As Rolf de Heer's unsettling Alexandra's Project opens, suburban dad and company man Gary Sweet wakes up on his birthday to a happy domestic scene, as the sun beams into his cozy two-story townhouse and his adoring children dogpile on him in bed. Things only get better at work, where his chummy coworkers greet him with a cake in the boardroom, and his boss grants him the promotion he so richly deserves. But when the other shoe drops, it falls hard: Anticipating a surprise party after work, Sweet instead returns to an empty home with the furniture upended, all the light bulbs unscrewed, and a videotape waiting ominously on the television. On it, his scorned wife Helen Buday dictates their marital problems and includes a few shocking, sadistic touches for good measure.
A Medea for the chilly age of Atom Egoyan and Michael Haneke, Alexandra's Project brings a powerful dose of "hell hath no fury" revenge to a relatively ordinary domestic breakdown. For all the provocations on the videotape, which throw Sweet's extramarital activities in his face and permanently threaten his status as a parent (among other blows), Buday's complaints are garden-variety, the sort of issues that might put Divorce Court judges to sleep. While conceding Sweet's success as a father and provider, Buday lashes out at him for his sexual appetite, and how she was made to feel that she existed only to satisfy his desires, with little consideration for her needs, or for anything apart from her body. Obviously, Buday's feelings of neglect and objectificationif not outright enslavementare grounds for a nasty divorce, but the punishment doesn't remotely fit the crime.
To a degree, Buday's extreme response gives Alexandra's Project a powerful kick, much like the nuclear families gone awry in Haneke's superior The Seventh Continent or Funny Games, to which de Heer owes an obvious debt. Had Sweet's abuses been more outrageous, it would be much easier for viewers to get some distance from Buday's actions, or to sympathize with her. But de Heer's high-concept feminist tract loses some of its integrity over time, as it slowly devolves into a seedy, voyeuristic thriller that takes all too much pleasure in turning the screws. After a while, the sadistic hows of Sweet's comeuppance begin to supercede the more important whys.