The first time I saw Hal Hartley’s Amateur, I had chicken pox and a 104°F temperature. I watched it before I went to bed, and when I woke up the next morning, I had no memory of it at all. That same day, I watched it again, and although I had seen it 10 hours earlier, nothing was remotely familiar. That was in 1995. Having just watched it a third time, 28 years later, it seems unfamiliar again, but my persistent memory lapse seems like a strangely appropriate response to it.
Hal Hartley films are like dreams, dreams that you have had several times before. Dreams where the characters have said and done everything over and over, resulting in a kind of hollow detachment. It is similar in this way to Twin Peaks, which is from the same era. Amateur feels like a form of parody where everyone knows they are in a movie. The artifice of cinema is right up front. The acting, the blocking, and the dialogue are all awkward, as if they are facsimiles that don’t quite work.
Hartley must spend a lot of time with his actors honing exactly how they should operate in his films. It's no wonder he reuses his actors, especially Martin Donovan, who seems to have what Hartley is looking for. There is also the very beautiful Elina Löwensohn with her pageboy haircut, reminiscent of Louise Brooks from the silent era.
As an example of Hartley’s quirky style of dialogue, here is an exchange between the two main characters in Amateur. Thomas, a man with amnesia, is in a bathtub, and Isabelle, a woman who claims to be an ex-nun and a nymphomaniac, is sitting in the bathroom watching him bathe. The lines are delivered with deadpan indifference, as if their minds are on something else.
Isabelle: “Will you make love to me?”
Isabelle: “When you finish your bath.”
Thomas: “Why me?”
Isabelle: “Why not you?”
Thomas: “Well, you don’t know me. You don’t even know my name.”
Isabelle: “You don’t know your name either.”
Thomas: “Have you ever had sex?”
Thomas: “How can you be a nymphomaniac and never had sex?"
Isabelle: “I’m choosey.”
To watch one of Hartley’s films, you have to shift your brain into a halting, postmodern mode, where everything is suspended and nothing can be taken at face value. No one seems to mean what they say, but there isn’t anything else to hold on to. You have to invest in a story that is constantly telling you that it's fake.
It takes a little while before you realize that Amateur is a comedy. It’s not so much a parody as it is a kind of self-conscious, Coen Brothers-style pastiche, where everyone is stuck in their less-than-three-dimensional role.
Amateur is a crime thriller in form. There are a few guns and some suspense, but it’s all just an armature to hang the characters and dialogue on. A movie has to be about something, so Hartley grabs a plot off the shelf just for a little structure. Even with all the stilted dialogue and oddities, Amateur is essentially a character-driven film. The characters are far from relatable, they all verge on deranged, but we attach to them anyway. In a review I found on Letterboxd, Kyle Faulkner wrote, “There are no real characters, only amateurs, trapped in a crimey thrillery genre pastiche, but the dynamic between them all is so wonderfully felt.”
It makes sense that I couldn’t remember the film. I was in a fog of fever, and the film was in its own fog of artifice that only makes sense once you are inside it. You can call Hartley’s films comedies, psychological thrillers, or weird artsy indies, but they create a strange, liminal world that only Hartley has the key to.
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