Film and TV

Grand Illusions

In Jonathan Nossiter's brooding Sunday, the oft-maligned borough of Queens is seen as a snowy wasteland of crumbling warehouses and lonely subway stations through which the lame and the halt wander like zombies. Just the place, Nossiter reasons, to set a psychological mystery about loss of identity and the power of illusions. It's a curiously arty film to unfold in a setting so bleak, but it falls together like magic.

As far as we can tell, the desperate protagonists are a shy former IBM technician named Oliver (David Suchet), who's been reduced to subsistence in a men's shelter after losing his job, and an exiled British actress named Madeleine Vesey (Lisa Harrow), whose career has disintegrated. To call them unmoored is to understate the case: They're both suffocating in isolation and anomie. Or so we're led to believe.

Sunday's first bizarre turn comes when the theatrical Madeleine, carrying a leafy houseplant as tall as a doorway, stumbles across gloomy, balding Oliver in the chill street and, for better or worse, greets him as though he were a famous movie director named Matthew Delacorta, a man she knew slightly back home in London. Needy himself, Oliver doesn't disabuse Madeleine of the notion, and Nossiter proceeds with a drama of delusions indulged, identities juggled, facts and fictions deliriously scrambled.

We also get disconcerting glimpses of Oliver/Matthew's fellow sufferers from the shelter as they bicker in the TV room, beg for alms in the subway and wander the streets, waiting for the future to happen. The idea, I suppose, is that all of us are continually deconstructing and reconstructing the fragments of our lives, searching for something like the whole thing. That Madeleine (an actress whose life has been built on illusions) and Oliver (whose illusions have been imposed on him) find common ground in dream and desire is not really so strange, not in a no-man's-land where Samuel Beckett and T.S. Eliot might wind up at the same grimy lunch table.

All is not grim. Director Nossiter and co-writer James Lasdun (whose short story is the source here) spike their film with dark humor. Madeleine regrets that all she's offered these days are "living dead mutant" roles, and when she hauls both Oliver and her houseplant into a local diner, she demands a "table for three." There's also the odd matter of her estranged husband, Ben (Larry Pine), who has a foot-long scar down the middle of his chest. Is this really the result of Madeleine's attack with a kitchen knife, or open-heart surgery? That's just one of the comic mysteries Nossiter declines to resolve, preferring to indulge the imagination of the audience in much the same way Madeleine and Oliver indulge each other.

There are times when Sunday seems to overreach. The spectacle of Oliver/Matthew trying out his Matthew Delacorta persona at a children's birthday party is one thing; when Madeleine quotes him as once having told her that "doubt is the protoplasm of all real art," we can hear director and writer using character as mouthpiece.

Winner of the best-film award and the Waldo Salt screenwriting award at the most recent Sundance Film Festival, Sunday is the kind of intellectually challenging picture the independent movement continues to produce in its revivalist period. Low-budget but highly ambitious, it neither underestimates its audience nor hesitates to take chances. Luckily, it also features acting far beyond the usual made-on-a-shoestring standard. The combination of Suchet, with his hangdog looks and seeming bafflement, and Harrow, employing dotty, Norma Desmond-esque airs, form an intriguing folie à deux and--if you'll pardon a whiff of pretension--a surprisingly powerful dual portrait of the human condition. Who among us has not become unhinged and found the means, fictional or real, to survive? In the end, Nossiter leaves us with more questions than answers about the identities of Madeleine and Oliver. He has recognized all along that a labyrinth is more interesting than the light at the exit, and he dares to let us invent these lives, just as we invent our own.

That's the kind of thing that earns deserved raves at Sundance and down at your local art house, if not in the La-La Land of animatronic dinosaurs and jet planes stuffed with dangerous convicts or hijacked presidents. Goodbye, summertime. Come September, moviegoers are suddenly allowed to think again.

Screenplay by James Lasdun and Jonathan Nossiter. Directed by Jonathan Nossiter. With David Suchet and Lisa Harrow.