The Re-Evaluation Game: Hal Hartley’s Amateur

amateur indexBack in the nineties one of the first American indie directors I became enamoured with was Hal Hartley, whose rather quite unique take on small town American contained a gorgeously wry sense of humour. His work always featured a selection of characters who may not have spoken in the casual way most human beings do but it was a style that I found engaging and very funny indeed, there’s a deliberately direct and very honest feel to the dialogue that made it hilarious to watch.

At the time Amateur felt like his most commercial movie, his previous efforts (The Unbelievable Truth, Trust and Simple Men) had mostly been snapshots of small town life but here we were transported to the centre of New York and for the first time it featured a very well known actress in the form of Isabelle Huppert (who approached Hartley to star as she was such a fan). It also contains a much more complicated story as Martin Donovan’s Thomas is found on the street bleeding from the back of his head, and Sofia (Elina Löwensohn) believes she’s killed him and runs away. After waking, he manages to stumble in to a cafe and meet former Nun and current erotica writer Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) and the two realise he suffers from amnesia.

They gradually bond over time and Isabelle soon wants more than friendship from him as she’s a nymphomaniac (albeit one who’s yet to have sex because in her own words “I’m choosy”), and she tells Thomas her life story, including her fifteen years as a nun, explaining “When I make mistakes they tend to be big ones”. Thomas is interested in her for sure, but also in finding out what exactly has happened to him, though the answer isn’t perhaps what he was hoping for as it’s revealed that he’s a deeply fucked up individual (which is putting it kindly), a pornographer who got Sofia addicted to drugs at a young age before using her in his films and then marrying her.

Thrown in to this complicated mess is Sofia’s friend / colleague Edward (Damian Young) who has feelings for her and wants to help her out, a mysterious gangster type called Jacques who Sofia attempts to blackmail, and an overly emotional police office in the form of Officer Melville (Pamela Stewart) who struggles not to cry while dealing with Thomas’s missing person case. All of which leads to a predicament which is clearly going to get out of hand all rather quickly, and we can only hope that those who deserve to live are among those who survive.

Having not seen it since the nineties my memories of the film were admittedly fairly patchy but I thought it was a full on comedy, whereas that’s only partially the case. Not that this should necessarily be seen as a criticism, it just came as a surprise that at around the hour point it becomes less amusing and examines a number of themes in depth which don’t lend themselves to the lighthearted word play found within the first half of the movie.

Others may not have an issue with this but I couldn’t help but feel a bit disappointed though, if only because the first hour is such an enormous delight. Hartley’s dialogue is beautifully funny and the script contains a fantastic number of gems, my favourite being Isabelle’s publisher who after receiving a submission from her and expecting erotica sharply reprimands her with the line – “It’s poetry and don’t you try and deny it” – while Thomas has a great conversation with a student which initially discusses Homer’s Odyssey but soon contrasts it’s themes with text from a porn magazine.

As with most Hartley films even the supporting characters who you might not expect to be that intelligent are surprisingly sharp, with one of Jacques goon’s asking Sofia “Do you resent your position as a woman in the motion picture industry?”, which then leads to discussion of capitalism in a quite funny way, and there are an awful lot of interesting concepts explored within the running time. But during the second half it becomes a slightly more sober affair as it considers the nature of identity and character, and I found myself missing Hartley’s notable ability to make everything not only fascinating but also funny.

It’s a personal issue though, and anyone watching it for the first time without expectations / vaguely false memories of the film may well enjoy it far more. And that said it’s still a film I enjoyed an enormous amount, Hartley’s the kind of hyper-stylised director whose work you can immediately identify and of the kind that I miss these days, there’s still a few working (Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet) but not enough and Hartley offers up so many fascinating ideas that his work should be cherished, even if it’s not always perfect or what you might hope it will be.

★★★★

Alex Finch.
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