Accident opens and closes with a car crash – not on screen, but played out over the soundtrack as the camera focuses on a large, country house, the home of middle aged Oxford don Stephen (Dirk Bogarde). The victims of the first crash are William (Michael York), who is killed, and Anna (Jacqueline Sassard), who survives, and who will be the obscure object of desire at the centre of the story as the film flashes back several months.
The second pairing of Joseph Losey and Harold Pinter (after The Servant), Accident is a remarkable, mannered tale of sexual obsession and frustration, as three men – the repressed married man Stephen, aristocratic Oxford student William and fellow don Charley (Stanley Baker) – are all caught under the spell of the enigmatic Anna. Charley, like Stephen, is middle-aged an married, but there the similarities end. He’s athletic, successful (he has his own TV show) and confident, and before long, he has embarked on an affair with Anna – who is also in a relationship with William. Stephen, meanwhile, can only desire her from the sidelines – an early scene of the pair lying side by side in a punt is ripe with erotic tension, the uncomfortable and aroused lecturer glancing over her body while desperately wanting to be somewhere else.
Inevitably, things start to fall apart. Charley and Anna sneak into Stephen’s house to make love while he is away, only for him to come home unexpectedly and find them, while William – seemingly oblivious to what is going on – becomes engaged to the girl. Stephen, frustrated in his inability to seduce Anna (despite her seeming willingness) briefly hooks up with an old flame (Delphine Seyrig) in a moment of sheer desperation – the scene, played out with repeating dialogue from the pair that is not spoken on screen, briefly takes the film into the mystery world of Last Year at Marienbad, albeit one tinged with denial and despair. Stephen’s frustrations continue to build, but the crash – hinted at as being no ‘accident’ at all – allows him to finally gain some power over the situation he has watched from the sidelines.
Deliberately paced, Accident is a near-flawless study of relationship breakdown, sexual frustration and social anxiety. Beautifully, subtly shot by Gerry Fisher, the film is full of questions unanswered – quite literally, as many characters will ask something, only to get no reply. As cutting a study of middle-aged displacement and frustration as you will ever see, it benefits from the character clash (off-screen too, apparently) between the fey, repressed Bogarde and the overly macho – but ultimately more pathetic – Baker, with Michael York’s character being the in the middle, the social ‘superior’ of the pair and only too aware of the fact, yet too caught in his own world to see what is happening around him.
As for Anna – it’s certainly easy to see why all these men become obsessed with her. Jacqueline Sassard, fetishised by the camera, has the sort of eyes that betray little of her emotions, making her something of a blank canvas for each man to project his fantasies on. We first see her (in the flashback) stroking a goat in the middle of a courtyard – a fairly symbolic image, given how she will manipulate the men in the film. We never find out who she actually is. Her relationship with Charley seems not to be born of love on her part, but possibly boredom, while her seeming flirtation with Stephen might be equally for those reasons, and it seems doubtful that she actually loves William either.
Backed with a moody soundtrack by John Dankworth that mixes menace and sensuality, Accident is a dark, unsettling and potent example of ‘less is more’, with it’s long, unspoken desires, moments of silence and awkward encounters that are allowed to play out to the point where they become almost unbearable. It’s cinema at it’s most brutal in many ways, despite having little onscreen violence and barely a raised voice. Surprisingly not as well remembered as it should be, this remains one of the most significant and masterful films of the 1960s.
This new, restored edition comes complete with a fascinating 2005 French documentary about the film and a 1967 US TV talk show appearance by Losey and Pinter that is pretty heavy going, alongside ‘expert’ interviews.