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Hal Hartley’s feature debut, The Unbelievable Truth, was the tale of a young woman who befriends a man some call a monster—a mass murderer, according to gossip buzzing through the heroine’s Long Island hometown. Thirteen years—and some special effects—later, Hartley’s No Such Thing tells the story of an innocent young woman who befriends a literal monster: a hideous horned creature who lives in a part of Iceland that even Icelanders consider remote, who really is a mass murderer.
A lot has changed for Hartley in the intervening years, even if his basic scenario hasn’t. Not embraced by mainstream Hollywood, the writer-director has turned to international sources of financing, with the result that his films have abandoned the suburban Long Island that was once their almost-exclusive turf. Hartley’s recent work can generally be linked to the world’s better-known film festivals: The three-part Flirt traveled to Berlin and Tokyo, and No Such Thing germinated in Cannes, where Icelandic director Fridrick Thor Fridriksson (Cold Fever, Angels of the Universe) proposed making a series of monster films set in his native land.
Hartley says he was inspired by the cinematic adventures of Godzilla, Mothra, and King Kong, and it’s true that those movies often feature a relationship between the creature and an innocent young woman/journalist. In No Such Thing, the latter is fresh-faced, pigtailed Beatrice (Sarah Polley), who works for the disaster-fixated Boss (Helen Mirren) at a New York TV-news operation. The film quickly establishes, however, that its monster (Hartley regular Robert John Burke) is no Mothra. In his pre-credits soliloquy, the beast admits, “I’m not the monster I used to be. I’m tired. I’m losing my memory. I can’t sleep.” Although he matter-of-factly acknowledges having killed the members of a TV crew that came seeking him, the creature is less a force of nature than a weary-vampire type—or an aging baby boomer.
The TV crew, of course, was dispatched by the Boss—and included Beatrice’s fiance. Distracted by such tabloid-TV developments as a nerve-gas attack on the New York subway, the sale of lower Manhattan to an unnamed Hollywood studio, and her hope that the president of the United States will soon commit suicide, the Boss agrees to send Beatrice to find the monster. Because this is a world beset by disasters, the trip is not uneventful: Beatrice’s plane crashes into the North Atlantic, and she’s rescued by fishermen and taken to an Icelandic hospital. There, kindly Dr. Anna (Julie Christie in a rudimentary role) helps her through a difficult, painful operation that will be echoed later in the film.
Miraculously healed, Beatrice sets out to find the monster. The inhabitants of the outpost closest to the creature’s lair get her drunk, take off her clothes, and dump her on the monster’s doorstep as a sacrifice. The beauty charms the beast, however, and he doesn’t kill her. Instead, he asks her to help end his tiresome existence. She agrees to take him to New York and locate the one man who can destroy him, Dr. Artaud (Icelandic actor-director Baltasar Kormakur, who made the slacker farce 101 Reykjavik). When the odd couple arrives in Manhattan, the result is the inevitable media circus. The U.S. military also moves in, hoping to weaponize the beast.
There are clearly enough themes here for a richly layered film—or two or three. No Such Thing is a critique of media sensationalism, arguing that overeager news outlets conjure visions of pure evil—even if there is no such thing—just to attract consumers. Like its Japanese creature-feature precursors, it’s also an eco-fable (the primordial monster says that the more people are on Earth, the worse he feels) and a glancing comment on America’s international military presence. Hartley adds a dash of Godardian self-consciousness, too, as when it’s explained that the monster has been “spirited away by the ingenue.” Finally, the movie is a modern fairy tale about the clash—and affinity—of innocence and experience.
The film might have fared better if Hartley had emphasized the last. Always interesting but ultimately unsatisfying, No Such Thing stumbles repeatedly, most often in its media-satire mode. The Boss and her activities aren’t depicted sharply enough to be convincing, even as caricature. She supposedly works for a TV show or channel, but when the Boss arranges a photo shoot for Beatrice and the monster, she seems more like a magazine editor. Is she supposed to be a Tina Brown-style goddess of all media? A similar premise worked well in Hartley’s more tightly focused The Book of Life—in which Jesus arrives in 1999 New York to decide if it’s time for the apocalypse—but here the collision of cosmic archetype and contemporary banality fails to emit sparks.
Perhaps Hartley has become too distracted by his second career as a soundtrack composer—his electro-drone score is adequate, if sometimes obtrusive—to fine-tune his scripts. A more ironic possibility is that the director was handed too much money to make the movie, which counts Francis Ford Coppola among its executive producers. Although Hartley stalwart Michael Spiller’s cinematography is luminous, some of the big-budget elements are problematic. The performances of the veteran actors (especially Mirren) don’t mesh with the director’s deadpan style, and the elaborate prosthetics that transform Burke into the monster, though of major-studio quality, prove merely distracting. In making its ideas into latex-simulated flesh, No Such Thing makes them ungainly as well.
They tell authors to “write what you know,” but millions—all right, hundreds—of filmgoers would like to have the head of whoever gave that advice to Henry Jaglom. Although the writer-director doesn’t rate as the most self-indulgent filmmaker ever, he may be the most narcissistic nontalent in the medium’s history. Aside from his social comedies about what he imagines to be women’s issues—Eating, Babyfever, and the planned Shopping—Jaglom has generally made movies about his romantic travails, with occasional forays into films about filmmakers.
It could be, however, that Jaglom has matured. His last effort, 1998’s Deja Vu, was trite but tolerable. Remarkably, the same is true of the new Festival in Cannes, yet another Jaglom film that fixes its lens at the level of the director’s navel.
The setting, of course, is the Cannes Film Festival, in the year that posters for Entrapment were on display. (That would be 1999.) Veteran actress Alice Palmer (Greta Scacchi) has traveled to the fest in hopes of putting together a deal to direct her first film, a Jaglomesque women’s picture about a matriarch who finally comes into her own. Palmer is adopted by Kaz (Jaglom veteran Zack Norman), a self-styled producer who announces that he has the perfect actress for the lead: faded French star Millie Marquand (Anouk Aimee, who’s best known for her work in 40-year-old Fellini films). It turns out, however, that high-powered Hollywood producer Rick Yorkin (Ron Silver) wants to cast Marquand in the new $90-million Tom Hanks movie, and the timing of the two projects is in conflict.
Accompanying Rick to Cannes is his assistant, Barry (Alex Craig Mann), who decides to become both the manager and the lover of Blue (Jenny Gabrielle), the young star of a no-budget indie that has become a Cannes hit. Meanwhile, competitors Alice and Rick begin to feel an improbable romantic rapport, and Millie plots to recapture her longtime off-and-on lover, director Viktor Kovner (Maximilian Schell), from his latest flame, Italian sex bomb Gina (Camilla Campanale). If Millie succeeds in snaring Victor, of course, that will leave Kaz—the Jaglom surrogate—to pair with seductive Gina.
That bit of erotic self-flattery is not the only thing here that suggests Woody Allen. Festival in Cannes could be The Player as remade by Allen at his blandest. Although the handheld-camera footage, which includes “grabbed” shots of passers-by such as Jeff Goldblum, Holly Hunter, Faye Dunaway, and William Shatner, is a little loose for Woody, the old-timey jazz score recalls Manhattan and a dozen more Allen films. At least both directors attract interesting actors; although their roles are slight, Scacchi, Aimee, and most of the other principals give engaging performances.
Ultimately, Festival in Cannes leaves the contracts unconsummated but the romance in active development. The bold moral: Love is more important than making movies. That’s arguable, but surely love is more important than making movies like this. CP