Amateur March 7, 2017
In a departure from sensory-infatuated auteurs like Pedro Almodóvar or David Lynch, indie favorite Hal Hartley gets his thrills through stylized dialogue rather than through a stylized setting. Dealing with that reality is appealing, albeit briefly – especially since he coats his deadpan yet gritty exchanges in a kitchen sink fashion that prefers to be thoroughly no-frills – but within the scope of a feature length do Hartley’s stylistic tendencies and shortcomings become tangled. 1994’s Amateur, riding off the critical successes of The Unbelievable Truth (1990) and Trust (1992), is a joining of the reasons why Hartley can be a brilliant filmmaker and why he can also be a frustrating one
In the film, Isabelle Huppert leads Hartley’s idiosyncratic ensemble as Isabelle, a former nun and alleged nymphomaniac currently making a living by writing pornographic stories. An annoyance to everyone around her – she likes to write in public, reading the filthy words of her works aloud – she, mostly alone, suddenly finds purpose in her life when an amnesiac named Thomas (Martin Donovan) mistakenly insinuates himself into her life and involves her in his quest to discover who he was before he lost the ability to remember.
Turns out that he’s hardly the gentle soul as he appears to Isabelle. In actuality, he was a nefarious pornographer whose recent head bumping was a result of his porn star wife (Elina Löwensohn) attempting to kill him in self-defense. And that isn’t all: he’s also being targeted by a European arms merchant bent on revenge after a bad deal, with hired guns chasing him and desperate for a hit.
But for all its potentially explosive plot points does Amateur remain to be quizzically aloof, not unlike the days when Jean-Luc Godard made a living out of turning genres on their backs and making them his own through meticulous satire. Godard’s films, particularly Pierrot le Fou (1965) and Made in USA (1966), were so fun because they coated their pretensions in supple color and ample tongue-in-cheek ticklishness.
Hartley, by contrast, makes a feature that’s distinctly trite, the type of intellectual piece made by an auteur who doesn’t much care if you’re in on the cerebral jabbings he’s trying to make a cinematic absolute. It doesn’t zing enough to sing with the humor it’s trying to conjure – being straight-faced with a hint of whimsicality – and it doesn’t stimulate enough to convincingly convey that it’s trying to coddle the mind and not the heart.
The performers are effective and impressively able to bring some sort of interest to a mostly uninteresting film. Huppert notably stands out as a fetchingly bizarre creation. But I find it hard to be among Hartley’s devotees, who rest easy when confronted with his conversationally dependent style. He strikes me as too detached for a filmmaker trying to deconstruct the notion that an auteur must also be visually skilled to have their must sprayed on every frame. At least he can find the mundanity in melodrama. C