MUBI Mondays: Amateur (1994)
Josh Slater-Williams | On 12, Oct 2020
On Mondays, two of our resident cinephiles highlight a film currently available on MUBI UK. We call it MUBI Mondays.
Breaking through with early features The Unbelievable Truth (1989), Trust (1990) and Simple Men (1992), writer-director Hal Hartley was one of the key figures of the tail end of the 1980s/early 1990s boom of American independent cinema, alongside the likes of Steven Soderbergh and Jim Jarmusch, before that landscape became altogether different in the wake of the success of films such as Pulp Fiction (1994) and Clerks (1994).
Hartley’s early tragicomic dramas – which explore such topics as class, the nature of love, and foolhardy ambition in the face of absurd reality – are immediately recognisable through the specific deadpan cadence to the dialogue and his performers’ delivery of it, whereby emotional duress or ecstatic highs are largely conveyed with a relatively expressionless affect, outside of a few select scenes. Hartley’s regular actors around that time included such talents as Martin Donovan, Edie Falco, Robert John Burke, Bill Sage and the late Adrienne Shelly. Hartley can also attest to being one of the earliest directors to regularly employ Parker Posey’s particularly unique screen presence.
Amateur (1994) is a key transitional work for Hartley. For one thing, it’s a decidedly more violent offering than anything he’d presented before; while relatively free of actual onscreen blood, multiple characters are shot and one is tortured to near-death and driven mad. Secondly, while his later studio foray and prosthetics-heavy oddity No Such Thing (2001) likely cost more, Amateur certainly looks like the most expensive film of Hartley’s career at that point, thanks to use of varied New York City locations (Long Island was his favoured locale before this) and the mere presence of a particular actor (more on that in a moment). Among the production company credits in the gorgeous opening title sequence, set to the score by Jeffrey Taylor and Hartley himself (under the pseudonym Ned Rifle), are the likes of UGC and what was then Channel Four Films (now Film4 Productions), a reflection of Hartley’s growing status as a hot commodity in European arthouse markets.
Thirdly, and most crucially in terms of this being a transitional film, is that Amateur was Hartley’s first time working with a bona fide movie star of international renown. While Hartley would later work with such talents as Julie Christie and Jeff Goldblum, Isabelle Huppert remains the biggest star to have the lead role in one of his movies, and it’s a part he reportedly wrote for the actor specifically, based on her being a fan.
The character is literally named Isabelle, an ex-nun who is trying to make a living writing pornography, having come to the realisation she’s a nymphomaniac, despite reportedly never having had sex. She encounters Thomas (Donovan), a confused amnesiac with a head wound. While Isabelle tries to help him find out who he is, believing it to be a mission from God, other parties who definitely know his identity end up crossing their path. One is Sofia (Elina Löwensohn), Thomas’ wife and a famous porn performer, on the run from criminal forces after believing she’s killed the apparently abusive Thomas, a pornographer himself, by pushing him out an apartment window.
A sharp veer into comic thriller territory for Hartley, Amateur is a gripping, idiosyncratic ensemble piece concerning identities forcibly erased and the idea of faking it until you make it – where even the most devout attempted do-gooders or cockiest of ostensible professionals can be bewildered when faced with dilemmas falling outside the comfort zones of their skillsets. It is among the best films Hartley – who is due for reappraisal after becoming something of an artist on the margins in recent years – has ever made, and is arguably his most accessible work for a newcomer to the oeuvre.
Amateur is now available on MUBI UK, as part of a £9.99 monthly subscription.