S&M and Bible Studies: Hal Hartley’s Amateur

Sony Pictures Classics

There’s a couple sitting in a movie theater. The man is not Dave Foley from The Kids in the Hall, but he looks so much like him that his name in the credits may as well be Not-Dave Foley. He is vigorously pawing away at a stoic woman who looks like Isabelle Huppert because she is Isabelle Huppert because there is only one Isabelle Huppert—God is not generous enough to gift us a second.

She doesn’t seem particularly perturbed or aroused by his handsiness; when she asks him what he’s doing, it’s in the tone of someone asking for next Tuesday’s weather forecast. “I’m molesting you,” I Can’t Believe It’s Not Dave Foley answers. Isabelle considers this for a second before replying “Am I supposed to like it?”

The question doesn’t sound like a jab or a cutting remark; she seems genuinely unsure how she’s supposed to react. This won’t be the last time that someone in Hal Hartley’s Amateur is caught flat-footed. In a story where everyone is an amateur, where each character is faking it until they make it—as a pornographer, hired goon, femme fatale blackmailer, or police officer—there’s bound to be instances where they are confronted with choices and questions that their internal scripts have no lines for.

Even though she’s appearing in a film released in 1994, Isabelle Huppert’s character (who’s also named Isabelle) would be right at home in a French New Wave film. Honestly, almost everyone in Amateur would. The studied cool facades Hal Hartley’s characters put on, the way they almost play-act being criminals, the romantic fatalism that drives both the overarching narrative and the characters themselves: These are all elements that would make just as much sense in a Godard or Truffaut joint as they would in a ‘90s American indie film. And much like its stylish Gallic ancestors, Amateur is more interested in telling a story through striking gestures and engaging conversations than in laying out a three-act plot that holds together.

Later on, after the date with Off-Brand Dave Foley peters out, Isabelle returns to her apartment. She smokes a cigarette with wary elegance, just like Anna Karina would. She takes furtive drags and holds them in, as though trying to keep all the smoke inside of her. Every exhale is a compromise she’s loathe to make.

Isabelle’s apartment is painted in whites and sky blue; It’s as sparse as a nun’s cell, which is only fitting: Isabelle was a nun for 15 years before coming to New York City. You can tell it’s New York City because there’s a never-ending stream of urban noise leaking through the walls of her apartment: car horns, slammed garbage can lids, the inarticulate shouts and murmurs of strangers passing through the streets outside like a rush of blood cells surging through narrow veins. The only things breaking up the ascetic cleanliness of her apartment are a picture of the Virgin Mary, towering stacks of books piled on her bathroom floor, and a naked man smoking a cigarette in her bathtub.

The man’s name is Thomas, though neither of them knows that yet. He’s an amnesiac who stumbled into the diner where Isabelle writes porn every day on a chunky white laptop. She likes to read her prose about men with cocks in their trousers as big as 2×4’s out loud as she types it. A couple of years later, Belle and Sebastian would release a song called “If You’re Feeling Sinister” with a lyric that sums up Isabelle the porno nun in a nutshell:

She was into S&M and bible studies/
Not everyone’s cup of tea she would admit to me

She is not beloved by the staff and patrons of this diner, who are presumably there to drink oil-black coffee and not listen to some lapsed French nun who thinks that dicks are so huge they need to be circumcised at Home Depot. Her contact in the porn industry, the publisher of ​Pillow Talk ​magazine, doesn’t care for her work either; he thinks it’s far too poetic to make for good smut. She is nobody’s cup of tea…except for this man. This man with blood on his neck and Dutch pennies lining his pockets.

At its most basic level, Amateur ​is about a woman who’s not sure who she is and her choice to love a man she doesn’t know—a man who doesn’t know himself either. The opaque crime story the two of them find themselves embroiled in is almost beside the point.

Thomas’ criminal past, the floppy disc the gangster-accountants are looking for, the mysterious crime lord pulling all the strings in the background, those Dutch pennies in his pockets—the plot is just MacGuffins all the way down. The crime story seems to exist as a more of an excuse to chase our characters around and to have them commit a few abrupt acts of violence—just something to get a girl and a gun into the picture.

