Accident May 24, 2021
1 Hr., 45 Mins.
ccident (1967) opens with a bang. On their way to meet their Oxford philosophy tutor, Stephen (Dirk Bogarde), at his countryside estate, his primary students for the summer, taciturn Austrian princess (!) Anna (Jacqueline Sassard) and her rich, boyish fiancé William (Michael York), get in a car wreck — an event we don’t see but hear in the distance. (The camera is busy concentrating on the calm, pretty exterior
of Stephen’s house when the smash breaks up the tranquility.) When Stephen stumbles on the wreckage, he finds Anna dazed but uninjured. William, however, is decisively dead — his face is frozen in a rictus of shock. Before we can get to the aftermath — what exactly led to the crash, what will become of Anna — the movie, an adaptation of Nicholas Mosely’s 1966 novel by playwright Harold Pinter, leaps back in time. Accident temporally skips around like this the whole movie; it freely waffles between different contentious moments during this fateful summer, confident its audience can theorize a new dramatic development's place on the timeline.
Accident’s narrative gist is that, before this crash, things were already threatening to erupt. Stephen had secretly been harboring an infatuation with the enigmatic Anna. He's stopped himself from acting on his feelings not for the sake of his deeply pregnant wife, Rosalind (Vivien Merchant, vibrant in a small role), and their two kids, but because he didn’t want to ruin Anna’s relationship with William. (Stephen has had affairs before — celebrated French actress Delphine Seyrig, blonde and cool as ever, guest-stars as a past extramarital fling.) This tension, paired with his midlife ennui, has defined Stephen’s summer. Both things are compounded when he discovers one evening that his best friend Charley (Stanley Baker), a more successful colleague who has a TV show, has been acting almost as Stephen’s guileless double. Charley is not only sleeping with Anna on the sly — and using Stephen’s home covertly as a regular rendezvous spot, no less — but also willing to abandon his wife and children for her. The film can at times feel like a petty competition between these men; it’s obvious that although Stephen is materially envious of a lot of what Charley has and is willing to do, he finds some pride in a perceived sense of moral superiority.
Accident’s conceit, and the places it goes narratively, are familiar by way of the midlife-crisis drama; it isn’t ever very surprising. But the nonlinear storytelling, Bogarde’s masterfully restrained performance (you can practically feel Stephen smothering his impulses), and director Joseph Losey’s generous use of
unsettling long takes give it an agitated freshness. Accident has the lift of a thriller; it sustains a threatening aura. This is especially amplified during an uncomfortable, wine-soaked dinner scene at Stephen’s place where everybody teeters on saying something too far, or during a doubles tennis match where most of the players seem intent on communicating venomous feelings via a methodically aimed ball and racket. Stephen’s tampered-down lust reinforces the film’s preeminent tensity. You can feel it stretch nearly to its limits in an early sequence where William and Anna invite Stephen after a long day on campus to go on a boat ride on the serene, picturesquely sun-dappled River Thames. It’s a marvel of sexual tension. Close-ups hungrily home in on Anna’s hand gliding through the water; William’s oar rhythmically piercing the stream; Anna’s exposed thigh, shot as if it were a museum piece whose warnings to not touch only fuel an itch.
Some of Accident is detrimentally cold to the touch. Part of the point of the Anna character is that, as seen through Stephen and Charley’s eyes, she appears mysterious and indecipherable because they would rather project on her than know her. But she’s played by Sassard (who would retire from acting soon afterward) and written by Pinter too aloofly. It's hard to understand her allure. She's as withdrawn as a statue admired in a crowded exhibit; we might surmise Anna simply appeared one day, avoiding birth altogether, if not for the off-the-cuff reveal that she has a sister who is just as beautiful as she is.
Although I don’t like when movies overstate their meaning, Accident’s ultimate nonchalance about what its approach is meant to lead to undermines the power the conclusion — a repeat of the same shot and crash that opens the film, suggesting how this summer will haunt Stephen — seems to aim for. Still, Accident imprints itself on us. It's a movie that perceptively finds horror in banality and effectively captures the claustrophobia inherent to being past a moment in your life where you superficially have everything you could have asked for. A-