Julius Morlang (Paul Freeman), the central figure of the chilly, slow, absorbing puzzle film "Morlang," is an aging British artist coasting along the back side of fame. He takes photos of himself and others, blows the prints up to wall-size, and then slathers them with paint until the subjects look like something out of a Francis Bacon daydream. The resulting work is still trendy enough to bring in six-figure sums, but other, younger artists are coming up fast. One of them, a Dutch painter named Robert Jansen (Marcel Faber), appears to want Morlang's wife in the bargain.
Directed by the Netherlands' Tjebbo Penning and released in Europe in 2001, "Morlang" unfolds in two time periods simultaneously, as though we're watching the characters through fractured binoculars. In one narrative shard, Morlang knows that Ellen (Diana Kent), his capable and loving manager-wife of 15 years, is edging toward an affair with the younger painter, but he's too proud to admit his rage even to himself. In the parallel story line, it's a few years later, Ellen has died of a brain tumor, and Morlang is living in an Irish castle with a young and sexy second wife, Ann (Susan Lynch). All seems content until a mysterious someone or other starts leaving cryptic notes and phone messages: "Don't feel guilty. It's nobody's fault." The voice is that of the dead wife.
Whatzitallmean? You may throw in the towel before finding out, because "Morlang" disgorges useful plot information whenever it feels like it, in wayward and distant fashion. This might work if the main character held our interest, but as played -- quite well -- by Freeman (who, long ago, was Harrison Ford's archeologist rival in "Raiders of the Lost Ark"), Morlang is a repressed creep whose worst crime, as far as the audience is concerned, is dullness. Penning seems to think that off-kilter camera angles and a few athletic sex scenes will keep us hanging on for the long haul, and, well, he's almost right.
For all that, our impatience is rewarded in the film's last five minutes, when Penning's nasty little jigsaw pieces click together to reveal a monster where we really weren't expecting one. "Morlang" shuffles past and present, love and resentment, guilt and innocence in ways that keep a viewer continually off balance, so that when an act of premeditated evil suddenly coalesces before us, its awful clarity is thrilling. The movie wants to be a high art mystery but that savage sting in its tail turns it into something closer to a high-concept "Murder, She Wrote" episode. That's not a bad thing -- but it's probably not what the filmmakers had in mind.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Directed by: Tjebbo Penning
Written by: Penning, Matthew Faulk, Ruud Schuurman, Mark Skeet
Starring: Paul Freeman,Diana Kent, Susan Lynch, Marcel Faber
At: Coolidge Corner
Running time: 95 minutes
Unrated (nudity, sexual situations, language, mild violence)