Wednesday, July 04, 2012

"Sunday" (Nossiter): a flailing actress, a homeless man, and a grand fantasy


The film “Sunday”, directed by Johnathan Nossiter, won a jury prize at Sundance in 1997, and turns out to be very much worth a new look.  The setup – a fading English actress Madeleine (Lisa Harrow) mistakes a homeless man Oliver (David Suchet) in Queens, NYC as a famous director Matthew Delacorta, and leads him on for mutual benefit – sounds like a bit of manipulation. But the movie (now from Lionsgate DVD) takes us through a lot of layers.

Oliver had been an information technology executive at IBM and had been let go.  One question is, why did he fall to the bottom, to the point that he was living in a homeless shelter?  In 1997, the Clinton Republicrat economy was booming, and IT had lots of mainframe jobs because of the Y2K crunch.  Yet, I knew of people who had performed poorly at work, not coming through and getting projects implemented on time or correctly, and who had become marginalized with bad reputations and colleagues not too willing to speak up for them. 

Of course, Madeleine would hear nothing of this. She’ll  have Oliver believe that he is another Matthew, and pretty soon Oliver is rationalizing his predicament by saying that he is living as a homeless man in order to make a documentary film.  This sounds like a “supersize-me” trick that one would expect from Morgan Spurlock.

Oliver, in a critical conversation near the end of the film, says that everything in life is about "who you are" and everybody thinks that "who you are is what you do."

There’s more. Madeleine and Oliver become intimate, but then Madeleine semi-invites Oliver into her house, to meet her estranged separated husband, Ben (Larry Pine).  Here, the movie goes Freudian (or maybe Hitchcockian – remember that “Madeleine” is already a famous character in “Vertigo”).  Ben opens his shirt and reveals a hairless chest badly disfigured by a huge sternal scar, and claims his wife did this to him with pruning shears.  Later, as another intimate scene approaches (branching soon into a few seconds of NC-17 “everything”), Madeleine, about to get out the shears again, reassures Oliver that the “chest work” had been the result of open heart surgery (coronary bypass surgery, which usually doesn’t result in permanent scarring of this visual magnitude – this is more than David Letterman’s “Zipper Club” so well illustrated by Esquire in 2000). Did she lose interest in him because of the defilement? So much for "in sickness and in health". That's not to say that Oliver (Suchet reportedly gained weight for the role), who looks a bit like a troll, is eye candy himself. 

There are visual marvels in the film: a colorful Catholic chapel during Evensong (Oliver goes even though he says he is Jewish), a kids’ birthday party with presents; and the Twin Towers before 9/11, and NYC under clean, fresh snow.

The film has a lot of wonderful piano music in the background – a lot of Bach, and the F#-minor slow movement from a big, late “A Major” Schubert piano sonata (sorry, not the musical “mausoleum of sorrow” from Beethoven’s Hammerklavier, but that would have worked;  one of the Diabelli variations gets used, though (Drama blog, Aug. 26, 2007, Moises Kaufman’s “33 Variations”). 

On the homeless artist theme, the film could be compared to “Being Flynn”, reviewed here March 15, 2012.


The DVD home page is a bit confusing as to where to start playing the movie. There is a 30-minute short by Nossiter (incidentally, a Washington DC native), “Searching for Arthur Penn”, where Nossiter interviews director Penn (“Bonnie and Clyde”; “Alice’s Restaurant”; “Four Friends”) at his NYC home (when he was 76) and at the Actor’s Studio.  Penn does not think that directors can improvise situations on their own. 

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