Accident (1967)

FILM, Film Society
img_accidentPreviously at the Auckland Film Society: Losey and Pinter’s second film together makes a case for the pair as the most underrated collaborators in modern cinema.

The second collaboration between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter is as masterful as their first. The film opens with a seminal opening shot: a long take focused on a county home. The shot lingers for a while until… a crash! The incident occurs off-screen, represented solely through a violent jolt of audio. The only movement we see is when a man rushes out of the house to discover what has happened.

And so begins Accident, a film that keeps its cards close to its chest, only indirectly hinting at its larger themes. Framed as a flashback, the rest of the film unfolds like a psychological mystery as we learn what led to this very accident.

The story is that of middle-aged Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), a married Oxford professor, and his infatuation with an Austrian exchange student named Anna (Jacqueline Sassard). To make matters more complicated, another student of his, William (Michael York), is also smitten and confides in him. Then there’s Charley (Stanley Baker), a more successful colleague of Stephen’s, who has no qualms about seducing the foreign beauty. The result is a four-way love triangle (love square?) that Accident revolves around, played out in a relatively subdued manner. Despite lacking the overt drama and hysterics of The Servant, there’s certainly no absence of Pinter’s calling cards here. Drinking and smoking amongst the upper-middle class are both prevalent, the former a fantastic catalyst for exploding the masculine insecurities at play. And let’s not forget manners. Manners above all else function as the ultimate defense mechanism for our characters to hide behind, however feebly. But king here is subtext. We witness scene after scene where nothing particularly significant happens. You’d struggle to describe most of the action that occurs as dynamic or dramatic. But if there is even the hint of something big happening, Pinter and Losey frequently build tension and proceed to deflate it, never allowing things to climax prematurely, teasing and teasing, leaving the audience and characters in a state of metaphorical (and occasionally literal) blue balls.

While this is typical of Pinter’s work, actively playing against overt drama, it does take on a new dimension on film since some of these emotional nuances can play out visually as well as verbally. There’s a beautifully understated exchange of dialogue between Stephen and an old flame where meaningless small talk plays out as voice-over under a montage of this act of adultery, distancing the audience from feeling any real sense of intimacy.

But the real centerpiece of the film is the Sunday lunch sequence where all four points of the anti-romance first gather, as well as Stephen’s wife who is uncomfortably positioned as a fifth wheel. The brutal banality of Pinter is at full force here as we watch everyone get gradually drunker and undercut each other. A seemingly innocent game of tennis and a stroll through the woods simmer with repressed passions.

Bogarde’s return (from their previous collaborations The Servant) to star in Accident as the anchor for the film is a masterclass of restraint. While his character immediately draws comparisons as a British counterpart to the likes of Kevin Spacey in American Beauty with his growing dissatisfaction with middle-age, instead of relying on melodrama, Bogarde withholds his thoughts and feelings behind a slowly cracking facade.

The other men make for excellent counterpoints to Bogarde’s performance. Baker oozes a more confident and predatory manner, perpetually pleased with himself, existing solely to emasculate our protagonist. York, on the other hand, might be less sexually intimidating, but has youth and wealth on his side. But just as important is Sassard as the obscure object of desire. Despite the fact she barely speaks, she performs the prominent function of being a sexual object. While she’s relatively one-dimensional compared to the rest of the characters, the script is self-aware enough to play this consciously, making her the subject of the male gaze, but her performance is undoubtedly the weakest link of the cast. Luckily all that is really required for her to do is be a vacuum for their desires.

Ultimately, Losey and Pinter posit that even our most intense desires, when achieved, can present equally dissatisfying realities. It’s a bleak vision, but it’s made palatable by how subtly and psychologically true its portrayed. If The Servant proved the duo had found the ideal collaborator in each other, Accident makes a case for the pair as the most underrated collaborators in modern cinema. The only shame is that they were only able to work on one more film together after this, leaving their ambitious Proust screenplay unfilmed.

Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter’s earlier collaboration, ‘The Servant’, screened at the Auckland Film Society on June 15. The Losey & Pinter season screens at other film societies nationwide through July and August.
Filed under: FILM, Film Society

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Nathan Joe has been contributing to The Lumière Reader since 2014 and is the Auckland-based theatre editor. He is also a self-taught playwright.