DIRECTED BY: Joe Massot
FEATURING: Jack MacGowran, Jane Birkin, Iain Quarrier
PLOT: An absent-minded professor falls in love with the bohemian fashion model next door when he peeps through a hole in his apartment wall and spies her frolicking in a psychedelic wonderland.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s got animated butterflies, women who dress like go-go dancers and men who dress like princes of candy kingdoms, and wall-to-wall hallucination sequences. In some ways, Wonderwall is the ultimate flower-power feature, with not much plot but lots of swirling colors and long-haired people being groovy. The main question is, is Wonderwall a pinnacle of paisley pop-art, or just overwrought hippie kitsch?
COMMENTS: Professor Collins is the kind of scientist who keeps his nose buried in a book when his eye isn’t glued to his microscope, until one day while he’s spending his evening recreationally observing blue-green algae he’s annoyed by the sounds of loud sitar music coming from the apartment next door. When he throws his alarm clock at the wall, his butterfly display case clatters down, revealing a peephole into the swinging pad. He trades the microscope eyepiece for the hole in the wall behind which willowy Jane Birkin sways in silhouette: suddenly, microbes are yesterday’s news. From that moment on he’s in love with the fashion model next door, whom he’s too shy to talk to, and addicted to spying on her pot-and-bisexual-love parties. He calls in sick to work and spends his rare non-peeping moments imagining himself dueling with the lady’s boyfriend with giant power drills, cigarettes, sticks of lipstick, and other phallic symbols.
No matter how much his nutty professor persona is meant to evoke a lovestruck outsider like Chaplin‘s Tramp, however, it’s hard to get behind this stalkerish guy, particularly when he sneaks into the model’s apartment and holds her hand while she’s knocked out from sleeping pills. Today, we view such obsessive behavior as a potential preludes to a front-page headline story about a socially maladjusted man hosting a secret sex dungeon underneath his floorboards. But the 60s were a more innocent age; rooting for a dirty old man with a good heart came naturally. Of course, since the professor represents the square establishment and Penny the freedom and vitality of youth culture, on the symbolic level the peeping is not so much creepage as pure lifestyle envy. The professor hallucinates a faceless mother in a wheelchair (sexual guilt) who nags him when his peeping threatens to get too libidinous, and he tears down a strangely avant-garde mural of the pieta to get space to drill more holes in the wall, representing the need to get beyond religion in able partake of the joys of voyeuristic bohemianism.
Still, you’re not watching for the outdated counterculture back-patting, but for the far-out visuals, of which there are a plenitude. Animated butterflies flitting against brightly-colored stockings. A psychedelic recreation of the martyrdom of St. Sebastian. Jane Birkin as a mermaid floating in a field of bacteria. Speaking of Birkin, she’s quite the visual attraction herself: luminous, lithe, comfortable in the nude, this long-haired vixen is the best argument for the sexual revolution anyone could come up with. She doesn’t speak on the movie, which is a good idea: it keeps her as Professor Collins’ mysterious unobtainable ideal. Her real-life story is not so idyllic, however, and we sometimes get non-fantasy glimpses of a woman struggling with a less-than-noble boyfriend who sees her as a status symbol and sexual plaything. In fact, the movie ends on an unexpected bummer that’s totally out of tone with the rest of the comic story; the sudden dose of pathos is a shock to the system. Overall, this pro-freak experiment in disorganized hedonism plays out like Czechoslovakia’s Daisies without the political or feminist subtexts. It’s a paisley time capsule that reeks not-so-subtly of pot smoke.
The Indian-rock score by George Harrison is not a classic but it is period-appropriate. While Cuban expatriate Guillermo Cabrera Infante (who, together with the director, had fled Castro’s Cuba during the missile crisis) completed the screenplay, Wonderwall‘s story is credited to Gerard Brach. Brach more famously wrote the scripts for Repulsion, Cul-de-Sac and The Fearless Vampire Killers for his regular collaborator Roman Polanski. MacGowran also played the lead in Vampire Killers. Director Massot went on to make the music-video styled concert film The Song Remains the Same for Led Zeppelin.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“Archly camp and dreamily surreal…”–Budd Wilkins, Slant (Blu-ray)