A man lies unconscious in the street. This is Thomas Ludens (Martin Donovan) and he can't remember how he got there. He meets Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who became a nun when she saw visions of the Virgin Mary and is now a writer of pornographic novels and considers herself a nymphomaniac despite being a virgin herself. Sofia ( Elina Löwensohn) is on the run, thinking she's killed her husband, Thomas...
Independent filmmakers are subject to the vagaries of fashion, critical approval or otherwise, and audience support: distribution or the lack of it is the key. Hal Hartley (born 1959) is a case in point. He has not had a UK cinema release since Henry Fool in 1998. His hour-long millennial film The Book of Life had a showing on BBC2 in 2000. But since then, nothing: with one exception, all his films from the twenty-first century, including the sequel to Henry Fool, 2006's Fay Grim, remain undistributed in the UK. Hartley seems to be finding times hard: his newest feature, Meanwhile (2011), was financed via Kickstarter.
Yet in the 1990s, Hartley was a key figure amongst New York-based independents, and along with the six-years-older Jim Jarmusch, epitomised a kind of quirky, deadpan, ironic and stylised film that came out of that city. Though in both cases that may be deceptive: much of Jarmusch's and Hartley's funding came from overseas. Hartley's profile during that decade was so high that even a programme of one mid-length film (Surviving Desire) and two shorts (Ambition and Theory of Achievement) received a UK cinema release. Even something as recondite and formalist as 1995's Flirt, which took his 1993 short of the same name and remade it twice more with the same dialogue but different character combinations (changing it from a straight love story to a gay male one, for example) and different city settings (New York, Berlin, Tokyo), saw the light of British projector lamps. But since the late 1990s, nothing.
Artificial Eye are to be commended for redressing this. Three years ago, they gave the previously unreleased 2005 film The Girl from Monday a DVD edition, along with Trust and Henry Fool, both singly and as a box set. Now they are doing the same with three more key Hartley titles, though this time there is no box set planned as I write this, and the three are coming out on Blu-ray as well as on DVD. The Unbelievable Truth and Simple Men are to follow, but first up is his 1994 film Amateur.
Amateur was Hartley's fourth feature. I saw it at the time, and I remember expectations being high, following the reception of The Unbelievable Truth, Trust and Simple Men on their UK cinema releases. It had a major name in world cinema in its lead role, namely Isabelle Huppert, fitting in well alongside Hartley regulars Martin Donovan and Elina Löwensohn (Romanian-born and something of an indie icon herself, playing the title role in Michael Almereyda's black and white vampire movie Nadja the same year). While the result is certainly entertaining, back then it was just a little disappointing, and rewatching on Blu-ray for the first time since then, my opinion remains the same.
There's no doubt that Amateur is the work of a very confident filmmaker, one who knows what he can do and having the ability and the wherewithal to do it. Everything is off-centre, from some very out-of-the-standard-deviation-from-“normal”, characters – a former nun turned porn writer who is a nymphomaniac virgin is not a character you encounter in every film, and Hartley does get some new twists out of the standard noir trope of the amnesiac. This extends to some of the minor characters, such as Pamela Stewart's cop who is far too empathic for her own good, and a rather odd scene where Thomas meets a schoolkid – a character who is written and played as a teenage boy but is actually acted by a woman (Adria Tennor). Parker Posey and Tim Blake Nelson turn up in small roles.
Hartley is not a visually showy director, tending to let his camera support his writing and his cast, though take a look at the scene where Edward (Damian Young) is apprehended, one quite intricately choreographed single take. Michael Spiller's photography tends to the sharp and unfiltered – probably necessary when so much else is overtly stylised. Hartley, under the pseudonym Ned Rifle, also co-writes and plays on (keyboards) the music score with Jeffrey Taylor, and fills the soundtrack with several credible indie names: My Bloody Valentine, P.J. Harvey, Yo La Tengo, Liz Phair and Pavement among them. The sight of brick-sized mobile phones and then-current jokes about floppy disks (remember them? - they're square and they're stiff, not floppy) make this, just eighteen years later, a period piece.
Hartley's formalist sense is not far away: not just in nudging character names like Ludens, but in the title itself, an acronym based on elements of the plot: Accountancy Murder Amnesia Torture Ecstasy Understanding Redemption. That's a fair summation, and squeamish viewers may care to know that the Torture part is played largely for laughs, as are some other violent scenes. The ending should, however, be a punch in the gut and it isn't quite. Inevitably, a film like this is going to be an acquired taste, and some will no doubt find it too much of the head and not enough of the heart. But it's good to see Hartley available in this country again, and this Blu-ray gives us the chance to reassess him.
Amateur is released by Artificial Eye on Blu-ray, and that is the edition reviewed here. There is also a DVD release, and affiliate links for that can be found here. The Blu-ray begins with a plug for Curzon Home Cinema.
The Blu-ray transfer is in a ratio of 1.78:1. The IMDB says the intended ratio is 1.66:1 (which Hartley certainly did use later for Henry Fool) but I'm fairly sure I saw this film in 1.85:1 at the cinema. If that's the case, the Blu-ray opens up the frame slightly at the top and bottom, but not so much that it makes much difference, and the picture certainly doesn't look unduly cropped. Amateur was shot in 35mm, and DP Michael Spiller goes in for a sharp, largely unfiltered look that comes over very well on Blu-ray. Colours are true, blacks are solid and shadow detail is as it should be. Grain is fine, but looks natural,
Digital soundtracks were just becoming ubiquitous in 1994, with Dolby Digital arriving in cinemas in 1992 and DTS and SDDS the following year. Amateur was released in the soon-to-be-obsolete analogue Dolby Stereo format. That's the source of the LPCM Surround (2.0) track on this Blu-ray. Truth be told, it's a pretty much monophonic film, with most of it coming out of the centre speaker. The surrounds are almost entirely used by the music score. Regrettably, there are no English subtitles for the hard-of-hearing for this English-language film, so the deaf and non-native English speakers may lose out, especially considering that two of the three leads are Europeans speaking in their native accents.
There are two extras. The first is billed as “cast interviews” (14:58) but that should include crew as well, and are derived from the film's electronic press kit from the time. This follows the usual format of text questions appearing on screen, with the interviewee answering on video. Those saying their piece are Hal Hartley and Martin Donovan (interviewed separately in a garden), producer Ted Hope (in his office), Isabelle Huppert and Elina Löwensohn and Damain [sic] Young (back in that garden, and again separately).
Also on the disc is “Professional Amateurs: The Making of Hal Hartley's 'Amateur'” (13:57), which is very much what it says, and parts of the interviews herein are included in the EPK as well.