Joseph Losey (1967)
I didn’t see Accident in last summer’s Losey season at BFI. Because I thought badly of nearly all his films that I did see then and had the idea his collaborations with Harold Pinter were Losey’s best work, I decided to see it again now. Based on a novel by Nicholas Mosley, Accident is about the sexual permutations and infidelities achieved or desired within a group comprising: two Oxford academics, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) and Charley (Stanley Baker); their wives, Rosalind (Vivien Merchant) and Laura (Ann Firbank); and two students, William (Michael York) and Anna (Jacqueline Sassard). Except for William, who dies in a motor accident, all these clever people are very unhappy. Unpleasant too: the two wives invite some sympathy but only because their husbands treat them so badly. The pervasive bleakness and duplicity are oddly entertaining but this viewing left me puzzled in a way I hadn’t expected. I thought I’d seen Accident at least twice before but much of it was unfamiliar. I remembered the enigmatically rhymed car crashes (the first after dark, the second in broad daylight) that begin and end the picture. The poisonous, frictional atmosphere of the sunny Sunday lunch-tea-supper party at Stephen and Rosalind’s home had lodged in my memory but little of the detail. I think this forgetfulness may be because Accident is so self-contained. The self-containment is fascinating to watch but the film has no life outside itself – no resonance beyond its duration on screen.
The midsummer Sunday gathering is nevertheless a remarkable piece of cinema and the best episode in a Losey film that I know. He captures the emotional shifts that occur on a long, hot day during which meals are eaten and lots of alcohol is drunk and the gourmandising is punctuated by short bursts of various physical exercise. He gets across how the heat stuns and irritates the characters and both calms and intensifies the insidious tensions between them. This occasion must feature some of the most ominous sunlight ever filmed: the photography is by Gerry Fisher. John Dankworth’s cunning score is jazzy with a few harp interludes. There’s a truly absorbing moment when, towards the end of the day, Stephen goes up to Rosalind in their bedroom, and the harp music is played softly. It seems to be playing inside Stephen’s head and that’s where you seem to be too. Both dons live in surprisingly high style – even for the 1960s and allowing for Charley’s second wage as a television talking head. Because of his track record, I couldn’t help thinking Losey was exaggerating the characters’ affluence the more firmly to establish them in the upper-middle classes of English society that he liked to skewer. (As for the students, William is referred to more than once as an aristocrat and his girlfriend Anna has a quadruple-barrelled surname: she’s Austrian.)
Most of the action appears to be a flashback to what led up to the car accident but the progress of the narrative is not quite straightforward. The occasional fractures in the time sequence are nothing like what’s occurred in films of the last few years like 21 Grams and Babel, where the fragmentation of time serves to complicate revelations about the people in the story, as well as to obscure the fact that that story, if told lineally, would be more implausibly melodramatic (or boring). In Accident the interruptions to linear sequence don’t much affect your understanding of the motives for the characters’ actions, and don’t surprise you in what they disclose about either their psychology or their history. The interruptions merely add to the structural complication of the piece in a formally pleasing way. More striking than these dislocations is the sequence in which Stephen meets up in London with an old flame – Francesca, ‘the Provost’s daughter’ (Delphine Seyrig) – and we see them meeting and dining and eventually in bed together. Their lips don’t move (except to eat and drink) but we hear their voices on the soundtrack, speaking words they might have used in the situations we observe them in.
