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A crackpot ex-nun who writes pornographic short stories crosses paths with an amnesiac wandering the streets of New York City. When they set out to uncover his identity, they come face to face with his unsavory past including a vengeful porno actress and ruthless corporate assassins hot on their trail.
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Purist Hartley fans seem to believe that Trust is the quintessential Hartley, and while I agree that the film is great, Amateur has a much more complicated plot and explores more complicated issues.
The film is all about ontology. What is the nature of being? Can one change? What is memory? Is there an essential nature to existence or is existence mutable depending on experience?
Don't think, however, this is some weird indie/foreign flick heavy on the meaning. Hartley manages to pose all of the above questions within a film that is quirky and funny and deadpan and sad and wonderful all at the same time.
Yes, I know this man.
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The plot, about an ex-nun who now writes bad pornography, a porn queen with a grudge, and an ex-pornongrapher with amnesia, each searching for their identity, is interesting, but it doesn't begin to tell of the impressive stylishness of this movie. Amateur sucks you in like Beckett mixed with "letters to Penthouse", and leaves you satisfied on both accounts. If this sounds good to you, you should check it out. It shows on IFC quite frequently. Oh also, this movie turned me into a freak for Elina Lowensohn.
Her name is Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert); asking for some water, she cleans his injury and buys him something to eat. Isabelle, it turns out, is a former nun, having only recently left the convent after fifteen years. Rather lost herself, she is attempting to make a living by writing pornographic stories for a magazine. A self-professed nymphomaniac (though she is still a virgin), she also feels that she has a specific purpose in life, a destiny she has yet to fulfill, though she has yet to figure out what it is. But she believes that meeting this man is a sign; perhaps he's a part of whatever it is she has to do. So she decides to help him, which just may lead her to the answers she is seeking about her own life, as well.
As with all of Hartley's films, this one has a somewhat mesmerizing effect, which he exacts with a unique style of presenting his story that has to do with the look and feel of the film, the deliberate pace he establishes, and most especially the manner in which his actors deliver their lines. His performers speak with a rather stoic, matter-of-fact, understated rhythm that is engrossing in itself, very similar to the kind of cadence David Mamet employs in his films. But Hartley's method is even more pronounced, so that when one of his characters does have an emotional outburst, the underplaying that surrounds it significantly underscores the impact of it all.
Few directors have such a unique style that so vividly identifies their work; Mamet is one, Ingmar Bergman another (the three of them being part of a very select group). And though this particular film is not, perhaps, one of Hartley's best, it is still pure Hartley, with aspects that are certainly engaging and memorable, beginning with his main character, Isabelle. Talk about an off-the-wall character! And yet, within the context of the story, she comes across as quite real and believable, which says something about Huppert's ability as an actress, as well as Hartley's expertise as a director.
Huppert gives a very credible performance here, convincingly conveying that sense of confusion Isabelle obviously harbors deep within about her own life and where she's headed. She makes you realize that beyond anything else that's happening, this is essentially a person searching for a place to fit in, which is why she makes such a connection with this stranger, this man who really has no idea of who he is or where he belongs. And Huppert certainly makes Isabelle someone with whom it is easy to empathize.
Donovan, a veteran of many of Hartley's films, is very effective here also, with a very pensive, understated performance that clearly indicates an honest sense of this man's bewilderment, as does the very real caution with which he approaches his situation as he attempts to reorient himself and get on with his life. And Hartley develops the relationship between Isabelle and this man in real time-- there's no instant love affair here, as happens so often in cinematic renderings of similar situations-- which gives a ring of authenticity to the story, bizarre as it may get.
The supporting cast includes Elina Lowensohn (Sofia), Damian Young (Edward), Chuck Montgomery (Jan), Dave Simonds (Kurt) and Pamela Stewart (Officer Melville). No one can capture a sense of disenfranchisement any better than Hartley, as the characters in "Amateur" so aptly illustrate; these are people perpetually on the outside looking in, and yet there's something about them with which you will be able to relate, as well as sympathize . And that's part of Hartley's magic; making you realize, that in the end we're not so different from one another, after all.
if only hollywood had more people like him making movies instead of all of the junk that tries to see how many different ways one can blow things up!
Hal Hartley understands this. The characters in his film do not talk like real people. Their speech is subdued, flat, and usually bluntly honest. Their small words carry mountains of meaning.
Most mystery films focus on the identity of the bad guy. This film instead chooses to explore the bad guy's identity. The film opens with him laying unconscious on a cobblestone street. He awakes but has no idea who he is. With this premise, the audience always knows who the bad guy is. He is in almost every frame of the feature. The rest of the film sets about discovering who the bad guy is.
I'm avoiding the film's plot. Telling too much about this film steals many of its pleasures, although I have enjoyed it each of the ten times I have seen it. Most scenes are arranged as artfully as a painting, the actors understand and enlarge Hartley's vision, and the music, ranging from Liz Phair to Pavement, is excellent.
This film may well be the best the ninties have to offer. Hartley's own Simple Men is one of the only other real contenders.
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