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Signs & Wonders   B

Strand Releasing

Year Released: 2000 (USA: 2001)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Jonathan Nossiter
Writers: Jonathan Nossiter, James Lasdun
Cast: Stellan Skarsgård, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Kara Unger, Ashley Remy, Dave Simonds.

Review by Jeremiah Kipp

In our fast food global culture, it's difficult to uncover meaning and direction. American stock market businessman Alec (Stellan Skarsgård, Breaking the Waves) thinks he has it all figured out, using patterns and numerology as weighty premonitions to determine his fate. Little does he know life can only remain a continual mystery, one which cannot be neatly compartmentalized.

With Signs & Wonders, Jonathan Nossiter continues his emergence, joining Todd (Poison) Haynes and Lodge (Clean, Shaven) Kerrigan as one of the few American independent filmmakers worth giving a damn about these days. His themes revolve around characters who systematically build their own private universes, safe havens from an uneasy world which is moving too fast.

This sophomore follow-up to the critically acclaimed Sunday is certainly ambitious, if not entirely cohesive. Alec flops back and forth between his long-suffering wife, Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling, Stardust Memories) and headstrong lover, Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger, Crash). This soap-opera love triangle plays out against the backdrop of present-day Greece, a hodgepodge of Americanization oversaturated with mass-market consumerism. When Alec makes a phone call to his wife confessing the affair, a Pizza Hut sign glares over him like a crass monolith.

Alec leaves his wife. He comes back. He comes and goes, seemingly guided by patterns found in household objects, colors, repetition of street signs or slogans. While it plays out as logical for him and his bright-eyed young daughter (played with charismatic fire by Ashley Remy), it's driving everyone else up the wall. Before long, he finds himself alone.

There's a thread running underneath the hustle and bustle of Alec's actions which has nothing to do with him, but everything to do with his mad philosophy. The surface plotting of Signs & Wonders, including the bizarre love triangle, proves to be nothing more than an elaborate red herring. By the time the stark, violent conclusion of Alec's tragedy permanently shakes his foundations, the pieces fall neatly into place. Perhaps too neatly, since these characters often play out like chess pieces moving through an elaborate scheme far larger than their petty lives.

Most of Nossiter's storytelling is told through the striking visuals, shot in digital video, and the unsettling audio track. Sound designers Thierry Libon and Neil Riha deserve credit for their cacophony of drones and buzzes which accurately capture the confused mental state of the three would-be lovers. This layered effect is complemented by Nossiter's penchant for unusual compositions and striking cuts, which serve as time compressors.

We're never clued in as to how long the gaps are between Alec leaving his wife and moving to America with his lover. One scene later, he's back, pining for his wife in Greece. Was it weeks? Months? An entire year? Within that five minutes of screen time (of Alec coming and going between entire continents), our sense of place has been upheaved, in the best sense of the word. Signs & Wonders keeps us on our toes. It's appropriate to the film -- time hardly counts when the lives are so compressed.

It's all conceptual. Without the weight of Skarsgård's believable performance, Signs & Wonders would be more of a mathematical puzzle than a human drama. The true revelation is actually Charlotte Rampling, an actress who never seems to get enough work. Perhaps her fiery turn here as a wife who will not be duped will remind viewers that she's a force to be reckoned with. As time marches on, the wells of her mysterious and beautiful appearance have only grown deeper. There's a bizarre scene in a hotel room where she turns on her allure like a light switch, a reminder that some things only improve with age.

While it loses its balance deliberating between a political message about American values, a mystery of chance and a steamy love triangle, Signs & Wonders makes for compulsive viewing. Like the working of Alec's fevered mind, the contrivances somehow cross and mingle in a way which oddly make sense. It's all part of the pattern, you see. The self-fulfilling prophecy.

Review published 02.15.2001.

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