1967’s Accident is the second of three collaborations between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter, although less seen than either The Servant or The Go-Between. Among the cognoscenti, many consider it to be the best of their films together, but is that because it really is great, or just because these people like being contrary and sounding like they have rarefied tastes? Well, probably more of the former than the latter, although it’s not without interest.
The film opens with a car crash. Middle-aged professor Stephen (Dirk Bogarde) comes to the scene and discovers a young man called William (Michael York) is dead, while his passenger, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard,) has escaped pretty much unharmed. The rest of the movie unfolds in flashback, looking at Stephen’s increasing middle-aged angst, where he feels increasingly stifled by the emotional repression all around him and his staid middle-class life.
A hint of possibility arrives when he meets the beautiful but enigmatic Austrian student Anna. He also finds a sense of youth through his bond with William (Michael York), who’s as much a friend as a student. Slowly the complexities of everyone’s situation is revealed, with Stephen revisiting a past indiscretion, while his rivalry with fellow academic Charley (Stanley Baker) grows over their attraction to Anna.
While Accident won the Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival, even on its first release many people’s reaction to the film was, What was that all about?’. It’s an incredibly slow moving film with very little plot, instead attempting to dig underneath the surface of what seems like a very simple story. It’s problem is that it is perhaps a little too subtle for its own good.
The film seems to be a British response to avant garde European cinema of the mid-to-late 60s, and you can certainly see echoes of the French New Wave and the works of Antonioni. It takes things a little too far though, so that while the stifling repression of everyday life initially gives a sense of unease to everything, the glacial pace means it’s often difficult to maintain interest in these people, especially when the film turns deliberately oblique. There’s a lengthy sequence, for example, where Stephen goes to see someone from his past and during the whole thing the audio is out of sync with the image. It’s odd, confusing and likely to strike many as an unnecessary and rather precious affectation.
Harold Pinter is famed for his that which say more the dialogue, as well as speeches that seem simple and everyday but which hide the truth of what’s going on. With Accident it feels like he’s seeing how far he can take that, and it often gets to breaking point. There are scenes which aren’t conversations, they’re just staccato bits of speech (presumably to show how people don’t really talk), while women are divided into Madonnas and whores while never really being people (although it’s not clear if this is because Pinter was a little sexist in his writing, or if we’re seeing Stephen’s view of the past and that’s how he views them).
It makes the film a tough watch, and while there is a certain amount of reward to the film, it takes a lot of digging and waiting to get to it. Indeed, unless you’re of a slightly artsy persuasion, you’re likely to be incredibly bored and slightly confused as to what going on. Even those who are fairly switched on to this sort of film might feel like they’ve missed something.
To my mind the main problem is the women, who are so uninteresting and blank it’s tough to really understand why the men are tying themselves in knots over them. Part of the point of the movie is men becoming fools over young women, but it’s tough to see what Anna offers, other than her existence on the planet. It gets to the point where it would make more sense if it was Stephen lusting over William, as it’s the young man who actually seems to have something to give to the academic, even if it’s just adding some youthful vigour to a staid middle-aged life. However, while the gay Bogarde was more than happy to play characters with repressed homosexuality, that doesn’t seem to be the point here, even if perhaps it should have been.
If you’re a Pinter or Losey fan, this new DVD and Blu-ray release includes a great selection of features, including archive interviews with the duo, along with documentaries on the movie (which are quite handy for decoding some of it eccentricities) and chats with experts of the writer and director. They’re well worth watching and often more engrossing than Accident itself.
Overall Verdict: For those interested in Pinter and Losey, Accident is definitely worth a look. Some will find its slow, stifled story fascinating, but many others will be insanely bored by the glacial pace and confused by its odd, arty touches.
Talking About Accident’ documentary featuring an interview with Harry Pinter
Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter discuss Accident
Dirk Bogarde biographer John Coldstream discussing Dirk Bogarde
Harry Pinter expert Harry Burton discussing Harold Pinter
Interview with feminist author and academic Melanie Williams
Interview with film critic Tim Robey
Reviewer: Tim Isaac