The first in Artificial Eye’s long-awaited batch of Hal Hartley reissues, Amateur (1994) represents a mid-career high point for the indie legend. As ever, it’s the work of a singular auteur, treading the fine line between self-reflexive exuberance and rarefied stylisation. By ingratiating broad genre elements into the self-contained suburban eccentricity of his earlier Long Island-set efforts, Hartley finds an abundance of comic riches in the central tension between stolid realism and poker-faced ludicrousness. Amateur is the also director’s most beautifully designed picture; it’s a film of deft precision and glassy elegance.
Amateur stars Isabelle Huppert as a former nun struggling to make a living writing pornographic fiction while waiting for her mission from God. In a coffee shop one morning, she meets Thomas (Martin Donovan), a quiet amnesiac trying to piece together his past. The pair are unaware that Thomas’ condition results from being pushed through a window by his ex-wife Sofia (Elin Lowensohn), a woman with whom he has a dark history. They both try to piece together Thomas’ past, a past that’s quickly catching up with him.
Huppert embodies the central paradox at the heart of Amateur; the virginal nymphomaniac and erotica-writing ex-nun. These kinds of juxtapositions are ubiquitous throughout the picture and are perversely why it works so well; the strength is in the starkness of the contrast. The absurdity of the flighty conversations and preposterous espionage themes are played off against Hartley’s deadpan dialogue, all flat cadences and dazed non-sequiturs. In this sense, Amateur recalls the sensibilities of Jean-Luc Godard’s experiments with genre in the sixties. Like the French auteur’s Made in USA (1966), the idiosyncratic nonchalance and dispassionate violence are emblematic of an arch stylist well versed in irony.
It’s inevitable that Amateur’s impassiveness veers towards arbitrariness but, unlike the empty trend-driven affectations of the recent Wes Anderson films, Hartley is not striving to impress simply by throwing convention to the wind. He has a truly distinctive vision, and there are numerous pleasures to be had in the barbed one-liners and a soundtrack comprised of some of the best music of the 1990s, from Pavement to The Jesus Lizard. Indeed, it’s Hartley’s defiant singularity that’s partly responsible for him not tasting the same level of crossover success as his peers, such as Kevin Smith.
Amateur also benefits significantly from sterling technical composition. Director of Photography Michael Spiller and production designer Steve Rosenzweig’s melancholic blue palette brings an alluring sophistication to the film, demonstrating Hartley’s confidence as a visual artist as well as a writer. His 1994 drama is a real highlight in a canon already full of them.
Win a Blu-ray copy of Hal Hartley’s Amateur with our latest competition. Follow this link to enter.