I Want You (1998)

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Caught in the amorphous web of Elvis Costello’s song of the same name, with its coy intimations of duplicity, comes a previously unearthed gem from the back-catalogue of British director Michael Winterbottom. I Want You (1998) is a tasty treat too, with a slowly inter-cutting narrative describing the lives of a quartet of oddly dissociated characters congealing in the vanquished surrounds of a blank, wind-stripped English seaside town that time has clearly forgotten.

Martin (Alessandro Nivola) has been released from jail, but he has ties to this place, namely to the beautiful Helen (Rachel Weisz), a local hairdresser. Presumably it’s here in Farhaven that his crime was committed, prefacing his eight-year stretch in the slammer. Helen was once his illicit, very young, star-crossed lover, just in her mid-teens at the time.

What motivation is responsible for Martin’s return trek to Farhaven? Is he here to rekindle an old flame? To make amends for the deed that sent him behind bars? Or is he simply a malignancy creeping back under the guise of someone contrite and reformed?

Meanwhile, lurking on the periphery is a mute teenager Honda (Luka Petrusic) and Helen’s secret admirer, bringing her small gifts when not otherwise absorbed in his favourite pastime – using sophisticated listening equipment to eavesdrop on those around him. Having uttered not a word since the death of his mother, he lives in a seaside shack with his sister Smokey (Labina Mitevska), the local nightclub singer whose carefree lifestyle and uninhibited sexuality seems to entrance the bored locals. Before long Martin, biding time until he works up the nerve to confront Helen beyond wordless phone calls, becomes drawn into their little world.

I Want You is the work of writer Eoin McNamee but its bears many of the traits of previous Winterbottom films. Indeed the elusive Brit’s model is betrayed not a whit; firmly in place are the sense of detachment and vague characterisations in which a tapestry of singular, often peculiar moments are woven into a more expressive whole, only taking on firmer shape over time.

Aesthetically the film has much to recommend it, with a strikingly expressive range of lenses used by Polish cinematographer Slawomir Idziak, whose past collaborators include Krzysztof Kieslowski on Three Colours Blue (1993). External scenes are regularly consumed by the pervasive tint of pale greens, electrical blues and sunburnt golds. You can sense not only a Kieslowski influence, but that of Jean-Pierre Jeunet in visual terms as Winterbottom seeks to expel the murky natural palette of this washed-out world and infuse it with a sheen of unreality.

Another interesting stylistic choice manifests itself in the way crucial moments switch to Honda’s perspective where a version of events seems fed through a distorted lens, each an intensely-portrayed, decolourised refraction. Can we trust what he sees? Regardless, his muteness complements a talent for stealth, allowing him to become a silent, but intrinsic component of the unfolding drama.

None of the characters are rounded wholes; they’re sketchy creations at best but clues deliberately omitted or kept vague bob just beneath the surface, intermittently rearing their heads to contribute more pieces to the puzzle. In the film’s opening scene a body is dumped off a pier, but is it a glimpse from the past or future?

I Want You, though difficult to access on an emotional level, is nonetheless fascinating viewing: distant perhaps, but a somewhat compelling depiction of an obsessive, destructive love. The performances of Weisz and Nivola, leaning more heavily on the suffocating atmosphere of implied danger and the sound of skeletons rattling in closets, are superb without much in the way of explicit avowals to guide them. In a sense Honda acts as both a witness and moral compass; Smokey merely subsides to the background, whilst Martin and Helen keep pace for a collision with unknown consequences.

There’s an ironic circularity to the ebb and flow of these lives, with misplaced love and its attendant misery exposed like an open wound. As for the sobering resolution, what does it prove? Perhaps only that vulnerability is the perfect foil for those most in need of a defense – or outlet to a fresh beginning.

 

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