But the guns and the chasing and the revealing of dark secrets comes later, long after Isabelle and the man with blood on his neck have their meet cute at this diner. Some people might not call washing the blood off an amnesiac’s neck a meet cute, but those people don’t know how to party. Those same people probably also think the ear-piercing scene in ​A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night isn’t the sexiest thing ever committed to film, and life is far too short to spend your time listening to people like that. Let them go get heavy-petted by the Knockoff Dave Foleys of the world while we appreciate the magic of pain: how the easing of it brings people together, and how the inflicting of it can bring them even closer. It’s like Greg Dulli sang: “If I inflict the pain/Then baby only I can comfort you.”

Dulli’s band The Afghan Whigs are creatures of the ‘90s (as are Belle and Sebastian, in their own twee way). This New York that the nun and the amnesiac meet cute in is a creature of the ‘90s too. You can tell that because people still smoke indoors and the alleys are still dirty & shitty and cell phones have antennas and the nun’s laptop is as thick as a lunchbox. And the soundtrack to all of it is pure ‘90s: PJ Harvey, Bettie Serveert, Yo La Tengo, Red House Painters, The Jesus Lizard, Pavement.

The Afghan Whigs—whose greatest album, ​Gentleman​, traps toxic masculinity in a cage and spends 49 minutes poking it with a sharp stick—aren’t on the soundtrack. But they should be. They sang about men hurting women & men hurting themselves while hurting women, and this is a story about the same thing; much in the same way that so many French New Wave films, borrowing from the conventions of American noir, are about gendered violence—whether it’s women being cruelly used and discarded by men (like Anna Karina in Vivre Sa Vie) or men being lured to their doom by women (Jean Seberg in Breathless, Karina in Pierrot le Fou). 

Speaking of men who hurt themselves while hurting women: It’s not long after they meet in the diner that the amnesiac finds himself soaking in Isabelle’s bathtub. He’s smoking and flipping through a porno mag while she lights a cigarette. While only one of them is French, both of them smoke like New Wave stars. The man, who looks like Martin Donovan because he is Martin Donovan, has mastered the Jean-Paul Belmondo Tilt. The cigarette dangles from a sharp angle off the edge of his lip like it’s been glued there. It hangs in defiance of Newton, refusing to tumble to the earth because it would lose touch with a being as cool as Donovan.

And make no mistake: Donovan IS cool. He is tall, dark, and handsome without being a dick about it. In 1990, before he was Thomas the amnesiac, he was in another Hal Hartley film called Trust​. He played a guy named Matthew Slaughter in that one, a kind of manic-depressive Dreamboat. The kind of guy obsessed with keeping it real and not suffering fools lightly, who would have most certainly written 5,000-word jeremiads in ​Maximumrocknroll ​about how Jawbreaker could go fuck themselves after they signed to a major label. Slaughter was the kind of guy who carried around a hand grenade “just in case” and still seemed like he had his shit together. THAT is cool.

Like Belmondo, Donovan is a natural at maintaining a cool and collected front while letting us see glimpses of the turmoil roiling underneath. Belmondo in Breathless is a strutting contradiction: both cool guy and try-hard. He wears his Bogey affectations like armor. Donovan in Amateur is wearing a different kind of armor: masking his character’s anger and confusion under a smooth layer of ‘90s slacker indifference.

He lets that front waver and crack in subtle ways. As an actor, Donovan doesn’t do that teacher’s pet thing that the Leonardo DiCaprios and Dustin Hoffmans and DDLs of the world do, those eager students desperate to show the entire class their work. He’s like Belmondo—the kind of guy who would rather be caught dead than have anyone find out how much work he puts into it.

Hal Hartley, who both writes and directs his films (and who often writes the music for them under the name Ned Rifle) uses a loose ensemble of recurring players. In that rotating pool of regulars, Donovan holds a special place as Hartley’s go-to leading man and occasional surrogate—he’s the Jean-Pierre Léaud, the Max von Sydow to Hartley’s Truffaut/Bergman.

