As if to answer the introverted, prevaricating psychodramatics of his debut, Sunday, Jonathan Nossiter has assembled his new film, Signs & Wonders, with equal parts combustibility and momentum. Like the hero’s family, marriage, and consciousness, it’s a closed system gone entropically haywire, shot on digital video, prone to editing spasms and musical eruptions, and open to the occasional narrative grift. Nossiter’s ideas still have a Borgesian seasoning, or, rather, a Robbe-Grilletian tang—both of his films scan like (short) romans nouveaux, and enjoy an erratic subjectivity. (Both were written with poet-novelist James Lasdun.) Signs & Wonders is deceptively brainy—each time you suspect the movie might start throwing pistons, another poetic layer emerges.
Essentially a study of a particularly bizarre midlife crisis, Nossiter’s film tracks the kamikaze life course of Alec (Stellan Skarsgard), an Athens-stationed American financier whose impulsive but agonized fling with a coworker (Deborah Kara Unger) eventually forces him to confess to his wife, Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling). “How do people do it?” he asks her guiltily, never realizing his real problem: a virtually unconscious obsession with reading the world around him for signs and fateful indications. After suturing his marriage once, he extinguishes it again (offscreen, this time) when he meets his ex-lover on the ski slopes—a sign of their belonging together. Looking for a system with purpose becomes a way to salve the dread of the arbitrary; Alec and Marjorie are both haunted by the idea that they could just as easily be married to someone else. Once Alec begins noticing patterns—eye symbols, clothing, lampposts, etc.—everything has significance, and deciphering it all turns his world inside out.
The Greek setting has its purpose—signs of the old dictatorship are everywhere. Nossiter even chooses his extras for their prominent scars, and American brand names carpet the movie like warts. The film is exceptionally messy—Nossiter may still be searching for his style, and here is a tic-ridden launch into an extreme direction, abetted by a soundtrack of swing splatters, Satie lilts, and aural thunder courtesy of Portishead’s Adrian Utley. Pretension looms, and for many the web of symbolism will be too thick. But Rampling, to her credit, helps hold the nuthouse together. In perhaps her long career’s first decent, mature role, Rampling blooms in four dimensions; Marjorie’s sensible grip is so seductive amid Nossiter’s fan-hitting shit that her shocking moments of crazed folly come on like gangbusters.