Some things in life are best left to the Roman Polanski’s of the world. And when it comes to movies about isolated women going crazy in their apartments, that dictum is certainly true. That Cold Day in the Park tries to explore some of the same psychological terrain that Polanski dealt with in Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby, but with far less success. Featuring an impressive central performance from Broadway legend Sandy Dennis, this otherwise frigid thriller has little to recommend.
Directed by Robert Altman, a year before he made M*A*S*H and went on to become one of the leading lights in the revolution of independent American cinema, That Cold Day in the Park offers a only a fleeting glimpse of the filmmaker he would become. The film follows Frances (Sandy Dennis) an independently wealthy young woman who lives alone in an upper class district of Vancouver. It is hinted that her wealth is inherited, and she is being courted by a significantly older man.
One cold and rainy day she looks out her window across the park that her apartment overlooks and sees a young man (Michael Burns) huddled on a bench. She invites him into her home to get him out of the rain. He doesn’t speak so she assumes he must be mute. She removes his clothing, bathes him, feeds him, and gives him a bed for the night. We’ve established by this point that Frances is a very lonely woman, and perhaps her act of charity can be put down as an attempt to assuage her loneliness.
But we soon come to learn that there is more to it than just a need for companionship. There is a longing and desire to possess the boy. She doesn’t just give him a room for the night – she locks him in it. When he escapes out the window and down the fire escape, we discover that he isn’t really a mute, it is just an act that he puts on. He is a conman.
The boy keeps returning to Frances’ apartment, perpetuating the con, and in doing so her obsession with him grows. But we never understand what is driving this. Does she want to have sex with him, does she want to love him, or does she want to own him? Frances talks a lot throughout the film, but we don’t really get to know her at all. She is just a mysterious spinster going through a strange psycho-sexual fugue.
In a strange development in the third act, Frances eventually hires a prostitute for the boy, and again her motivations for doing this are unclear. But maybe that is Altman’s intention, to create a film of such detached ambiguity that it is open to multiple interpretations. You can read it as a horror, a sexual thriller, or even a study of female desire.
The perplexing and bloody denouement fails to add depth, meaning or understanding to the preceding events. The most we can really take away is that from a technical point of view, with the long takes drifting out of focus, and the overlapping dialogue of real-world sound, the film hints at the stylistic flourishes that would epitomise Altman’s future masterworks.
This review first appeared on Entertainment Focus