Signs & Wonders

on February 11, 2000 by Christine James
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   "Signs and Wonders" is the sort of movie that makes you suspect you missed a reel. It's an intriguing, complex and original human drama, but its detached air and oblique characterizations turn this tale of head games into a head-scratcher.

   The always off-kilter Stellan Skarsgard plays Alec, a successful broker living happily enough in Athens with his loving family, until he allows his obsession with omens to destroy his personal life. After trying to make good by ending his affair, he chances upon his former mistress, Katherine (the eerily ethereal Deborah Kara Unger), on a remote ski slope and takes it as a sign that she his is destiny. The film jumps to the two of them in America; as Alec gushes about how the hand of fate brought them together, Katherine is visibly disturbed at the amount of import the encounter had on Alec's decision. "It just all feels so precarious," she remarks. She confesses that she had arranged to run into him, knowing that he'd "read all sorts of meaning into it." Alec immediately realizes the gravity of his mistake--though only because the synchronicity was synthetic. He beelines back to Greece to try to win back his wife (an earthy Charlotte Rampling), only to find she has moved on both psychologically and romantically. His son seems content with the current situation, but his daughter, who shares her father's love of scrutinizing coincidence, reinforces the false signs both strive to mold into their desired interpretations. (In one of the drama's lighter moments, Alec is faced with some fact that he can't rationalize to his benefit, compelling him to dismiss it with the utterly uncharacteristic bid: "Let's not read too much into that.")

   When something of cosmic significance is supposedly occurring, it's signified by backwards music, tinkling bells, trilling piano and the like, but mostly this cues the audience to strain to figure out what they're supposed to be seeing. Part of this is probably because the point is that Alec is perceiving connections that just don't exist, but the confusion might also be attributable to the underexplained Greek myths that keep cropping up, Skarsgard's nebulously European accent and the film's occasionally murky sound quality. Nevertheless, the promising premise and across-the-board compelling performances incline one to try to keep up by grasping onto the story's strand of linear logic--which is suddenly yanked away by an ending that involves an inexplicable act of self-destruction and what appears to be the pig-carrying character from "Alice in Wonderland."    Starring Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling and Deborah Kara Unger. Directed by Jonathan Nossiter. Written by James Lasdun and Jonathan Nossiter. Produced by Marin Karmitz. A Strand release. Drama. Not yet rated. Running time: 104 min.

Tags: Stellan Skarsgard, Charlotte Rampling, Deborah Kara Unger, Jonathan Nossiter, James Lasdun, Marin Karmitz, Strand, Drama, Alec, omens, mistress, Katherine
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