A Truth About Hal Hartley

by Mr Moth

hartley top

A man in a dark suit escaping a criminal past. An woman giving up everything for the dream of another life. Deadpan dialogue. Low key drama in the shabby outskirts of New York and Long Island. Welcome to the early work of Hal Hartley. Take a seat. Don’t look at me, gaze out of the window. I’ll talk to you. You talk to the air. The blank space between us says everything else.

“You can’t have faith in people. Only the deals you make with them.”

Melancholy teen 101: Note the book title.
Melancholy teen 101: Note the book title.

It’s a simple story of a man with a criminal past (Robert Burke as Josh, fresh out of prison for… what? Murder? No-one is really sure.) meeting a woman (a girl really, Adrienne Shelley’s Audry is just out of school) and falling in love, despite everything being against them. Her parents. Her ex. The world. The Unbelievable Truth was made just as the Cold War was starting to defrost, but the spectre of nuclear destruction haunts Audry. She wakes to the sound of bombs in her ears, it worries at her even as she falls in love and leaves home. Hartley plays on this with the audience, and we expect her final reconciliation with Josh to put an end to her fears of bombs, but the last line undercuts it. “Do you hear that? Listen…”, an echo of her earlier line; the unspoken final word, “bombs”, drifts away with the camera into the white sky.

The Unbelievable Truth is Hal Hartley’s first full-length film, and it feels like it. The low budget screams out of every frame; the dialogue sounds like it was recorded on a Dictaphone, it looks like it was shot in the houses of various obliging neighbours; some of the performances are a little off. Not far off, though – if there’s one thing Hartley’s style does well, it’s work with uncertain actors. Less, less, you can hear him saying to the actors. Dial it down. Take the emotion out. Don’t act. Talk. The dialogue will do the job. His film-school Godard fanboyism is front and centre, too; I don’t know enough Godard to give you much more than that, but it’s definitely there. Already shot through with a curious melancholy, The Unbelievable Truth now has an extra layer of sadness because Adrienne Shelley is so amazingly, luminously brilliant as the gawkily self-confident Audry and it’s tough to put out of your mind the anger and sadness evoked by her death.

"American Indie Film"
“American Indie Film”

Perhaps I’m not selling this well. The main thing you’ll notice about this film is that it is funny. Really, really funny. There are scenes of physical comedy, there is farce and there are straight-up jokes. The deadpan dialogue takes on an energy of its own, lines seem like they are blurted out without being formed by the mind of the character. This is how they think, before they speak. An example I jotted down while watching:

Pearl (waking): Audry?
Audry: Did you make love to Josh?
Pearl: No. Did you?
Audry: No.
Pearl: Why not?
Audry: I just got here.

I mean, that’s a lovely joke but it’s delivered at the climax of an extended farce sequence that raises the stakes of the film only to wash them away in bathos, and it’s beautifully low-key. Neither Pearl nor Audry is angry or embarrassed. They just… say the lines. And it’s hilarious. The sparse, stylised dialogue feels like a sequence of non-sequiturs, with nobody responding, only reflecting, but this is simply a representation of the disconnect between the characters. The closer people get in The Unbelievable Truth, the more direct their exchanges.

Who knows if we ever get the actual truth about Josh’s past, and who knows if Audry really does hear bombs in the end, but the film ends with the romantic leads united and facing at least some kind of future together. Despite the artschool trappings and era-specific smalltown American anomie (tell me this doesn’t have a feel of Linklater’s Slacker), it plays as a conventional romantic comedy. A boy, a girl, obstacles, misunderstanding, separation, reunion. He would go on to retell the same story in his next film, Trust.

For Simple Men – a film I was supposed to review but never got the disc so you’ll have to accept that it is worth your times – he took his characters into more perilous territory. By the time of Amateur, the outlook was much cloudier for his protagonists.

“I don’t know why I’m sorry, but I am sorry. That has to mean something, right?”

Smoking in restaurants. Mullets. Yup, it's the 90s.
Smoking in restaurants. Multi-length haircuts. Yup, it’s the 90s.

