A former nun who writes erotic stories, an amnesiac with a criminal past and “the most notorious porno actress in the world” bounce off each other with tasty results in Hal Hartley’s “Amateur.” Just as quirky and idiosyncratic as the Gotham-based writer-director’s earlier efforts, this one pushes the spiky humor a bit more to the fore while unfolding a tale loaded with offbeat oppositions and odd character detailing. This outing will do little to expand his public beyond the core specialized audience that has supported his work to date.
Isabelle Huppert plays a woman who recently checked out of convent life after 15 years. A failure at writing about sex, a subject about which she seems to have no personal knowledge, she also claims to be a nymphomaniac to Thomas (Martin Donovan), a man who awakens on a downtown New York street with no memory and is trustingly taken in by Isabelle. So start the odd juxtapositions.
Before long, it becomes clear that Thomas has been pushed out a window (and is presumed dead) by his wife, Sofia (Elina Lowensohn), a porno queen whose desperate financial straits lead her to deal with a powerful arms merchant. This sends the film away from Isabelle and Thomas onto an unexpected tangent involving Thomas’ accountant Edward (Damian Young) and two well-educated goons who are on Sofia’s and Thomas’ tails.
The main characters all come together in upstate New York in a tragicomic climax in which nearly surreal humor takes precedence over full character revelation or dramatic closure.
Viewers not in tune with the filmmaker’s approach may find the comic elements forced and contrived. But Hartley’s technique is now so refined and precise that he easily achieves his desired effects; the artistic layering of stylization in performance, timing and visuals pulls the action sufficiently away from reality to induce one to accept the strange string of events. This same self-conscious artistry, however, may also be the major element limiting Hartley to a small audience.
Donovan can’t do much with a character who basically doesn’t exist, but remainder of the cast is excellent. Huppert has a sweet gravity underlaid with quietly suggestive humor. Memorable in a minor role in Hartley’s last film, “Simple Men,” Lowensohn takes on a much bigger part here, that of the sexpot goddess, and makes the most of it.
Young gives a wild performance as the lanky accountant who comes unglued after some electro-shock torture. Chuck Montgomery and David Simonds are deliciously cool, calm and collected as the henchmen, and Pamela Stewart gives a terrific reading as a hopelessly sentimental cop.
Hartley’s films become more impressively designed with each outing. Lenser Michael Spiller is a wizard of precision, deftly focusing the viewer’s eye on the desired object. Color schemes in Steve Rosenzweig’s production design are exceedingly elegant, and fine score by Ned Rifle and Jeffrey Taylor effectively helps set the cool but enticing tone.