and girl. Alec is busy having an affair with an attractive coworker in his firm, Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger). Out of a naive sense of guilt he telephones his wife about the affair to tell her the reason for it is “that you can always be exchanged for someone else, but Katherine wanted me for myself.” He later sobs, “You feel so polluted on every level.”
But things change for the confused businessman and Katherine returns to the States when he tells it is over, as he dutifully returns to his wife. But by coincidence he will meet Katherine some time later on the Swiss slopes when on a ski vacation and is too weak to let go of the sexy blonde. He therefore dumps his wife a second time, and this time gets a divorce and lives in the States while his family remains in Athens.
Nossiter shows us an ugly Athens that has a strong multinational and, in particular, American presence there. Among the American name brand businesses are Pizza Hut, McDonald’s and Tide, and there are the homogenous multinational malls established by greedy business concerns raping the country of their dignity and heritage. Alec fits in there as the “Ugly American,” who thinks he can buy whatever he wants and has lost track of what is real and unreal.
Suddenly, Alex turns up in Athens again after leaving Katherine and desperately tries to get back together with Marjorie. But she rejects this idea, though she generously allows him to stay in the house and spend time with their children. He willingly offers to baby-sit while she dates a revolutionary reporter and political activist, Andreas (Dimitris Katalifos), who fought against the dictatorship in 1967-’74 and hopes to get corporate financial sponsorship to commemorate the resistance movement with a museum.
Alec whimpers and begs Marjorie for another shot at the marriage, as he tells her “I’m not a frivolous human being.” But she tells him it’s over, she was humiliated twice and he has taken away everything from her–she has nothing more to give.
Andreas sees through Alec when the frustrated ex seeks a meeting and they talk in Andreas’s politically archive-stocked apartment. Alec unsuccessfully tries to convince him that Marjorie will always be his. The way Alec carries on, reminds Andreas of the Ugly Americans who want to build him a resistance movement museum but on their own terms.
Andreas says to Marjorie, “When Americans offer you money, it means they’re ashamed of something.” He states that the U.S. supported Greece’s military dictatorship, so he thinks why shouldn’t he in return get financial support for his project from their corporations. He can’t separate Alec from the other American businessmen raping his country.
“Signs and Wonders” feels like a film that could have been shot by Nicolas Roeg. It has a lot of quirky camera movements, and it always feels like the camera is a stalker and the viewer is forced into being voyeur.
Alec is the film’s ambiguous figure, as he’s both a monster and someone who knows what is the right thing to do and he has a religious-like need to get things off his chest and confess his guilt in order to show his decent side. But he’s stuck, because he will do anything for his happiness–he thinks that is his ultimate right as an American and he can’t overcome his beliefs and need to satisfy his desires. He can’t even learn Greek, even though he’s lived in Athens for years. Alex is locked into feeling that it’s all about him and thinks whatever he does, will also be good for others. That’s why he makes a fool of himself by thinking his wife will have no choice but take him back if she sees how penitent he can be. He becomes like a Graham Greene Catholic, using his guilt and penance as things of substance to give himself something to prop himself up with.
But the film is layered with so much else, that it is difficult to follow all the subplots. Where the story ends up, seems senseless. It suddenly turns into an eerie psychic fairy tale of a stepfather not accepted by his wife’s mentally tortured young girl. The film leaves a mess of ideas as detritus along the road, and goes down quickly without clearing up the plot. It’s too bad the story was so poorly thought out, because if it could have just been less muddled and more controlled this might have been some kind of film. But it’s better to fail this way, then by not taking any chances and presenting a safe story.
REVIEWED ON 2/20/2002 GRADE: B – https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/