Of the collaborations between director Joseph Losey and playwright Harold Pinter, Accident is probably seen least often. That is surprising, for in addition to the director and writer, the film boasts luminaries like Dirk Bogarde, Michael York, Stanley Baker, Alexander Knox, Delphine Seyrig and Vivien Merchant. While it lacks the insidious nastiness of The Servant and the rich period recreation of The Go-Between, its fluid, sexy, everyday sophistication is immensely enjoyable in itself. It even boasts that rarest of Losey commodities, the occasional joke.
Bogarde stars as Stephen, an Oxford don with the hots for his student, Anna (Jacqueline Sassard). Any chance Stephen might act on his lust is complicated by the fact that he is married, has another student (York) who is dating Anna and a best friend, Charley (Baker) who is also sleeping with her. To make things worse, the popularity of Charley’s academic work gives Stephen even more cause to be jealous.
In the sun-dappled lassitude of Oxford at high summer, it does not matter whether Stephen’s lust or envy is greater, since he is doomed to drift back and forth from one to the other like the sculls we see floating on the Thames. Tingling, nerve-wracking eroticism and frustration course through every scene. An extended Sunday afternoon gathering, for example, evokes a long, hot, drunken party that goes ever more wrong with itchy accuracy. Since none of the characters are particularly sympathetic, however, we can keep some distance from their actions no matter how much we may share their impulses or experiences.
That is particularly true for anyone who has spent any time in the cloistered world of academia, where peccadilloes are acceptable as long as one remains “discreet.” The more effectively desires are kept under wraps, however, the likelier they are to bubble up. Accident shows the self-satisfied rot under the well-educated smirks. At one point, for example, Stephen, Charley and their provost (Knox) discuss a survey about the sex life of students in Wisconsin. All react with knowing cynicism (the provost smugly comments “I am surprised to learn that Aristotle is on the syllabus in the state of Wisconsin”) but their snide attitudes cannot hide their interest. That the provost is also the father of Stephen’s former mistress (Seyrig) and who seems privy to their past together merely heightens the tension.
The results are hardly profound. The film merely exposes libidinal drives among those supposedly interested in higher things. It is because Accident so ably evokes the walking barefoot over hot pavement of suppressed desire that it works so well. If its languid world provides more texture than critique, dismissing it as merely superficial risks making the same mistake as the characters, for simply showing the world as it is cuts through a lot of hypocritical cant. Accident does not have to show us much to eviscerate its complacent world. Unblinking clarity and vicious wit are more than enough.