Directed by Jonathan Nossiter
Written by James Lasdun and Nossiter
With Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Kara Unger and Dimitris Katalifos
Distributed by Strand Releasing
Alec Fenton (Skarsgard) is a businessman based in Athens, where he lives with his wife Marjorie (Rampling) and two children. An amateur semiotician of sorts, he's convinced that the world is full of secrets concealed in numbers, colors and patterns. At the same time, he's carrying on an affair with a colleague, Katherine (Unger). Deciding to leave his wife for her, he follows her back to the U.S. but then signs draw him back to Athens. In the meantime, his wife has began a relationship with Andreas, a Greek man (Katalifos) who wants American funding for a museum dedicated to the struggle against his country's U.S.-supported dictatorship, which ended in 1975. Alec still can't get over his marriage and either reconcile or make a new life with Katherine, and his tendency to seek mystery everywhere doesn't help.
To lift an idea from Serge Daney's review of COUP DE TORCHON, a good pathway into SIGNS & WONDERS might be to recognize that it balances three stories: a personal, political and metaphysical one. The metaphysical one is the most blatant: for Alec, the world is a mass of codes and conspiracies, even if God seems to be absent. The political one is expressed a bit more subtly, as it contrasts Alec, Marjorie and Andreas' differing responses to cultural dislocation. Andreas sees the prevalence of fast-food chains in Athens as a new form of invasion, a concern Marjorie seems sensitive to: she learns Greek and applauds his desire to take his museum's history of resistance to American influence to the present. Despite appearances, the scars of Greek history remain. On the other hand, Alec is one of the invaders, despite his European roots. He only speaks English and shows little political consciousness or concern for what's being lost as Athens turns into a giant strip mall. In one scene, Nossiter expresses this brilliantly by making him confess his infidelity to Marjorie on a phone booth with Greek lettering, dwarfed by a Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and McDonald's. The director fits as many brand names into the frame as he can, but I'd be amazed if these companies are pleased by the "product placement." In an interview with Indiewire, he makes his anti-corporate views quite clear: "What happens when we live in a world which is determined by McDonald's, Starbucks and Nike and in which human individuality is being crushed? When this happens in the larger context, of course, it's going to have a devastating effect on our personal lives." Take that, Mr. Zemeckis!
However, the personal story, the most touching and least forced of the three, takes precedence. Here, Alec's paranoia is fueled by the everyday backstabbing that comes with adultery and divorce. His obsession with taping his conversations with Marjorie and playing them back repeatedly - even analyzing them on his computer - for secret messages leads to disaster, but it's also a pretty understandable product of his split desires. His affair fuels his conspiratorial mindset, which sticks with him even after he goes public with it.
Alec's frayed mental state may be a reasonable product of a world in which 1)he's surrounded by advertising (just as he's dwarfed by fast-food restaurants when he makes that crucial call, a giant Volkswagen ad overlooks Andreas' balcony) and 2)he doesn't speak the language. The world of SIGNS & WONDERS is full of signs, most of them American commodities, but few wonders. Alec becomes a victim of this world, hurting himself and the people around him. Andreas tries his best to hold his own, but he too fails. The cast does justice to the difficult emotional circumstances behind the film's apparent web of conspiracies, with Rampling, in particular, bringing a real fury to her role. But even if Skarsgard is convincing as an American (he speaks English with only a slight Swedish accent), there's not much to his character. His instability (especially as expressed through overwrought editing and music) conceals little depth.
Of course, SIGNS & WONDERS begs to be read as an allegory. Perhaps Alec represents America. However, he comes across more as a European/American hybrid, ill-suited to malls or ruins. Through their marriage, Marjorie and Andreas attempt a different kind of union between the two continents, but they fare no better. The signs don't add up to much. Alec wants to understand the whole universe, but doesn't even understand his own actions until the end. And even then, Nossiter leaves room for ambiguity.
These characters and situations create plenty of portent on their own, so it's a pity that Nossiter shovels "atmosphere" onto SIGNS & WONDERS with an iron fist. What seems genuinely mysterious at first looks more and more like a screenwriter's contrivance. In the final 30 minutes, the film goes overboard to express Alec's craziness and Andreas' mounting sense of danger: Nossiter and Lasdun use the constant but indirect threat of violence to keep suspense ticking. Adrian Utley, of Portishead, composed the score, which stays far away from the bittersweet torch songs that made his band's reputation. Instead, he's assembled a musique concrete collage, full of sudden leaps in volume, style and tone. It's powerful and adventurous, yet it does the film little good. (Trip-hop's prince of paranoia, Tricky, might have written a more fitting one.) I could feel my buttons being pushed by it far too often for it to work, especially when the images match its bombast and shock edits. Stylistically, Nossiter's use of DV has its plusses and minuses: in exteriors, it looks rather ugly and washed-out, but under the fluorescent lights of malls, hospitals and prisons, the medium's fuzziness seems more appropriate than the clarity of 35mm celluloid.
SIGNS & WONDERS is a mess, but one strewn with interesting
ideas all the way through, especially about the effects of globalization
on the European psyche. But Nossiter and Lasdun don't trust their ideas
to carry the film, opting instead for excess. Next time around, Nossiter
might try adapting Thomas Pynchon or Don de Lillo: he certainly doesn't
lack the ambition to approach them, and basing his atmospherics in their
work might ground it in more solid substance. At present, he says a lot,
quite noisily, without adding up to anything particularly coherent. Still,
his film's failures and pretensions stem from real effort, and it has more
staying power than many blander but more "successful" films.