SIGH HARD

One of the production entities claiming responsibility in the opening titles for writer-director Hal Hartley's film Amateur calls itself "True Fiction Pictures." Probably this is meant as a slap at the current rage for Pulp Fiction. Indeed, if Quentin Tarantino's film is the movie equivalent of the hard-boiled crime books, then Hartley's film is the equivalent of what might be called "art" fiction, as it currently manifests itself. It's reminiscent of all those trade paperbacks with brief, gimmicky plots full of fancy ambiguity and terse, wanna-be-Hemingway description and dialogue. And, as with such books, if this film is true fiction, then lead me straight to the pulp. Amateur is a snooze.

Hartley is much admired on the art-house circuit, but it's hard to tell whether he's admired because he has a splendid eye--especially for faces--and some gift for epigrammatic dialogue or because he's so relentlessly cool and anomic in his approach. A large chunk of his critical acclaim seems to come from the way his characters wander through empty settings, converse in monotones and generally pursue his little scraps of plot rather listlessly and unenthusiastically. This can be intriguing for a while, but before too long I always start wondering if the folks in the film aren't right to seem so bored.

Amateur is, at least, less dull than Hartley's last, Simple Men, because it's loosely structured as a thriller. Hartley seems quite delighted with himself about this. In the production information for the film, he's quoted as saying, "It's an action movie, but"--hold on to your lunch--"it's a Hal Hartley action movie, which means I probably got it wrong."

No, he didn't get it wrong, as he never intended to get it right. He didn't use the thriller trappings to grip and excite an audience, but rather to show how cute it is that an artist of his stature would condescend to work in such a genre.

The premise of Amateur is familiar--an amnesiac slowly comes to the realization that the person he forgot he was wasn't a nice person. Thomas (Martin Donovan) wakes up in an alley in New York and stumbles into a nearby diner, unable to remember his name or anything about himself. Hartley's twist on the material is the whimsical character who takes him in after meeting him in the diner. She's an ex-nun (Isabelle Huppert) who's an aspiring pornographic writer, and who regards herself as a nymphomaniac although she's still a virgin.

Eventually, this woman learns that her guest is a gangster of some sort, and that he sustained his head wound in a struggle with his wife or ex-wife or girlfriend (Elina Lowensohn), a porno star whom he exploited and abused. All three of them end up on the run from other gangsters, and also from an accountant (Damian Young) who's become a rickety-limbed zombie after electric-shock torture by Thomas' enemies.

The irony is that the typical "action movie" scenes, the stuff that Hartley so coyly worried he didn't get right, are the best sequences in the film. The glimmers of violence and sex stir the interest; the trouble is that they remain just glimmers, as Hartley can't revel in anything so messy as either. When someone gets shot in this film, the bullet holes are tastefully small and minimalist--they're designer wounds.

One area in which Hartley doesn't limit himself is visual portraiture. He adores faces, and he makes all of them look great--from Huppert's freckled glumness to Donovan's rawboned Andrew McCarthy scowl to the devastatingly cruel and petulant Eastern European beauty of Lowensohn to Parker Posey and Dwight Ewell as a couple of the most glamorous-looking transients you ever saw.

Huppert gives maybe the best performance of her career in this wild role, but all the way she's fighting the boundaries of undemonstrative hipness set by the director. And to what purpose? What kind of sense can it make to drain the life and spirit out of a character with the possibilities of a sexually obsessed yet virginal ex-nun who talks like a French Jack Webb? What kind of nonsense can it make, even?

Hartley has talent, but his self-consciousness--his seeing himself as name-brand--has so far kept him too busy posing to find much unbelievable truth in his art. It's a shame, because he has an imagination that deserves to be less reined in by itself. A description of Amateur's plot and characters makes it sound like more fun than it is; you may leave wishing someone else had directed it--someone with a bit of pulp in his or her soul.-

 
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