Amateur (1994) Directed by Hal Hartley
In my opinion Hal Hartley is a kind of a sacred cow and a comfort food in our (movie) relationship. Amateur was the first Hartley film I saw in 2002. The setting was romantic – the film a taped from TV VCR (forever lost after this one last viewing). I was young, in love and impressionable. Oh boy, did the movie leave a mark. The last five minutes of the film were imprinted on my memory as living moving images. Nothing else remained. I have had dreams about those last minutes.
Moving on to 2013: As faith would have it, Nick made it to a DVD store in London on the day that Amateur got its rerelease (on DVD this time). A week later we sat on our uncomfortable sofa in an unusually warm May evening and relived the film as best we could. Although I sort of loved it, I now also saw some flaws. Time is cruel sometimes. I was no longer the young maiden in love, ready to eat anything my handsome lover feeds me, but the woman who had seen most Hal Hartley movies a couple of times, had a degree, a baby and a husband.
Interplay between over-the-top drama and dead-pan realism is sort of the heart of Hartley. Fantasy takes place in reality and vice versa. For some reason, this time I was bothered by the fantasy and yearned for more believable or tangible backing for the plot. I wanted more from the characters. That said, Isabelle Huppert is devine as a nymphomaniac nun who has never actually had sex and Elina Lowensohn is sensual and clumsy in a beautiful way. It's Martin Donovan who doesn't have as great a time on screen as on Trust for example. This movie was made in 1994 – watch it for the genuine 90s look and be...well, positively surprised.
The memory can be deceptive. Before we watched Amateur, I was telling Astrid how it had been close to 12 years since I watched this Hartley gem and that I considered it his best picture. Afterwards, I was ready to revise that. Amateur was made in 1994 and I've watched this at least 20 times. I think it's a modern classic. But this was over familiar material to me, so trying to invest something new in this film was hard. Watching the film in 2013 revealed some glitches and problems (minor ones). There is a great soundtrack to this movie (Pavement, PJ Harvey, Red House Painters, MBV) but it's mixed so low, it's as if Hartley can't decide weather to use the music or not (so its lack of presense feels like a compromise and then a distraction). Some scenes have dated a little. But lets be honest for a moment, these are minor quibbles. The last Hal Hartley movie I watched was the Henry Fool sequel, Fay Grim, which was a real disappointment (and probably ripe for re-appraisal from me). I was going into this apprehensively. As Hartley explains in the extras, Amateur is about a man who can't remember who he is, but whose past has an unbearable consequence on his future.
Isabelle Hubert plays the ex-nun who is now trying to write soft-porn for a living (although she's still a virgin). Hartley regular Martin Donovan wakes up on a cobbled street and can't remember his name or anything about his life. Elina Lowensohn plays the famous porn star. We also get wired accountants (a superb Damian Young), hit men, torture, Parker Posey and over protective police officers. There is a deep humor and a laconic sense of style in Amateur. Hartley contrives the most ridiculous scenarios then lets us care and feel emotive to the characters. So this is smart, funny, sexy, sad inventive cinema. Then there's the dialogue :
Thomas : How can you be a nymphomaniac and never had sex?
Isabelle : I'm choosy.
Seeing Amateur with a slight distance, I can see that this is in many ways Hartley's mainstream movie. But then that's not really saying much, as this is still left-field fare compared to most. There are bold statements here and juvenile humor adding to a sleek refined noir, which is new for Hartley. Amateur hangs with an atmosphere that only Hartley can create and it is a feeling I've missed. Maybe it is not at the level of Simple Men or Henry Fool or Trust, but it runs those close. It's possible that I'm not doing Amateur justice enough. This is quirky original cinema. It also has one of the great endings of recent times, unexpected and moving. Recommended and then some.