Monday 16 November 2020

1,001 Films: "Signs & Wonders" (2000)

The thoroughly committed headscratcher
Signs & Wonders takes the same starting point as Darren Aronofsky's Pi and goes off in a different direction with it. To Athens, in fact, cradle of Western civilisation, where we find Stellan Skarsgård as an American commodities trader on the verge of a personal and marital breakdown. Married to Charlotte Rampling but carrying on an affair with secretary Deborah Kara Unger, he starts to see doubles, triples, recurring patterns everywhere he looks, an obsession that can only ever end up with him on his own. Co-writer/director Jonathan Nossiter goes out of his way to generate heightened levels of coincidence and suspicion with his mise-en-scène: it's one of those films where even the extras seem up to something. We can't help but notice the matching jackets and carrier bags in one marketplace scene, nor how a television commercial seen at the very edge of one frame seems to refer back to an anti-imperialist political speech placed front and centre earlier on. Even the music cues start to insinuate their way into one's head, there to go round and round like a tune you just can't place. Nossiter adds a further layer of tension by shooting his deliberately disjointed scenes surveillance camera-style, through windows and fences, peeping between gaps on shelves, lurking at the bottom of staircases.

It slowly dawns on us that what we're watching is not only the most formally controlled indie movie since Todd Haynes' [safe], but a brilliant riff on globalisation: an American writer-director goes to Greece with French money in search of something new and finds he still can't get away from the McDonald's and Pizza Hut signs that make up Signs and Wonders' backdrop through its first half. (Nossiter went on to make the feted documentary Mondovino, about the culture clash between French wine producers and their Californian equivalents.) Moral: everywhere you go, you begin to see the same strange sights. But this really is only the half of a heady, complex stew. There are references to Alice in Wonderland and Vertigo, and a penultimate-reel explosion appears to be referencing L'Appartement's referencing of Vertigo, making this - let's get it right - the cinema's first post-post-modern work. Meanwhile, Rampling is vacillating between two suitors who represent historical and market forces respectively, the one a Greek resistance hero, the other a man who doesn't speak a word of the native language, in his complacent belief that to speak American English is enough. (Skarsgård confirms his growing reputation as the movies' most compelling boor.) Both fascinated and disturbed by the chaos man has made of this world, this is every bit as much a "modern film" as Antonioni's films must have seemed in the mid-1960s: the work of a filmmaker who goes looking for meaning because the opposite - a world entirely without - is too ghastly a proposition to contemplate.

Signs & Wonders is currently unavailable on any format in the UK.

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