This is Huppert’s first time working with Hartley. She is far and away the most distinguished, experienced player in a Hartley joint; before appearing in ​Amateur​, she had already appeared in multiple Godard films and acted in films directed by Chabrol, Wajda, Cimino, Pialat, Tavernier. She was already fully formed as an artist: the fearsome and versatile Huppert, an actress whose bold choices when it comes to artistic collaborators and risque roles makes Meryl Streep look lazy by comparison. Her ​sang-froid​ Nico voice, her cutting glare, her ability to convey steely resolve and aching vulnerability at the same time—All of this comes out in Isabelle’s Isabelle.

While Thomas the amnesiac is the one suffering from head trauma (thanks to a swan dive he took onto the cobblestones of an alleyway), she is the one who talks and walks like she’s in a daze. The New York Times writer Ellen Pall once observed of Hartley’s women (actresses like Karen Sillas, Adrienne Shelly, and Elina Löwensohn), “they move as if through water.” Donovan’s in the bathtub while they smoke together, but she’s the one who’s bobbing and swaying to some invisible current. The combination of her accent and her propensity for talking about being visited by the Virgin Mary as a child makes it seem like she’s talking in a dream.

There is another woman in this story with an accent who talks in a daze. Her name is Sofia and she’s played by Elina Löwensohn. Huppert smokes like Anna Karina but Löwensohn has Karina’s hair. She’s dressed in leather with sheer sleeves and a cross choker. She looks like a fetish ballerina, or some goth vampire who’s destined to be cut in half by Blade at a blood rave. Löwensohn played Dracula’s daughter in a different 1994 story, Michael Almereyda’s Nadja,​ so perhaps she was carrying that vampire energy with her into this world of erotica-loving nuns and gangster accountants.

She’s the catalyst of ​Amateur​: the cause of Thomas’s amnesia via defenestration. A porn star who’s been used and abused by Thomas for most of her life, she fled to New York to start a new life. When Thomas came to NYC to win her back (and to partake in an elaborate blackmail scheme against a gangster named Jacques), Sofia opted to cut out divorce court and appealed to the law of gravity instead. It’s not the cleanest way to sever a union, but few marriages survive a trip face-first through a window.

She also smokes. It’s the ‘90s, everyone smokes. She meets Thomas’s lawyer, a wild-haired and collected man named Edward, in a restaurant. He reveals the blackmail scheme, flashing a McGuffin in Sofia’s face—a pair of floppy disks, which Sofia immediately points out are neither floppy nor disk-shaped. Thomas later makes this exact same observation, which is probably the most compelling piece of evidence that they were together: Nothing says “we’re a couple” like accidentally sharing the same trite observations.

The meeting between Edward and Sofia leads to disaster: Jacques catches wind that they’re in town and sends a pair of goon-accountants after them. Like Truffaut’s genial goons in ​Shoot The Piano Player​, the goons in ​Amateur ​carry on the New Wave tradition of being weirdly charming. Jan and Kurt talk and dress like management consultants. Even when they show off their killer bonafides by performing DIY electroshock therapy on Edward with some live lampwire, they still reveal their goofy accountant pedigree by telling each other to “hold onto the receipts” when they get lunch. While they represent a clear danger to our protagonists, it’s hard to take a pair of killers who get repeatedly carjacked and defenestrated by an ex-nun seriously.

Yet despite their litany of fuck-ups, Jan and Kurt aren’t the biggest amateurs in Hartley’s film. That distinction goes to the delightful Officer Patsy Melville. Played by Pamela Stewart, Melville is the world’s worst cop, far too empathic. Interviewing both Thomas and Edward in separate scenes, she’s constantly on the verge of tears. She feels their pain so deeply that it overwhelms her, much to the disgust of her typical movie cop peers. Look at how she reacts after she shows Edward a picture of Thomas and asks if this is the man who hurt him. He nods silently and she turns her face to the side, bringing her hand up to her temple, wincing in agony like Edward just told her she has cancer.

But it doesn’t pay to be an amateur in ​Amateur,​ which is why Officer Melville gets taken hostage by Edward and used as a human shield as he jacks a car outside the police station. Edward, transformed into a mute wildman after getting shocked one too many times, hops out of the car after he’s driven it a few feet so he can squeeze off a gunshot before driving off again.

