WONDERLAND

Directed by Michael Winterbottom

Written by Laurence Coriat

With Shirley Henderson, Ian Hart, Kika Markham, Gina McKee, Molly Parker, John Simm and  Jack Shepherd

Distributed by USA Films

***1/2



In the wake of Robert Altman's SHORT CUTS (which Laurence  Coriat openly cites as her inspiration), countless films have tried offering similar panoramas of cities all over the world. WONDERLAND is one of the most successful. Startlingly, it pulls off a trick few American filmmakers can hack: combining a plethora of film references with a firm grounding in real experience, it  often suggests a Ken Loach re-make of Paul Thomas Anderson's suburban L.A. epic MAGNOLIA. (However, it premiered at Cannes last year, seven months before MAGNOLIA was released in the U.S.)  In addition to SHORT CUTS, Coriat's structure  recalls Todd Solondz's HAPPINESS, not to mention its roots in Woody Allen's HANNAH AND HER THREE SISTERS. Winterbottom's sped-up street scene interludes resemble Christopher Doyle and Wong Kar-wai's hyped-up lyricism, while he's also drawn from Dogma films. Even as he breaks several of its  rules (especially the one barring non-diegetic music), he has more or less adopted its general aesthetic, shooting with a handheld camera, 16mm stock (whose blow-up produces an extremely grainy image), real locations and natural light. In a lesser film, all these trendy influences might not have added up to anything more than a bland soufflé, but WONDERLAND succeeds marvelously at cooking something new from  old stock.

Cross-cutting between six members of an extended family, WONDERLAND takes place over a 4-day November holiday weekend. Debbie (Henderson) is a hairdresser and single mother suffering from a troubled relationship with her ex-boyfriend (Ian Hart). Cafe waitress Nadia (McKee) is the loneliest of the three, while the pregnant Molly (Parker), who seems to be the most settled, doesn't realize that her own security  is resting on the fault line of her boyfriend's mood swings. Their parents are no happier: well into middle age, the couple has grown to hate each other. The father (Shepherd) seems attracted to a neighbor, while the mother (Markham) is a perpetual anxiety attack waiting to happen.

Coriat's screenplay is assembled so well that its many contrivances  only become apparent in retrospect. Initially, it appears to jump randomly between characters. Not until late Saturday night do the connections between individual stories become clear. Plenty of weaker films, such as Jeremy Podeswa's THE FIVE SENSES (now playing alongside WONDERLAND at New York arthouses), have piled on coincidences and chance encounters in a vain attempt to add Significance to a collection of already  pretentious fragments. In this regard, Egoyan and Kieslowksi have turned out to be dangerous role models. WONDERLAND could easily have fallen into the same trap, but its impressive mise-en-scéne is inseparable from its content.

Blurring the line between finding the drama in everyday life and the everyday life in drama, Winterbottom adopts a "realistic" style for a story full of melodramatic events like a woman running into her boyfriend, who apparently abandoned her the night before, by chance in a hospital corridor, and a pair of feuding parents finally being forced to confront each other when their son is mugged. He understands that there's no inherent contradiction between melodrama and neo-realism. (Just look at Rossellini's ROME, OPEN CITY.) A strictly naturalistic approach wouldn't allow for the beautiful music/image counterpoints Winterbottom creates, while a soap-opera version couldn't possibly capture the abrasive textures of urban life so well. Its major departure from Dogma lies with its deployment of Michael Nyman's serene orchestral score, often used as a distancing device, as  well as a louder-than-natural mix of street noises and music. As with MAGNOLIA, the sound design is remarkably bombastic, yet it contributes as much to the illusion of reality as the roundly convincing ensemble cast.

One of the most impressive "movies" I've seen this year is Douglas Aitken's ELECTRIC EARTH, an 8-screen, 4-room video installation (at the Whitney Biennial last spring) depicting an African-American dancer walking through deserted night-time city streets. A truly interactive work that allows the spectator to adjust his or her own movements to its rhythms, it made me feel like I had walked into a  Léos Carax  cityscape. Obviously, WONDERLAND can't quite produce the same effect, but it  nevertheless creates an indelible movie-city. Laid out on paper, its ideas  may not be profound - "the sustaining headrush and soothing white noise of metropolitan commotion is but a tiny perspective shift away from the dull, bewildering ache of psychic solitude heightened by relentlessly anonymous bustle," in Dennis Lim's words - yet  when  expressed in images and sounds, they ring true. While Winterbottom has retained almost nothing of British social realism's  political agenda, he also avoids the miserabilism of  equally depoliticized British films like NIL BY MOUTH and RATCATCHER, instead fashioning  a moving, compassionate picture of how  life in big cities in the West felt  at the end of the twentieth century.