Matteo (Diego Luna) and Adrienne (Sienna Miller) are a broke couple with a new baby and a relationship on the skids. Arguing on the way home from a date night, mostly about Adrienne giving someone the glad-eye, they are involved in a massive car crash. This is no spoiler, we’re only a handful of minutes into Wander Darkly, and writer/director Tara Miele is just setting the scene – economically and with great visual flair – for the drama to come.
Adrienne is dead. Or is she suffering from post-traumatic delirium and is just imagining she’s dead? Or is something else going on? It’s not certain, but what we can see is Adrienne in the hospital corridors, bloody and bewildered. Then Adrienne is at her own funeral, watching a crack-voiced Matteo attempting a reading over her coffin.
He eventually joins her in this sliding existence – Is he dead too? Is she imagining him? – and together they slide about from one “scene of a marriage” to another, observing themselves at key moments in their own relationship. How they met. When they first slept together. That amazing holiday to Mexico. The night she flirted with that dude and Matteo saw her.
They’re not just replaying these scenes, they’re also commenting on them as they replay them – it’s a technique more familiar from theatre (where it’s often done for reasons of hard cash). It’s interesting to watch in a film and it’s done, as the opening crash was, with great fluidity and a strong visual sense. One moment it’s night in the US, the next it’s a hot afternoon on a boat in Mexico, the actors not missing a beat as they (we, actually) segue from one scenario to the next.
Miller and Luna are playing a couple who never actually formalised their relationship by getting married and this seems appropriate in any evaluation of Wander Darkly. Matteo and Adrienne don’t quite work as a couple, nor do Luna and Miller as actors. They’re operating in different registers, Miller’s altogether more naturalistic. In fact for me eventually the film became more about watching Miller’s performance, which is brilliant (but then when is she not?), rather than watching events unfolding. To be fair to Luna, Matteo has been written as peevish and there’s not an awful lot he can do about that.
The touchstone for this sort of thing – sliding around inside a relationship chronologically to find out when it all went wrong – is François Ozon’s 2004 “backwards romance” 5X2, but Miele might also be referencing the meta-trickery and investigations of truth and fiction of Abbas Kiarostami, where movie “realism” is also often held up for scrutiny.
They’re interesting choices but whichever way you peel it, the film’s narrative conceit runs out of juice before the end. The more of their own past that Matteo and Adrienne excavate, the more things start to devolve into scenes of him accusing her or her accusing him. At one point it feels like one of those “kitchen sink” arguments where every old grievance from the past is being dredged up to add fuel to the fire – the “and you always hated my mother” kind of thing (Matteo does in fact hate Adrienne’s mother). Except here, slights that have not yet happened can also be thrown into the mix, as when Adrienne admonishes Matteo for abandoning their now-motherless child, something he hasn’t done yet. Watching couples bicker is rarely fun.
As if this weren’t already a problem, the finale takes a bit of a swerve. I won’t say where to because that really is a spoiler. But as well as throwing quite a left turn, it throws in a conclusion which emotionally seems to belong to an entirely different film. It wanders, darkly, perhaps because it’s lost its way.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021