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In The Unbelievable Truth, Trust, and Simple Men, writer/director Hal Hartley’s cool, deadpan sensibility put an idiosyncratic spin on commonplace plots. The contrast between his detached style and his melodramatic narratives invigorated stock situations (the enigmatic stranger in town, outcast lovers, the quest for the father), infusing conventional material with unexpected slyness and poignancy. Although it wasn’t easy to warm to Hartley’s impassive tone, one had to acknowledge the emergence of a distinctive voice and vision at a time when American movies had become nearly interchangeable.
In Amateur, Hartley abandons the Long Island milieu that had become his cinematic turf for a broader realm: the world of international vice and crime. “It’s an action movie,” Hartley has observed, “but it’s a Hal Hartley action movie and that probably means I’ve got it wrong somehow.” The very notion of making an action picture smugly amuses the filmmaker, but he’s right—he has gotten it wrong. Not because he fails to provide the requisite car chases and explosions—who would expect to find these in a Hartley movie?—but because his lofty thematic concerns are incompatible with the steamy atmosphere of violence and sexuality his characters inhabit. The incongruity of Hartley’s bloodless style and his lurid subject matter is occasionally droll, but too outlandish to sustain his ontological preoccupations.
A summary of Amateur‘s story line promises a far livelier film than Hartley delivers. Thomas (Martin Donovan) awakens, bloody and disoriented, on a Lower Manhattan street. He can recall nothing about himself or his past; the only clues are some Dutch coins in his suit pocket. Wandering into a coffee shop, he meets Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), an intense ex-nun who has left her convent to await an as-yet-unspecified mission she believes God intends for her. To support herself, she writes stories for porno magazines and works for a phone-sex party line. She offers to shelter Thomas and help him discover his identity, a search that leads to Sofia (Elina Lowensohn), a troubled, vengeful prostitute attempting to gain control of her life. While struggling to come to terms with their inner conflicts, this odd trio becomes the target of a band of international corporate assassins determined to murder Thomas.
A thrill a minute, right? Nowhere near. Amateur is deliberately implausible, starting with Hartley’s casting. Glacial Huppert, the great stone face of French cinema, might be marginally credible as a nun on the downward path to grace, but the notion of her composing raunchy stroke-book fiction stretches credulity and her employment as a sex-line operative defines absurdity. (An insomnia hot line, maybe.) Clean-cut, soft-spoken Donovan is equally preposterous as a demonic Dutchman whose past activities include hooking 12-year-old girls on drugs and forcing them into prostitution. With her haunted eyes and reticent manner, Lowensohn is far too introverted to impersonate “the most notorious porno actress in the world.”
Clearly, Hartley doesn’t intend or expect us to take any of this literally. To the extent that Amateur is an ironic comedy, much of its humor derives from the discrepancy between what we observe of his poker-faced characters and their sordid histories. Hartley’s intermittent verbal japes have the rhythm of jokes but lack comedic resonance. A typical example, prominently featured in television clips and print ads, is Isabelle’s response to Thomas’ inquiry, “How can you be a nymphomaniac and never had sex?”—“I’m very choosy.” A Seinfeldian gag, repeated twice in the film, questions why floppy disks are actually square and stiff. Hartley overdoses on non sequiturs and incongruities—hit men complaining about their malfunctioning cellular phones; a weepy, bleeding-heart policewoman; a video store located next to a white-supremacy organization; a disenchanted porno magazine editor confessing, “My aspiration was defamatory journalism.” Amateur‘s humor is shallow and facetious, ungrounded in its characters and situations.
Hartley might argue that the film’s comedy is merely icing for its more serious concerns, the “deep and philosophical themes and questions” that Huppert praises in the press material. You’d have to be blind and deaf to miss them. Each of the main characters has undergone a moral regeneration—the nun transformed into a spiritually questing sex worker; the sadistic monster redeemed by amnesia; the whore turned exterminating angel. Ostentatiously placed bits of Catholic iconography underline this redemption motif—a picture of the Virgin on the wall of Isabelle’s otherwise barren apartment; the cruciform jewelry worn by three characters; the climactic scene set in a nunnery. But, as with the comedy, there’s no urgency in the presentation of this religious theme, neither the oblique solemnity of Bresson nor the operatic anguish of Scorsese. Hartley’s seriousness, like his humor, is weightless, cosmetic.
Unquestionably, filmmakers can effectively combine frivolous and serious material. Godard’s Band of Outsiders, Truffaut’s Shoot the Piano Player, and Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde—three gangster comedy-dramas that are apparent ancestors of Amateur—blend seemingly contradictory tones to create poetic visions of a brutally absurd world. But Hartley’s blank tone, derived from the affectless, cult-of-numbness works of Warhol and Jarmusch, filters out any sense of commitment or passion. Laugh if you choose, weep if you wish, think if you must—it’s all the same to him.
The only thing he insists upon is that viewers recognize him as an artiste. From the opening credits (animated blue diagonal lines on a black background, backed by choral voices) to the inevitable Louise Brooks wig (appropriated by Anna Karina, Liza Minelli, Melanie Griffith, and Uma Thurman before landing on Lowensohn’s head) to a schoolboy’s extended plot summary of The Odyssey, Amateur is stuffed with cultural signifiers and begs for admiration in ways that more confident filmmakers would find unnecessary, even embarrassing. The movie’s sole irreproachable element is Michael Spiller’s cinematography, the highlight of every Hartley movie thus far. Strikingly composed, meticulously lit, subtly hued (in this instance, employing a spectrum of blues), Spiller’s camerawork keeps our eyes alert to the screen despiteHartley’s poker-faced acting ensemble, unctuous humor, and strained seriousness.