Amateur is a very different sort of film, while being in many ways a very similar sort of film. The long, slow takes, the sense of stillness in the actors and the environment,  and the fractured, stylised dialogue are all there but something else is at the heart of the story. The seething violence that The Unbelievable Truth hinted at below its calm surface erupts in unexpected bursts.

We begin in the aftermath of an act of violence. Thomas, played by Hartley regular Martin Donovan, lies in a mess of broken glass and blood on the cobbles of a New York back alley. Gingerly, his wife (Sofia  Elina Löwensohn, another regular in those days) prods him with her foot before fleeing. We do not, and will never know the Thomas she knew – and as he has amnesia, neither does he. We get hints throughout the film. He was a monster, a pornographer, a gangster, a rapist, possibly a paedophile, a wife-beater. When Sophia tried to leave him he threatened to mutilate her – this threat pushed her to the edge and him through the window. But the Thomas we know is gentle. Calm. Kind. Trusting. Generous. Within minutes of coming round, we see him share the only food he has with a total stranger.

That stranger is Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert, in a role fairly obviously written for her), a former nun struggling with the world outside the convent. She is trying to forge a career writing pornography, but her stories turn out wistful and sad. She declares early on that she is a nymphomaniac but that she is a virgin, insisting she is “choosy”. Like the film itself, she is buzzing with contradiction. In Amateur, violent pornographers are gentle souls adrift in an uncaring city. Accountants are the most dangerous people you can encounter. The most heartbreakingly sympathetic character is an NYPD custody officer, a character that would in any other film be a wisecracking hardass with a permanent scowl.

Amateur 1
Talking, not talking.

The story is simply an extended chase. The McGuffin is a set of floppy disks containing information so terrible, their owner will kill anyone who even knows about their existence. It has a similar feel to Douglas Coupland’s All Families Are Psychotic. Prior to All Families are Psychotic, Coupland’s books had been angular takes on the lives of hip youngsters growing up in the shadow of the mushroom cloud . With All Families Are Psychotic, he deliberately took his work into action movie territory, introducing peril, violence, antagonists to his detached, self-conscious world. Martin Donovan plays the same sort of character he essayed in Trust, or that Robert Burke did in The Unbelievable Truth, only this time his criminal past catches up with him.

Through Donovan’s delicate performance the film explores its central question – if you strip away everything else, what kind of person are you? Everything has been taken from Thomas, his memory, his possessions, his world. In its place he finds peace, and a profound romantic connection with Isabelle. This man of violence is transformed by his memory loss to a perfect innocent. Of course, his life before still hangs over him and there is an ever-present unspoken fear – what if the old Thomas returns?

Redemption. Happiness?
Redemption. Happiness?

By way of contrast, we are introduced to Edward (Damian Young), an accountant for Thomas’s mysterious Dutch boss. Early on in the film he is tortured, apparently to death, by two other accountants wielding the exposed wires of a domestic lamp. Brought clumsily back to life by the squatters who find his body, Edward is now little more than a shell, his personality voided and replaced by a single thought – to find and protect Sofia, with whom he is in love. Edward’s story works as a parallel to Thomas. Here is a man now driven to mania and violence, spite and brutality. He – pointlessly – shoots a policeman while escaping the station, an act that hastens the end for the story, and takes his revenge on his torturers in one of the most ridiculously, hilariously, over-done death scenes in cinema (it involves, just to keep us distant, literally no blood).

I could talk about Thomas and Edward in terms of the id and the ego, with Isabelle as the superego and what have you. A detailed psychological reading of the film is there to be had for the right person. I am not that person. Instead I’m going to tell you that Amateur is even funnier than The Unbelievable Truth; that Amateur takes and extends The Unbelievable Truth into, well, unbelievability. It keeps the flat delivery and studiedly artless compositions of the earlier film and crams the running time with incident. Nothing in either film feels real; both feel profoundly true

The Unbelievable Truth, Amateur and Simple Men are out now on DVD and Blu-Ray from Artifical Eye.

About Mr Moth

Mr Moth writes - mainly about pop music, videogames and other trivial nonsense - for Mostlyfilm dot com. He also writes poetry, short stories and personal waffle for his own site mothinabutterfly.net (and has even done a book). Known weaknesses: Strontium-232, electro-pop.

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