Accountancy. Murder. Amnesia. Torture. Ecstasy. Understanding. Redemption.
A man (Martin Donovan) wakes up in the street after a nasty fall. He has no memory of who he is or what led up to his accident. Stumbling, dazed and bleeding, into a coffee shop, he encounters Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), an ex-nun who is now an aspiring author of erotica and a self-professed nymphomaniac (despite being a virgin). Both fallen people in their own ways, they fall together and, inevitably, fall in love.
Meanwhile, we're given the mystery man's identity courtesy of a parallel storyline involving the man's wife, Sofia (Elina Löwensohn), a famous porn actress. It seems her husband, whose name is Thomas, was quite the unsavory character, who exploited and terrorized Sophia until she finally pushed him out a window in desperation. (I'm not giving anything away here, since this is revealed early on, and the film really isn't about the mystery.) Sofia thinks Thomas is dead, and when she stumbles across her husband's accountant partner (Damian Young), who's carrying some mysterious but clearly important documents, she hatches a plan to buy herself a new life—and of course, the plan goes terribly awry.
That's the basic plot of the film, but Amateur really isn't about plot. This 1994 film, written and directed by indie cult figure Hal Hartley (Henry Fool, The Unbelievable Truth) plugs in the necessary elements of a film noir-ish mystery, then waves them aside in favor of a satirical exploration of character that manages to be both sarcastic and completely earnest at the same time.
Hartley's films don't quite exist in the real world. Rather, not unlike David Lynch or David Mamet, they create their own quasi-reality in which characters behave according to the auteur's personal rulebook on human behavior. So the unprepared viewer may be put off upon first encountering Amateur's characters, who deliver their lines in a stilted, mannered fashion (think Lindsay Crouse in House of Games, but with everyone talking that way); people in Hartleyland speak in ideas. It's initially annoying, distancing, and more than a wee bit precious. And in truth, it remains annoying, distancing, and precious, but it bears noting that this is in fact a deliberate stylistic choice on Hartley's part.
In other words, this is one of those films that sucks until someone explains to you that it doesn't, in fact, suck, and that you're not watching a dull, self-satisfied exercise in metaphysical masturbation at all, but rather a penetrating study in fate, love, and redemption. And in a way, you'd both be right. Hartley's films appeal to those who prefer their cinema on the dry, cerebral side; resolutely understated and, in true contrarian fashion, banal where one would expect passion, passionate at the least appropriate times, his style is intellectual and, some would say, tedious, but also peppered with moments of random, absurd humor that help diffuse the air of self-importance that pervades his work.
At the heart of Amateur is a compelling study of four characters giving up their old lives and embarking upon new ones, in which they're still learning the ropes (hence the title). Huppert's fallen nun wants to unleash her sexuality by writing porn and taking on the role of a sex addict, but her erotica is rejected as overly poetic (how humiliating must it be to have your work rejected by a magazine advertising "Wet and Wild" naked girls on the back cover?) and her forays into sex flop miserably; Thomas struggles to build a new life for himself in the shadow of his monstrous former identity, but is constantly confronted with the fallout of that old life.
Beneath the self-consciously stagy, affectless performances, slow pacing, and lugubrious tone, there's a genuine humanity and sympathy for these desperately flawed characters. Hartley may be sarcastic to a fault, but that sarcasm doesn't blunt his characters' desire for connection. And yet, when it's all said and done, his contemplations on humanity aren't half as profound as he'd like us to believe they are. His insights are thrust at the viewer as if we're expected to be shocked by their subversive brilliance, but all too often they're just as banal as the characters' delivery. The fact that he'd make one of his central characters a nun-slash-pornographer says pretty much all that need be said about the sophistication of the ideas at work here. His detached, heavily ironic and campy style will no doubt convince those who identify with his deadpan anomie that there's genius at work, but others may simply find this film boring.
Amateur is presented in a lackluster full frame transfer, with a dull, speckled print that shows every bit of its age. Audio is supposedly Dolby 2.0 Surround, but this allegation doesn't bear much scrutiny. Extras? Look for a making-of featurette featuring Hartley and cast, in which Hartley explains a bit about his directorial style, and his method of blending humor in with the intellectualism to make it more palatable.
If it's difficult to tell from this review whether I liked Amateur or hated it, believe me, that was my exact response to the film. On a purely intellectual level it's compelling enough, if considerably less than the sum of its ambitions, but there's not much here that can't be found in the work of directors like Atom Egoyan who explore similar thematic territory with arguably stronger, more mature results. Seen through a postmodern slacker aesthetic, there's a lot to like about Hartley's unconventional, eccentric style, but in Amateur, the results are too uneven to fully satisfy as either art or entertainment.
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• Making-of Featurette
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