Smartly Hartley

A handsome man in a snappy gray suit lies crumpled A unconscious? dead? A on a cobblestone street. A mysterious woman in black carrying a bright red purse to match her flaming crimson lipstick rounds the corner and cautiously approaches the body. She jostles the man with her foot. He doesn't move. Terrified, she flees.

Cut to a diner in which a washed-out, ethereal beauty named Isabelle types into a laptop computer resting on the lunch counter. Isabelle says each word aloud as she composes short stories for a pornographic magazine, Pillow Talk. The other customers are offended by Isabelle's dirty words; the waitress complains that she doesn't spend enough money. But the bickering stops when the man in the gray suit, dazed and disheveled, wanders into the diner. He throws some Dutch money on the counter but has no idea where the coins A or, for that matter, where he A came from. His name is Thomas, but he doesn't know that yet. Thomas has amnesia.

Isabelle, intrigued by the disoriented stranger, takes him back to her spartanly furnished apartment with a painting of the Virgin Mary prominently displayed upon the wall. She is an ex-nun. She writes bad (too high-brow and always sad) pornography to make financial ends meet. She has a blind date with a stranger she spoke to over a phone-sex party line. She gives the man in the gray suit some antiseptic for his wounds before leaving him in her apartment to go on her date, which is a disaster. She returns to her apartment to find the man, unencumbered by his gray suit, bathing in her tub, scanning an issue of Pillow Talk. The following conversation, key to the rest of the movie, takes place:

Isabelle: "I think there's something wrong with me."
Man: "How long has it been since you left the convent?"
Isabelle: "Ten months."
Man: "How long were you a nun?"
Isabelle: "Fifteen years."
Man: "That's a long time."
Isabelle: "When I make mistakes they tend to be big ones."
Man: "Were you always religious?"

Isabelle: "No. When I was a girl I wasted a lot of time writing bad poetry about being lonely and too fat."

Man: "You were fat, huh?"
Isabelle: "Not so fat. But I was ugly. It was around that time that the Virgin Mary began appearing to me."

Man: "And what did she say?"
Isabelle: "She said I should not become a nun."
Man: "Why?"
Isabelle: "Because I'm a nymphomaniac."
Man: "What?"
Isabelle: "It's true."
Man: "You don't look like one."
Isabelle: "How would you know?"
Man: "Have you ever had sex?"
Isabelle: "No."
Man: "How can you be a nymphomaniac if you've never had sex?"
Isabelle: "I'm choosy."
Man; "I don't think you're a nymphomaniac."
Isabelle: "Will you make love to me?"
Man: "When?"
Isabelle: "When you finish your bath."
Man: "Why me?"
Isabelle: "Why not you?"
Man: "You don't know me. You don't even know my name."
Isabelle: "You don't know your name, either."
Man: "I think I'm in too much pain to make love tonight."
Isabelle: "I can wait. I've waited all my life."

The above exchange from the new Hal Hartley movie Amateur is typical of the writer-director's work. Deadpan humor, absurd characterizations, exposition with a wink and a nudge A all classic Hartley traits. This idiosyncratic erstwhile painter comes as close as any American does to embodying the European ideal of the filmmaking auteur. Hartley's movies, particularly with their stylized dialogue, are instantly recognizable as the work of their creator. They invariably elicit strong reactions from viewers who, as the old saw goes, either love them or hate them. (With this film I join the former camp.)

Amateur, which highlighted last year's Fort Lauderdale Film Festival, is a prime example. It turns out that the man in the gray suit used to be a very nasty character, the kind of guy who once hooked a twelve-year-old girl on drugs, cast her in porno movies, and then threatened to disfigure her when she ran away. Blackmail, extortion, and possibly murder all occupy places of dishonor on his resume. But then comes a sudden trauma, a bout of amnesia, and suddenly Thomas is reborn as a nice guy. Or is he? Until the last scene you can't be sure.

Did I mention the mild-mannered-accountant-turned-wild-eyed murderer? The sultry porno actress with the heart of gold and the campy, sexy vocal mannerisms of a young Garbo? The corporate assassins who bicker over the relative merits of their cellular phones? The cameo appearance of Party Girl Parker Posey? The running gag about floppy disks? ("But it's square! And it's not floppy, either. It's stiff!")

Hunter S. Thompson used to say, "When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." Hal Hartley is one such professional. Love him or loathe him, there's nothing amateurish about Hartley's latest.


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