Signs and Wonders

Nov 21, 2001 at 12:00 am

After the recent airplane tragedy in New York, the thought that it might be another terrorist attack was frightening, but the thought that it might be a coincidence was even more deeply unnerving. For all our dismay at human belligerence, at least it’s something we can wrap our minds around — but when randomness forms a pattern, its essential meaninglessness beggars our comprehension. It’s human nature to want to read the tea leaves, credit the seemingly prescient dream, organize the senseless.

In Signs and Wonders, Alec (Stellan Skarsgård), a businessman living in Greece with his wife Marjorie (Charlotte Rampling) and their two children, is slowly going mad. One of the symptoms is the way his natural-ordering urge has become obsessive and displaced to the point where every little duplication he spots is rife with meaning. The garbled mess of the world is sending him messages, even though he can’t quite figure out what they are.

Sometimes the messages are telling him to either terminate or rekindle the affair he’s having with co-worker Katherine (Deborah Kara Unger); sometimes they’re telling him that there’s hope in his dissolving marriage. When his wife takes a lover, Andreas (Dimitris), a former Greek resistance fighter who seems as down to earth as Alec is delusional, but who is in his own way as deeply damaged, Alec’s reaction is to rejoice. “It’s right I should suffer,” he happily tells his wife. “It’s right you should do to me what I’ve done to you.” It’s a pattern he can understand — the symmetry seems to turn him on — and his wife, disgusted with his self-absorption, divorces him.

Director Jonathan Nossitor, using digital video, has given Alec a world cluttered enough with barely glanced images to please any seeker of signs, but unfortunately his plot eventually becomes fatally cluttered as well. Unlike his previous film, Sunday (1997), which maintained its focus on a different sort of self-delusion, Signs and Wonders veers off into various kinds of unhappiness and is capped by what seems like a gratuitous, if predictable, suicide — a nearly gothic climax that seems a major miscalculation on Nossitor’s part.

Or perhaps it’s just the lack of an easily discernible pattern that leaves the viewer vaguely dissatisfied.

Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Monday at 7:30 pm. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected].