A scene from 'Signs & Wonders'
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** stars 108 minutes | Unrated
Opened: Friday, July 6, 2001
Directed by Jonathan Nossiter

Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Kara Unger, Dimitris Katalifos


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Affectatious art house drama about a broken marriage has hackneyed problems just like Hollywood flicks

By Rob Blackwelder

A textbook example of a pretentious art film, "Signs and Wonders" bursts with superfluous symbolism, overcranked tension, deliberately vague performances and proud-to-be-low-budget stylistic idiosyncrasies. But for all its pretense, it has a lot of the same problems that make for bad mainstream movies.

The biggest of those problems is the use of hackneyed plot devices -- like an eavesdropping character misconstruing part of a conversation -- to drive significant portions of the story.

"Signs" is about Alec, a manic-depressive middle-aged American stock analyst (curiously played by Danish Stellan Skarsgard) who habitually sabotages his marriage. He lives comfortably in Athens, Greece, with Marjorie, his U.S. embassy worker wife (curiously played by English Charlotte Rampling) and two kids. But their marriage has become systematic and he's having an affair with a co-worker named Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger, a bona fide American).

Obsessed with reading meaning and karmic cues into every part of his life, Alec has a fit of rectitude on his way to meet Katherine one night after seeing something he considers a sign (although at this point we don't know enough about his fixation to take note what that something is). He confesses his affair to Marjorie and detaches himself from Katherine, shunning her indignation.

That is until a year later when they meet by coincidence on the slopes of a Swiss ski resort while he's on holiday with his family. Emotionally waffling Alec takes this as a sign and a few scenes later he and Katherine are strolling through a conspicuously American shopping mall. He's left his family and moved back to the States with his mistress.

Co-writer and director Jonathan Nossiter (an American expatriate himself) does a fine job of bottling the jumbled emotions Skarsgard skillfully infuses into Alec. Shooting on digital video adds a layer of tension to the film by making the audience feel uncomfortably close to his characters' anguished psyches. Adding a substantial extra layer of additional psychosomatic strain is an intense, staccato score by Adiran Utley (of the band Portishead) that vacillates wildly -- often in the same scene -- between sharp piano, traditional Greek guitar and unnerving percussion that sounds like three hearts beating out of time.

All this helps put the audience inside Alec's head when his precarious faith in fortuitous portent is shaken by Katherine's suggestion that the meeting on the ski slope was not by chance. Angry and thrown off his conviction, Alec returns to Athens once again to beg for Marjorie's forgiveness. But she's had enough and has moved on with another man, a former Greek freedom fighter named Andreas (Dimitris Katalifos).

Up to this point "Signs and Wonders" was already lacking in eloquence and has had difficulty with obnoxiously overt symbolism and overly postured acting (each actor has powerful moments, but they don't begin to sync up with each other). But it isn't until Alec begins honing in on his family's new life that the film goes into a tailspin.

Alec's hopeless and extreme preoccupation with picking up the pieces of his former life makes him as irrational and clueless as a soap opera character. This in turn leads to stalking and some highly contrived misunderstandings -- predicated in part on the fact that he doesn't know Katherine has followed him back to Greece and is stalking him in turn.

Nossiter beats the movie's themes, symbols and ironies into the ground with a bizarre twist involving Alec's 12-year-old daughter (Ashley Remy) that leads to several serious suspension of disbelief problems regarding the intelligence and common sense of these characters, and to a drawn-out finale of acute but laboriously manipulative emotional strain.

The humanity and raw passions at the core of "Signs and Wonders" would have been better served by less cinematic affectation and more simplicity than Nossiter has provided in this intentionally supercilious picture.


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