|© 2008 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.
In his second feature film SIGNS & WONDERS, director Jonathan Nossiter tackles
the complex idea that there are portents in our every day lives to which some people are more
attuned. His hero, Scandinavian-born American Alec (Stellan Skarsgård), is obsessed with the
coded messages around him, whether they be in the colors of clothing or the number of cars
parked on a street. A successful businessman working in Greece, he plays his hunches. He's
also enough of a cad to be cheating on his wife Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling) with his sexy
co-worker Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger). When Alec decides to come clean about the affair,
a hurt and disappointed Marjorie accepts him back, but she loses him again to Katherine when
he encounters his mistress during a family vacation. After a sojourn in America (during which
Katherine confesses to manipulating the "signs"), he returns to Greece with the hopes of
reuniting with his family. Yet, for someone so allegedly attuned to the psychic messages he
claims to see, Alec cannot recognize what is plainly before him. Marjorie has moved on and
has become involved with a leftist intellectual (Dimitris Katalifos).
Written with James Lasdun, SIGNS & WONDERS feels a bit like a step back for
Nossiter who made a terrific debut with his 1997 Sundance winner SUNDAY. The early sections
of the film feel rushed, particularly the "reunion" with Katherine and the quick manner in which
Alec tosses away his family to relocate with his lover. For whatever reason, the director and the
writer have hurried over this stretch of the story, and the result is slightly confusing for viewers.
Alec's obsession with making his family whole again comes across pathetically; he
simply cannot see the pain he has inflicted on his former wife. Katherine fades out of the story
(only to make a weird reappearance) and the focus shifts to Alec's troubled daughter Siri
(Ashley Remy) who uses Alice in Wonderland as an inspiration to create havoc and to try
to reunite her parents.
Skarsgård makes a Herculean effort to keep Alec somewhat likable, but as written the
character possesses such tunnel vision that he comes across as a something of a jerk. Unger
employs her now trademarked icy beauty to good effect, but as she keeps appearing and
disappearing and doesn't ever really take center stage, the audience doesn't really care about
her. The still beautiful Rampling offers the film's best performance; watch her in her
confrontation with Skarsgård over the disintegration of their marriage. In one scene, she runs
a complete gamut of emotions and provides a reminder of just how wonderful an actress
Nossiter deserves kudos for being willing to tell stories about characters that aren't
twentysomething hard bodies, but rather mature adults. Both SIGNS & WONDERS and
SUNDAY focus on characters that aren't often the leads in mainstream features. The film
offers no easy answers and perhaps requires repeated viewings in order to decipher the
intricate omens embedded in the story. Skarsgård's character isn't sympathetic enough
to warrant the audience's sympathy. The look of the film also detracts slightly: it was originally
shot in digital video and then transferred to film. Nossiter's insistence on using a handheld
camera is understandable as a way of focusing in on the intimate aspects of the material,
but the result on a big screen is slightly dizzying. One particular sequence in which Alec
stalks Marjorie through a food mart particularly comes to mind.
As a sophomore effort, SIGNS & WONDERS demonstrates that Nossiter isn't
necessarily willing to rest on his laurels. The writer-director attempts to move into new territory,
and, although he doesn't quite succeed, it is encouraging to see him make that effort. Perhaps
next time, he'll pay more attention to the emblems around him and find greater success.
Rating: C +
MPAA Rating: NONE (sexual situations, nudity, language)
Running time: 108 mins.