The pacing of that moment and the I’m-Not-Fucking-Around expression on his face is perfectly done. It’s Damian Young’s second best moment as an actor in this film.

The first is when he later murders one of his torturers, Jan. Jan slowly trudges up a verdant green hill, hunched over like some kind of Frankenstein, while Edward runs circles around him, peppering Jan’s body with bullets until the goon collapses in a heap. Edward bounds up and down the hill with the physicality of a dog waiting for his owner to chuck the damn frisbee already. For a man who’s spent almost the entire story being shit on by the universe, his athletic execution of Jan is a moment of sweet, sweet catharsis.

Edward’s transformation into a madman provides some of the biggest laughs in ​Amateur (and few needle drops are more perfectly timed than Jesus Lizard’s “Then Comes Dudley” soundtracking Edward’s first time going buckwild on the streets of New York). Like Thomas, he’s had his identity forcibly erased.

The men in this story are made to change by external forces while the women ​choose to change. Isabelle wants to be sexual, so she puts on Sofia’s leather clothes and turns into a drill-wielding Gallic vixen. Sofia wanted a new life, so she ran from Thomas. And for her troubles the porn star ends up in a convent, the same convent that Isabelle left to become a porno writer.

Then again, women in French New Wave films are often more self-assured and comfortable in their own skin than the men are. They don’t need to pretend to be movie stars. They already live as though they are.

But all those complications come later: Melville, Edward’s rampage, Sofia’s disastrous blackmail plan, the trip back to the convent. The moment that matters, the moment that I return to over and over again every time I come back to this movie, is the smoking in the bathtub. Donovan pruning while Huppert tells him about how the Virgin Mary came to her in a vision and told her not to become a nun because Isabelle’s a nymphomaniac.

Dragging on a cigarette, she confesses that she’s never had sex. At that moment, the poetry of her erotica, her conception of cocks as planks of wood, the way she casually invites Thomas to make love to her like she’s asking him to go bowling—it all makes sense. She’s faking it ‘til she’s making it.

“How can you be a nymphomaniac if you’ve never had sex?” Donovan’s delivery on this line is key. Since the first moment we met Thomas, he’s been nonchalant about his amnesia. Not knowing his own name, the blood on his neck, the fact that the only money he’s got on his person is a pocketful of Dutch coins; none of this seems to bother him much.

Even when we later see him in a video store, shifting through porno tapes for some clue to his identity while My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow” plays over the store speakers (The ‘90s!), he doesn’t seem all that invested in solving the riddle of his past. Like the protagonists of most New Wave films, he’s participating in the story because that’s what he’s supposed to do. He’d much rather fuck off and smoke cigarettes in a bathtub, but you can’t do that for two hours straight in an American movie, even in a low-budget indie film circa 1994. Eventually you have to towel off and go resolve your character arc or the damn structure cops in the audience will feel cheated that you didn’t finish your Hero’s Journey.

But when he asks Isabelle how she can be a nymphomaniac when she’s never had sex, there’s genuine confusion and wonder etched on his face. Here is the only McGuffin he really wants to understand. And she answers with just two words: “I’m choosy.”

She says this to him, the man she’s chosen to love, while he lies in a bathtub. Isabelle talking, Thomas prone: ​Amateur ​returns to these positions over and over again. The first time we see Thomas, he’s lying on the ground. The first time we see Isabelle, she’s talking about him (although she doesn’t know it yet). She types out her first line and reads it aloud: “This man will die…eventually…There is nothing any of us can do about it.”

Later on, much later, long after she chooses him in the bathtub scene, she chooses him again. A man asks her a question, but it’s not Thomas doing the asking this time. Thomas is busy lying on the ground, not in a bathtub, on the ground, leaving this story as he came into it. A man asks Isabelle a question about Thomas and she says “Yes, I know this man.”

Nobody wants to know Thomas as he was or as he is now. He is nobody’s cup of tea…until Isabelle, choosy Isabelle, picks him up by the handle, takes him to her lips and smiles as he burns her tongue.

And after all that, she still says yes.