Hal Hartley challenges the notion of an auteur shaping a film through sheer force of sensibility. His approach is more passive: Hartley’s first two features, 1989’s The Unbelievable Truth and 1990’s Trust, were alienated looks at suburban alienation. Since then he’s moved his settings from Long Island to the wider world, engaging in formalist frolics wherever there’s a government that funds cinema. (He currently lives in Berlin.) While Hartley’s early films seemed personal, albeit in a disaffected way, his more recent work is topical: 1997’s Henry Fool lampooned literary reputation-making, 1998’s The Book of Life riffed on apocalyptic millennialism, and 2001’s No Such Thing critiqued celebrity culture. Yet Hartley never seemed particularly engaged by any of those subjects.
The new Fay Grim is advertised as a sequel to Henry Fool, but it’s no such thing. Hartley doesn’t follow the major-studio recipe, which blurs the distinction between sequel and remake. (“Give the people what they wanted” is Hollywood’s motto.) The new movie has little to do with its predecessor, in which abrasive drifter Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) spurs garbageman Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) to become a celebrated poet. Instead, Hartley reformulates his major characters and their significance. If you loved characters Henry Fool and Simon’s promiscuous sister, Fay Grim (Parker Posey)—and some people reportedly did—the follow-up is here to tell you that you didn’t know them at all. By the way, this film also claims to have a topic: international terrorism.
Yeah, right. While Fay Grim is presented in a clipped, deadpan style that whispers “spy movie,” its interest in plot points that hit on secret codes, fake passports, and satellite coordinates is merely facetious. Hartley’s script introduces Fay, now a Queens single mom, to agents of the CIA, the Mossad, and quite possibly the Illuminati, and sends her on a spy mission to Paris and Istanbul. It turns out that the journals written by Henry, Fay’s fugitive lover and the father of her 14-year-old son (Liam Aiken), are not failed literature but in fact an elaborate account of espionage in hotspots such as ’70s Chile and ’80s Afghanistan. Lots of people have discerned this, and everybody from Simon’s publisher (Chuck Montgomery) to CIA operative Fulbright (Jeff Goldblum) to mysterious femmes fatales Juliet (Saffron Burrows) and Bebe (Elina Löwensohn) want to snatch Henry’s reevaluated notebooks.
Like his more serious-minded model, Jean-Luc Godard, Hartley toys with cinematic conventions and treats his films as part of a larger, if hardly systematic, whole. So in addition to refashioning Henry Fool, Fay Grim revisits the religious themes of The Book of Life; the script enlists a priest and rabbi to decode some text visible in an un-heavenly image, and it switches the preferred cosmological text from the Book of Revelation to Paradise Lost. The director has some fun with the idea of international co-productions, a theme since 1993’s Flirt, which recycled the same dialogue on three different continents; Fay functions as a sort of Hartley surrogate, finding her way in pretentious climes far from Queens. The director also pays ironic homage to action-flick requirements, requiring Fay to scurry across Parisian rooftops and ending with a cliffhanger that appears to promise another installment.
Hartley’s films are droll but rarely laugh-out-loud funny. Indeed, when the director strains for guffaws in Fay Grim—as he does when Fay is aroused by her vibrating phone—he usually just spoils the mood. That mood, though, is so elusive that the director’s movies hit viewers dissimilarly—consensus is impossible even among his small coterie of fans. For example, Henry Fool has been described as Hartley’s best film, but I think it’s one of his worst. Yet I can’t guarantee that anyone else would chuckle at the Hartley movie I found funniest, 1994’s Amateur.
While not as strident as its forerunner, Fay Grim is more amusing in concept than execution. The movie is certainly a triumph of low-budget filmmaking; it’s beautifully shot on digital video, with action scenes sometimes rendered as a series of stills, and features a score composed by the director himself. But it’s unclear what, other than current events, required Henry Fool to return as a sort of James Bond. Lots of writer-directors create characters that lack motivation, but Hartley makes entire movies that feel unmotivated. Fay Grim is a spy thriller whose defining stance is a shrug.