By Patrick Crain
On a random chilly day in Vancouver, a wealthy woman of undetermined age named Frances Austen spots a boy, teetering somewhere between his late teens and early twentes, sitting on a park bench adjacent to her home. The day grows colder and is then is finally saturated by rain, yet he doesn’t budge from the bench. Frances observes this from her window and for reasons either of benevolence or simple, piqued interest, the woman invites the boy, who first appears to be mute, into her home. From here, an unorthodox and obsessive relationship begins.
Robert Altman’s That Cold Day in the Park is a movie about sex though not necessarily in the way you’d expect from the description above. More specifically, it’s a tragic and mysterious film about a woman whose unmoored sexual blossoming combusts with her rigid repression. Sandy Dennis’s Frances Austen is almost a zombie of ritual who lives in a sarcophagus of high-class privilege occupied by the waxy specters of her late parents’ peers. We know little about her other than what we get by way of light expository dialogue and her direct yet taciturn demeanor. Her daily activities don’t seem to include any kind of employment but, instead, are spent entertaining, shopping, listening to selections from her utterly square record collection, and playing bocce ball with people twice her age. It’s as if her entire reason for being were awarded to her through a probate judgement along with her house and its servants.
This is juxtaposed with the life of The Boy, credited as such and played with a certain bright and impish charm by Michael Burns. Detangled from his large, overwhelming family we glimpse in one masterful exterior shot of his cramped, multi-level home that reveals multitudes while saying very little, he seems to float on a wave of pure life, his only real connection being that of his free-spirited sister who squats in a docked, derelict boat with her hippie boyfriend. It is with her that we learn that he is not, indeed, mute but is instead a curious observer with some rather eccentric tendencies.
In Altman’s first film to really put a real examining glass to human nature, That Cold Day in the Park lives in a very uncomfortable space where sex is never something joyous, exciting, a good time, or expressive but where it is a commodity, a disgusting biological necessity with frightening and painful ramifications, or an unreachable and twisted curiosity. There is always a heavy dichotomous swing between the awkwardness of not knowing anything or, in the case of The Boy, possibly knowing far too much. And while it doesn’t decry healthy sexual freedom, it looks on in sadness at unhealthy sexual identities which leaves the emotionally crippled without any alternatives or outlets.
With her downward-turned smile, librarian hair, and muted earth tones, Sandy Dennis’s Frances is as sharp and as emotionless as a clock and it is next to impossible to imagine that Dennis was but 32 years old when the film was made. Only when she eats some pot-laced cookies gifted to her as a gag by The Boy do we see her melt into a soft-focused thing of beauty, lifted into the ether by the tremendously gorgeous camerawork of Vilmos Zsigmond. Like Sissy Spacek’s Pinky in Altman’s 1977 masterpiece 3 Women, Sandy Dennis’s Frances literally transforms into another character in front of the audience’s face and it a thing of true wonder. As the scene slowly relaxes forward, we begin to vibe with her and pick up on the fully sexual being that she clearly would love to be if situations and forces unknown wouldn’t have stifled her. And like many an Altman woman that would pop up in his filmography, we get that her life has been robbed somewhere of a natural joy. Little wonder that when disappointment strikes, Frances snaps back into her discomforting comfort zone. And boy, does she snap back hard.
Also dividing the film in a rather bold way is the way it splits its time between the controlled environment of Frances’s apartment and the exterior world. As in Roman Polanski’s Apartment Trilogy, Frances’s apartment becomes a controlling space just as Susannah York’s two homes do in Altman’s Images, a film which would come three years later. In both films, the women are mostly trapped in cloistered environments are either inescapable or out of which it’s impossible to exist as the characters are constantly met with chaos and confusion and an inability to navigate through reality. And as That Cold Day in the Park marches toward its conclusion and moves more and more away from the confines of Frances’s apartment, Altman really cuts loose with his observations utilizing his signature style of messy sound design meant to give the audience the sensation of being a casual observer. For all the ink spilled about the following year’s M*A*S*H being the birth of the specific thing we’d eventually define as “Altmanesque,” I’d ask that the clock be turned back a bit and present this as an alternative Exhibit A. Here, it’s used not only as an engaging participatory device for the audience but also as an overwhelming sensory overload to Frances as a character as moments in the very chatty waiting room of a gynecologist and a pitiful attempt in a bar by Frances to procure a prostitute attest. In both scenes, she is entirely out of her element and rudderless and her anxiety is palpable.
Aided by Gillian Freeman’s beautifully delicate screenplay (based on a novel by Peter Miles), Altman’s third time at bat is an astonishing and effective film that gets lost in the conversation regarding his greatest works. While it lacks the jolts of Images and it can’t conjure the deliriously impenetrable and mysterious gossamer of 3 Women, That Cold Day in the Park reflects an artist interested in the marginalized and the outcast; people who aren’t given much serious study but who are indeed out there, doing their damndest, and putting their whole heart into it, regardless of consequence.