This wildly trippy dive into the sexual fantasies of an absent-minded professor feels as far removed from our current cultural and visual obsessions as you could get, and is all the more interesting for it.
Some films are resolutely of their time, so much so that they immediately vanish into obscurity once that time has passed, eventually building a cult status due to their unavailability. Wonderwall is one such movie, probably known only to the mainstream market as the film that inspired that Oasis song, but much requested by lovers of oddball cinema. Unless you are a psychedelia nostalgist, this is unlikely to be a film that will speak to you. If you are a fan of those eccentric Sixties films though, you’ll probably adore this.
It’s a film with a scant story. Jack MacGowran is eccentric scientist Oscar Collins, who lives next door to a hipster photographer (Iain Quarrier) and his model girlfriend Penny Lane (Jane Birkin). When Collins spots a beam of light shining through the wall of his apartment and reflecting a silhouette of Penny onto the wall, he rapidly becomes fixated. Soon, he’s knocked more spy holes in the wall and becomes infatuated with the girl, even though he ever meets her (he does have a couple of encounters with the unnamed boyfriend). Soon, the absent-minded professor is cutting work, shutting himself in his apartment and going on very 1960s flights of fantasy about the girl, before real life finally intrudes.
It’s not a lot to build a film on, and so the story is really just an excuse for assorted whimsy, either real or fantasised. In his dreams, Collins sees himself as a heroic figure, saving Penny from her waster boyfriend as they battle it out in assorted surreal scenarios, and these dreams start to finally blur into reality, as the caped, top-hatted scientist clambers over the building roof and into her apartment. It’s interesting that he is seen as a sympathetic, likeable fellow here, because in any sensible scenario he’s a rather creepy character who drills holes in his walls to spy on his neighbour and then breaks into her home to caress her as she lies unconscious. You could pretty much take this exact same story and make a bunny-boiling thriller out of it.
The ‘heroic stalker’ aspect of the plot is enough to ensure that the film probably isn’t a feminist favourite, but the general treatment of the female characters is not exactly progressive either. Critics who spend their time fretting about films not passing the Bechdel Test will be aghast to learn that Birkin doesn’t get a single line of dialogue. She is, to all intents and purposes, a sexual fantasy figure, spending most of the film parading around in fab skimpy outfits, posing for glamour shoots or lounging around in artfully framed nude tableaus where a silhouetted nipple becomes curiously erotic. She is, essentially, a fetishised creature rather than an actual character. The only other woman of significance in the film is Irene Handl as Mrs Peurofoy, Collins’ cleaner who gets a single scene to do her usual chirpy cockney schtick.
Still, we shouldn’t get too bogged down in trying to impose modern Woke standards on a 1968 film, especially one that makes no attempt to take place in a socio-realist environment. This is fantasy. That it’s possibly the fantasy of a dirty old man hardly matters. Even dirty old men are allowed their dreams. And for fans of psychedelic cinema, there is much here that will delight. While most Swinging London films were shot by jobbing old farts who had no connection to the scene, you do get the feeling that director Joe Massot was at least in touch with what was going on, if not fully immersed in it. Wonderwall is a riot of wild colour – the tripped-out multi-coloured apartment of Penny is to be expected, but even the staid old professor’s place is a chaotic mix of murals, painted slogans and pet praying mantises. The soundtrack, by George Harrison, is a sitar-laden acid trip, the fashions are loud (and wait till you see the bright green car!) and the film’s non-narrative approach and collision of styles (now and again, it will slip into prosaic normality) all reflect a time and style of filmmaking long since gone. While not exactly commercial cinema at the time, Wonderwall was at least considered mainstream enough to get a regular – if unsuccessful – theatrical release; nothing this odd would achieve that today.
The curious thing about the film is that despite the theme – and even at its least creepy, it’s still a story of sexual obsession – the overall feeling is one of innocence. There’s a fairytale element at work – isn’t the ‘wonderwall’ just the professor’s version of Wonderland, a looking glass that he falls through much like Alice? Fairy tale whimsy was, of course, a major part of Swinging London’s psychedelic dream, but few films have captured it as successfully as this.
I can’t see casual viewers greeting this film with anything more than a scratch of the head, but if you enjoy the more drug-fuelled, free form head movies of the late 1960s, this will be a must-see. The film exists in two versions – the original theatrical, and a shorter director’s cut that features more music from the original Harrison soundtrack, including a vocal track by the Remo Four. The shorter version might be the one to go for – the longer cut doesn’t really add anything of substance.
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