Master of style and quirky screen dialogue, Hal Hartley has created his own unique philosophy of life and love in his off-beat movies. With his new film Amateur, he moves into new territory with bigger budgets and stars. Trevor Johnston talked to him about making the transition.
It may have guns. cops. porno stars. torture by electric shock and even a nun in a leather dress wielding a very large power tool, but the fans needn’t worry: Amateur is still a Hal Hartley picture. after all. Ambiguity, playfulness. the sly conceit and a certain quizzical slant on the key governing concepts shaping everyday social interaction; these are, and shall remain. the tools of Hartley’s highly individual stock-in-trade. Yet while features including The Unbelievable Truth. Trust. and Simple Men have made him among the most readily recognisable of American indie stylists. they've also aroused a set of expectations from his growing core audience that Hartley hirnselfappears in no mood simply to fulﬁl.
‘1 always need to get the title right first before I start writing,‘ he reckons, speaking the morning after his film has played to a packed and fairly combative audience at the London Film Festival. ‘and I really liked Amateur as a title because one of its meanings is like “semi-professional", or in some way dilettante-ish. I think 1 came up with it during a promotional trip round Europe talking to a lot of journalists. because that’s the time when I really began to consider my responsibilities as a filmmaker. I became really intrigued by the notion of someone trying to escape who they are. Maybe that’s something impossible. but what would happen if you were dealing with someone that had amnesia?’
‘Increasingly, I’m more aware as a filmmaker of how I’ve become a product, how my films and the actors In them are commodities In themselves. Exploitation
has become a real issue tor me.’
Such was the jumping-off point for Hartley’s take on a classic thriller plot, and so the film begins with regular collaborator Martin Donovan picking himself up from a downtown NYC gutter. unsure who he is, how he got there or where he goes next. Just lucky for him then that the first person he meets in a nearby cafe is Isabelle Huppert. playing an errant nun who writes pornography for a living. considers herselfa
nymphomaniac but hasn't — as yet — actually had sex with anyone (‘l‘m choosy'. she says). It’s a zinger of a role by any standards. but Hartley wrote it
specifically for the quietly tnclancholic French star of
The [xteemaker Apres L'Amour and many others, after Huppert had taken the unusual step of writing to him and suggesting they work together: ‘lsabelle has a wonderful ability to say something without expression. without obvious interpretation on her face. There‘s a mysteriousness about her which says things. yet keeps a distance. I actually used to make my actresses watch her performance in Chabrol‘s Histoire (1e Femmes because I really admire someone who can give the audience just the right amount of information in that way.‘
In Amateur Hartley too carefully measures out what he’s prepared to tell the audience. Donovan. it seems. is a pornographer whose fate is somehow linked with that of fugitive porn actress Elina Lowensohn (Simple Men 's enigmatic Eastern European siren). She is on the run from ruthless gangsters pursuing both ofthetn and their legal associate Damian Young. who suffers electric shock treatment at the hands of the hired thugs and undergoes a mental disintegration that throws the whole scenario into disarray. Although the surface incidentals might find some common ground with a squillion dodgy thrillers and bad TV shows. here. as in his other movies. Hartley‘s motivating concerns seem to operate at a rather more conceptual level. Throughout the film. there is an almost subliminal working out of the niggling conundrurns that dog our everyday experience through the characteristically epigrarnrnatic dialogue and a somewhat oblique approach to the familiar requirements of genre-based movie output. ‘I don‘t feel it necessary to guide my viewers.‘ he explains. a trim and lanky figure whojust about qualifies for the pale-but-intcresting side of nerdishness. ‘but in this film I think I was interested in looking at the limits of responsibility. in looking at the idea of redemption — designating what redemption is. or whether someone should be redeemed — and also in examining the
Amateur: ‘Hartley’s take on a classic thriller piot’
world of commodities. increasingly. l‘m ruore aware as a filmmaker of how I've become a product. how my ﬁlms and the actors in them are commodities in themselves. Exploitation has become a real issue for me.‘
What he seems less interested in these days however. is dealing with telling a screen story by tneans of psychologically coherent. readily identifiable on-screen characters. and as time goes on his work seems to be drifting further away from the
Isabelle Huppert plays an errant nun who writes pornography tor a living, considers herself a nymphomaniac but hasn’t - as yet — actually had sex with anyone.
quirky exercises in left-field Americana. If The Unbelievable Truth and Trust. are the movies that launched his career. they might soon stand as something like the ‘early. funny ones‘ in a Woody Allen lilmography. ‘I think I‘m less and less interested in empathy per sc. but I know how to use it when 1 need to. But more and more i find myself wanting to move further away from the notions of a narrative cinema altogether. It's the purely formal aspects of lilrmnaking that take up a lot of my concerns these days. Lately I've realised that my work is an aspect of being a designer. l design movement in space like a choreographer and I design colour and light with my cinematographer Mike Spiller. You can pretty much see that in Amateur in Damian Young‘s performance. l‘d admired his work on stage in New York because it’s almost purely about movement and so when I wrote the part for him here I had him play a monster. Quasimodo if you like. It gave me tremendous freedom and it‘s his sequences that really got my juices flowing.’ Amateur opens at the [Edinburgh Film/rouse on Friday I} and (I/tls‘gotr' Film Theatre on Friday 2 7 January.
20 The List 13—26 January I995