A chance encounter in a coffee shop between two people, both of whom are seeking their own identities (one literally, one figuratively), leads to a relationship seemingly beneficial to both, but for different reasons, in "Amateur," written and directed by Hal Hartley. A man (Martin Donovan) wakes up one morning lying on his back in a quiet, out-of-the-way street in New York City; all he knows is that he's bleeding from the back of his head and is suffering from total amnesia. He has no identification on him; he has no idea who he is or how he came to be on that street. Dazed, he stumbles into a small coffee shop and sits down at the counter. He tries to order something, but the only money he has is Dutch, and he has no idea why. A young woman, also sitting at the counter and working on a lap-top computer, observes his plight and notices the blood on the back of his neck.
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.