Signs & Wonders Review
Watching Signs & Wonders is a curious and disorienting experience, the film seeming to take every opportunity and use every device to make viewing and comprehension difficult through its stylised handheld, jumpy filming approach, the glaring colours and brightness of its presentation and through its dislocated soundtrack which flips between genres and moods, following some shifting indefinable rhythm of its own making.
The film immediately throws you in this way into the disorienting world and character of Alec Fenton (Stellan Skarsgård), a Swedish-born naturalised-American businessman located in Athens with his wife Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling) and his two children. Consumed by guilt over an affair he is having with Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger), an American woman working in his office, he confesses his betrayal to his wife, seeking to make amends. However, Alec places a great deal of faith in signs, omens and patterns in the world around him, and when he just happens to meet Katherine again while on a skiing holiday with his family, the coincidence is too great for him to dismiss. Alec however, by placing such faith in signs and wonders, can be easily manipulated and misguided in his reading of situations, and his increasingly unpredictable behaviour starts to have a tremendous affect on those close to him.
Filmed on handheld video in a quite distinctive manner by Yorgos Arvanitis, the regular cinematographer of Theo Angelopoulos, the camera makes everything up-close and immediate – on the one hand making the viewer very much part of the action, but at the same time, its unnaturalistic colour schemes and its jumping from scene to scene with little in the way of context setting is also initially very confusing. This air of surrealism, which is implicit in a story that makes several references to Alice In Wonderland (not least of which is in the suggestion made by the film’s title and main character of the film – ‘Alec in Wonderland’?), is heightened by the mannered formalism of the script and its rather awkward delivery, which additionally remains slightly dislocated from the characters voices by the evident post-synchronisation. Much of the film’s unusual look and feel is also dictated to no small extent by Adrian Utley’s musical score and sampled, fragmented mixing. Much as I love Portishead’s music, it seems to bring out the worst excesses in directors who try to cut their films to the distinctive moods their music evokes (Michael Almereyda’s Nadja and Portishead’s own film To Kill A Dead Man, the score of the latter being recycled for much of the film here). It certainly seeps the film in a particular mood, but perhaps not the kind best suited to the film.
All of this disorienting experience is at least appropriate with a subject that is detailing the breakdown from reality of its main character Alec. The film however rather over-ambitiously attempts to align the main character’s exploration of guilt and reparation with American foreign policy, particularly in their historic and less than admirable involvement in Greece, which is brought up in his run-ins with the character of Andreas, an outspoken Greek political activist and historical archivist, who becomes involved with Marjorie. It’s certainly more overt than Michael Haneke’s flirting with the theme as an abstraction in Caché, but it’s consequently also rather heavy handed, Alec at one stage awkwardly comparing his on-off relationship with his wife as “torturing someone and then reviving them so you can do it again”, which is not a terribly clever allegory.
By the end of the film however, Signs & Wonders resembles less Caché and more Fatal Attraction. Not only is the whole delusional nature of Alec’s reality unconvincing – he’s an out-and-out crackpot and it’s hard to believe that someone whose life is directed by signs and portents would have the necessary pragmatism to be an internationally successful commercial businessman – but every character around Alec is also prone to hysterical behaviour and wildly inconsistent actions. Perhaps it is infectious, and certainly by the end of the film, even the viewer is starting to look at everything in the frame as being potentially portentous and significant.
Signs & Wonders is released in the UK by Soda Pictures. The DVD is in PAL format and encoded for Region 2.
Filmed on low-resolution video, brightened and colour-boosted, handheld and blurred to capture an alternate cracked vision of the world – how close this DVD is to the original intention of the director and cinematographer is anyone’s guess, but it seems to be conveyed particularly well here. While the use of video give rise to fears of Dogme-style rough and readiness, Yorgos Arvanitis’s cinematography makes sure it is anything but, with some particularly fine camerawork and striking use of Greek landscapes in the latter part of the film. Colours are deeply saturated and glow on the screen, and there is more than adequate tone and definition. While there are inevitably various kinds of video artefacts introduced in such a filming technique with post-production manipulation and subsequent transfer to 35mm, they are as they ought to be and there doesn’t appear to be any additional issues with blocking or compression artefacts incurred in the transfer to DVD.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0 and again it is fine in as far as the nature of the filming and sound recording allow it to be. Much of the dialogue appears to have been re-recorded and post-synchronised and as such, the almost amateurish nature of the dubbing, failing to match the expressiveness of the characters on the screen, tends to ring hollow and false. None of this has anything to do with its transfer to DVD, which seems to convey the original soundtrack quite well.
The film is predominately in English and there are no subtitles for those sections. Some fixed subtitles are included for the occasional snatches of Greek dialogue used in the film.
There are no extra features at all on the DVD.
Signs & Wonders is a curious film that attempts to work on a variety of levels, from the character study of a breakdown to an allegory of American involvement in international affairs, but I don’t think it works on any of them. On the whole, the impression given by Signs & Wonders is that it is decidedly amateurish, and not just because of the choice of filming stock. Nossiter, who would later move to documentary work with Mondovino, is clearly not a director of actors, he’s not particularly strong with narrative or dialogue, and the ideas, themes and messages he attempts to convey are overshadowed by a ludicrous plot. The filming style and the unusual music score at least give the film plenty of mood – there are just doubts as to whether the mood is appropriate to the subject.