Because nothing in the film is resolved, a sense of mystery – with an illusion of depth – remains. Yet the themes in Accident don’t seem especially impenetrable or especially original either. The Nicholas Mosley novel was published in 1965, the year after Pinter’s The Homecoming opened in London. Both have as their pivotal character a philosophy don; they describe varieties of male sexual competitiveness and possessiveness, and the more or less elaborate games that men play to beat each other and to get what they want from women (not that they get it in Accident). When William invites Stephen to dinner at his family’s country pile, all the men – dressed for dinner – play a kind of stunted rugby. This involves thwacking physical collisions and scrums, and no freedom of movement, on the parquet floor of an atrium. Losey then cuts to a staff-student game of cricket (a sport that Pinter loved passionately). In The Homecoming the character of Ruth starts off as the returning professor’s well-behaved wife. At the end he goes off, leaving her to provide sex to his father and his brothers – Ruth seems to be running, rather than exploited by, the male household. In Accident, aspects of woman – object of desire, child-bearer, helpmate – are divided among the female characters. Stephen, Charley and William all want Anna (Charley and, one assumes, William get to have sex with her). Stephen’s heavily pregnant wife Rosalind keeps house and looks after their brood. Charley’s wife Laura (a much smaller part) is so traumatised by his infidelity that she has taken to tending their huge garden in the pouring rain.
By this stage of his screen career, Dirk Bogarde had mastered the art of conveying self-disgust to an extraordinary degree. He’s already typecast as Stephen but he’s so accomplished to watch in this kind of role – Stephen’s loathing of his own moral meagreness is sometimes icy, sometimes anguished – that it’s a perverse treat. The inflections Bogarde gives to lines that can be quietly spoken are just perfect and he’s disturbingly convincing in his scenes as a family man – there’s something dutifully caring and ultimately detached in the way Stephen is with his young children. When he discovers the young couple in the crashed car and, as he helps Anna out, yells, ‘Don’t! You’re standing on his face!’, it’s powerful. Elsewhere, though, Bogarde is less impressive when Stephen has to shout or to express physical lust directly. As the apparently more self-confident Charley (it’s hard to decide if he’s more voracious than Stephen or whether he just gets to eat more), Stanley Baker is tremendously (and aptly) annoying at most points of the Sunday party – especially when he’s playing tennis or kicking a ball around. Yet because Charley is relatively unconstrained and because Baker is such a likeable actor, with a strong audience rapport, you increasingly enjoy watching the man he’s playing. Vivien Merchant is brilliant as Rosalind: she gives the most satisfying performance in the film, creating a credible character while, at the same time, letting us experience the almost abstract pleasure of the writing’s rhythm. (Merchant’s reception of Stephen’s news that Charley – whom Rosalind fancies – has left Laura for Anna is shockingly funny.)
Pinter’s lines, read by these expert actors, have a compelling and sustained pressure that makes the exchanges essentially believable even when the words are arranged in such a way as to put them at one remove from naturalistic speech. An amazing thing about Pinter’s dialogue here is that the discomfiting repetitions and suppressions of what the characters mean to say are intensified rather than weakened when the actors are really not very good: their uncertainty or miscalculation can increase the disorienting effect of the language. This is true of Michael York, in his film debut, as William (the fact that he’s physically convincing in the role creates another kind of disjuncture between what we see and what we hear). It’s true even of Jacqueline Sassard, who’s thoroughly bad as Anna – except that the combination of her beautiful, heavy, mask-like face, unnatural movement and even worse line readings actually strengthen the sense of Anna as a female archetype rather than a real, individual woman. It’s not just the younger actors who can’t do the lines: Alexander Knox is atrocious as the Provost of the Oxford college where Stephen and Charley work. The youngest players – Maxwell Findlater and Carole Caplin (the Carole Caplin?), as Stephen and Rosalind’s children – are excellent. Pinter himself has a cameo, as a television man with whom Stephen has a short meeting, and strikes me (as he did when I saw him on stage some years ago) as rather a bad actor. He seems to speak the lines in a way that conveys nothing more than that he knows, as the writer of them, where the stresses should come.
Shortly before the film started in NFT1 two women came in and sat down a few rows ahead of me. One of the women was Antonia Fraser. (Perhaps she was going on, after Accident, to the BFI screening of the film of the June 2009 celebration-of-Pinter event at the National Theatre.) On the way out, I tried to hear what she and her companion thought of Accident but I failed. All I got was:
‘Well, I rather … I thought it was much less-‘
‘Oh yes, much less …’
‘It was. Much less …’
There’s something satisfying in the thought that Pinter’s widow and her friends talk the way he wrote.
20 January 2010