Directed by Hal Hartley. Starring Isabelle Huppert, Martin Donovan, Elina Lowensohn, Damian Young. (1994, R, 105 min.)
REVIEWED By Alison Macor, Fri., June 23, 1995
A Hal Hartley film is an acquired taste. A viewer can slip in and out of appreciation for Hartley's work, but it takes a true Hartley-ite to champion all of his films without pause. With Amateur, Hartley has once again proven that he's cornered the market on independent film etiquette: making the film's narrative just left of center, casting actors with whom you've worked previously, having them deliver dialogue with deadpan slyness. It's comforting that the same actors keep appearing in Hartley's films over the years. A sense of camaraderie emanates from his films, adding to the ever-present feeling that we're watching a film, a feeling encouraged by Hartley's dialogue and staging. French mini-legend Huppert plays Isabelle, a former nun and self-proclaimed nymphomaniac who has yet to experience the big bang. When she befriends the battered Thomas (Donovan), an amnesia victim, she thinks that she may have found her purpose in life. Through her association with Thomas, she meets pornographic star Sofia (Lowensohn), Thomas' estranged wife, and Edward (Young), a business associate of the couple's. The McGuffin in Amateur involves some floppy discs and foreign arms smugglers, but the real action occurs among the characters as they try to stake out their small claim to life in the Big Apple. Isabelle, Thomas, Sofia, and Edward maintain a slightly zombified air even when they're in hot pursuit of each other; again, Hartley's low-key approach to directing suffuses his actors' performances. Amateur's pacing lulls us into a false sense of smirkiness, but two shooting incidents that happen toward the end of the film snap us to attention. As with other Hartley films, the dialogue establishes the ambiance and offers memorable moments, such as when Sofia proclaims her break with the pornographic film business and declares, “I'm going to be a mover and a shaker.” Such bold statements are truly ironic in a Hal Hartley film. These characters couldn't generate enough focused energy to move and shake their ways out of the proverbial paper bag, and that is part of their appeal. Lowensohn and Donovan have hit their acting strides in Amateur, but for me the true star is Young as Edward. After being tortured by two henchmen looking for the elusive floppy discs, Edward roams through the rest of the film in an electrified daze, a cross between Frankenstein and Renfield. While Hartley's past films have dealt with human interaction in a smaller setting, his latest film takes to the streets of New York where his characters have, in a sense, grown up. But while they're living on their own, they're still amateurs at life. Amateur offers the inimitable Hartley style with a harder edge than his earlier films, and while the thriller elements of Amateur prove entertaining on a bigger scale, this entertainment may not endure for viewers not completely committed to Amateur's characters and Hartley's slow-motion storytelling.