Ingmar Bergman's "The Silence" (1964) and Michelangelo Antonioni's "The Eclipse" (1962) seemed to inspire a genre of deliberately inexplicable and frequently misbegotten art movies. Antonioni made the great fashionable hit of the cycle, "Blow-Up," then came to grief when he tried for double-or-nothing on "Zabriskie Point."
Jerzy Skolimowski's "The Shout" is a throwback to the head-scratchers of the '60s - an artfully portentous but ultimately unrewarding baffler derived from a short story by Robert Graves.
It's a movie that would probably feel more at home at a film festival than before the limited but responsive paying audience willing to meet an offbeat or introspective movie at least halfway. And the Polish emigre director Skolimowski is about the last filmmaker in the world one would expect to clarify the story's already formidable ambiguities. His film, a British production now at the Embassy Circle, seems intent on adding obfuscation to mystery.
Graves' story, first published in 1924, is an anecdotal account of what appears to be the last testament of a madman, Charles Crossley, encountered by the narrator at a cricket match being held on the grounds of a mental institution. The narrator, visiting friends in the nearest town, shares scorekeeping duties with Crossley, who tells him a bizarre story in which those same friends, a husband and wife named Anthony and Rachel in the film, were menaced by Crossley himself. Crossley claims to have terrifying supernatural powers, particularly a "terror shout" capable of maddening or killing any living being subjected to it.
Strange as it is, the story has a straightforward framework that keeps irrational intimations within bounds. There's no doubt about who is telling the story. While Crossley seems to know the narrator's friends, his account of their association is probably a demented fiction. There's clearly something weird and explosively dangerous about this man, but whether his rage extends to the supernatural is another matter, improbable but creepily conceivable.
Skolimowski, perhaps best-known as the co-writer of Roman Polanski's "Knife in the Water" and the director of the 1971 British horro thriller "deep end," an acutely schizoid movied about adolescent schizophrenia, elects to obscure the storytelling perspective from the outset. The original story-within-a-story is now enclosed within a framing device that suggests a recollection of the wife, portrayed by Susannah York and fleetingly identified as a staff member at the asylum.
This new framework seems both hazy and nonsensical. Once Crossley, played by Alan Bates, begins telling his story to the innocent bystander, Tim Curry, the perspective becomes doubly blurred. Trying to elaborate on Crossley's sketchy account of a romantic triangle, Skolimowski and co-writer Michael Austin stress the sexual fears of the husband, a timid, ineffectual sort played by John Hurt. The burly, imperious stranger now looms as an overwhelming threat to this awkward, domesticated weakling. Crossley's potency, of which the shout is an extreme example, becomes such a preoccupation that the story appears to be a figment of the husband's tormented pornographic imagination.
The filmmakers add a suggestion of artistic inadequacy to go along with the husband's sexual panic. Employed as a church organist, Hurt also experiments with electronic musical compositions which incorporate stylized sound effects. Bates' primeval scream, supposedly mastered during a long sojourn among the aborigines, overpowers such civilized dalliance. As if the hints weren't obvious enough, Bates comes right out and tells Hurt that his music is "empty."
Skolimowski generates some sexual tension in the humidly sadomasochistic tradition of "The Servant," but it's a little too blatant to be taken seriously. "Knife in the Water" was a far more subtle depiction of simmering sexual rivalry and apprehension. "The Shout" is allowed to boil over rather messily, with Hurt cringing in fear of Bates' Potent Man Who Came to Dinner and York turning into a wanton who can barely wait to tear her panties off as soon as Bates fixes her with a mesmerizing glower.
Skolimowski doesn't lack a talent for ominous, eerie erotic depiction, but it's difficult to perceive a revelatory impulse or much emotional conviction behind his obsessive specialization. He can be effective, but almost always the effects seem arbitrary and evanescent. Striking or disturbing images and interludes come and go without quite accumulating dramatic momentum and significance.
After reading Graves' story, you may feel vaguely haunted by the thought of how much violence a wrathfull or miserable psyche is capable of.Leaving the movie, you can't sort out the overlapping psyches. The inability to tell whose story was being told in the first place from whose point of view brings back the old baffler-movie refrain: "Now, what was that all about?" CAPTION: Picture 1, Alan Bates and Susannah York; Picture 2, Alan Bates shouts down John Hurt