(English and Greek dialogue)
Appropriately enough for a movie whose protagonist is obsessed with portents, premonitions and other preternatural matters, “Signs & Wonders” is sufficiently disastrous to reinforce belief in a sophomore curse. The second dramatic feature by Jonathan Nossiter — whose much better “Sunday” was a Grand Prize winner at the 1997 Sundance Film Festival — is the kind of mind-numbingly pretentious farrago that gives international co-productions a bad name. A French-financed production shot in English on Greek locations with a Swede and a Brit playing the American leads, pic is a disjointed and pointlessly affected folly that will be hard-pressed to find an audience.
Stellan Skarsgard toplines as Alec Fenton, a Stockholm native who became “an American by choice” several years ago. Employed as a commodities trader in the Athens branch of a multinational financial firm, Alec prides himself on being able to profitably discern obscure patterns and trends in stock market fluctuations. Away from the office, Alec is even more mindful of seemingly random details and occurrences that, for him, are fraught with deeper meanings. To a large degree, pic hints, he is driven to finding (or manufacturing) order in chaos because of his profound lack of self-worth. “No matter how important you are to someone,” he fears, “you can always be replaced by someone else.”
A basically decent fellow who sincerely loves his wife, Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling), and their two teenage children, Alec can’t resist having a torrid affair with Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger), a beautiful co-worker. He breaks off the relationship to save his marriage, only to be hopelessly smitten once again when — by fateful coincidence, he believes — he runs into Katherine during a family skiing vacation.
Only after he divorces Marjorie to run off with his new love does Katherine spills the beans: She carefully plotted the “accidental” reunion in order to rekindle the illicit romance. And, in her view, the ends entirely justify the deceptive means.
Alec is repulsed — not so much by Katherine’s romantic duplicity as by her cavalier attitude toward his system of near-mystical beliefs. When he returns to Athens to seek a reconciliation with Marjorie, he finds that she’s not willing to greet him with open arms — that, in fact, she’s deeply involved with Andreas (Dimitris Katalifos), an imperturbable Greek intellectual who spent time in prison for his leftist politics during the country’s military regime.
A good deal of “Signs & Wonders” is given over to Alec’s pathetically stubborn attempts to win back his ex-wife’s affection through sheer force of will. Nossiter, who served as an assistant director on Adrian Lyne’s “Fatal Attraction,” often seems poised to jolt the audience with extreme behavior — physical or emotional violence — on the part of the possessive, jealous Alec. There are more faint echoes of Lyne’s thriller when Katherine returns to Athens, claiming to be pregnant and wanting to reconnect with Alec.
Somewhere around the three-quarter mark, however, Katherine ceases to be a character of any real importance in the muddled storyline. Working from a script he co-wrote with “Sunday” collaborator James Lasdun, Nossiter takes a sharp detour into “Bad Seed” territory, to show how Alec’s young daughter, Siri (Ashley Remy), has been emotionally warped by the tensions between her parents. Single-mindedly loyal to Alec — who dearly cherishes his daughter even as he virtually ignores his son — Siri takes drastic steps to ensure her own version of a happily-ever-after ending.
“Signs & Wonders” is rife with stretches of narrative opacity, and the confusion is exacerbated by Nossiter’s mannered technique. Lenser Yorgos Arvanitis shot the pic in digital video, often indulging in handheld swooping and swirling that prove even more vertiginous than the most frantic sections of “The Blair Witch Project.” The tape-to-film transfer is, at best, spotty. At worst, largely unattractive pic demonstrates that, for all the bold talk about the artistic and financial benefits of the new technology, many kinks have yet to be worked out.
Soundtrack is an intrusive cacophony of pop and classic motifs, electronic noise and assorted other aural onslaughts, suggesting that Nossiter has spent too much time looking at — and, more important, listening to — Jean-Luc Godard’s movies of the ’80s and ’90s.
The actors work hard to breathe life into their roles, but only Skarsgard succeeds at rendering a three-dimensional character. Despite considerable obstacles, the Swedish-born thesp generates a surprising amount of sympathy for a willfully blind character who insists on seeing hope where none exists and finds encouragement in his ex-wife’s most unambiguous rejections. Trouble is, only someone as self-deluded as Alec will expect ticketbuyers to flock to “Signs & Wonders.”