Film Review: Haltalks flirty

From `The Unbelievable Truth' to `Amateur', Hal Hartley's films are renowned for their stylised dialogue, no-frills visuals, and all-consuming kissing shots. But does his new film, `Flirt', mark the end of that pattern and the birth of a new, activity-led future? He talks to Robert Hanks
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The Independent Culture
By now you probably know the shtick with Flirt: the film takes one story - A is asked by B whether their relationship has a future; A goes out to size up other possibilities before coming up with an answer; A ends up flirting with disaster - and spins it out across three cities (New York, Berlin, Tokyo), three languages (obvious) and three sexual combinations (man-woman, man-man, woman-man). What's most interesting about this, though, looking over Hartley's cv to date, is not that he's repeated the same story; it's that he's treating this as a new development.

The preface to the published script of Flirt (and you can deduce a lot of what you need to know about Hal Hartley from the fact that, not only do all his scripts get published, they also get a preface and an introduction) begins with a quote attributed to Jean Renoir: "But you know, everyone really only makes one film in his life, and then he breaks it up into fragments and makes it again with just a few little variations each time."

This is truer for Hartley than for most directors. In all his films so far he has shuffled and cut from the same deck of unsmiling actors - Martin Donovan, Elina Lowensohn, Bill Sage, Robert Burke, Adrienne Shelly. In each film, he's adopted the same uninflected, no-frills visual style (Hartley says he doesn't believe in establishing shots: every frame has to move the story along). In each film, there's the same gnomic dialogue - "There's nothing but trouble and desire''; "You can't trust people, only the deals they make" - and the same wealth of quotation from obscure sources (pressed for information on his literary influence, Hartley says: "I read a lot of baloney"). There are the same outbursts of stylised violence (slapping and shoving), the same indie guitar-band soundtrack, and situations and characters so close to each other that they're virtually indistinguishable.

The high-school girl with the over-protective father in his first feature, The Unbelievable Truth (1990), became the high-school girl with the over- protective father in his second, Trust (1991); the alienated mechanic in The Unbelievable Truth resurfaces as an alienated mechanic in Simple Men (1993), having briefly become an alienated electronics whiz in Trust.

This is not to say that there haven't been developments. For one thing, all his early films were set in suburban Long Island, where he was born and brought up, and they tended to be about, more or less, slackers: people who were, to quote a line from his 1991 short Theory of Achievement, "Young, middle-class, college-educated, unskilled". And as his career has moved up-town, so have his characters: Amateur (1994) found itself among the lofts of SoHo; the cosmopolitanism of Flirt looks like the culmination of this move. Still, these are not big changes. The central pleasure of watching a Hartley film is pretty much the pleasures you get from any genre: unpredictability kept within strict bounds.

One issue in particular has preoccupied him, and that's romance without commitment. What gives his films their appeal is not their artsy, smart, ironic exteriors, but the big slushy heart pumping away underneath. Few film-makers are better at making women look beautiful (look at the opening shot of Flirt, with Parker Posey sprawling upside down across a bed, wrapped in a white sheet). And he may be the screen's last great chronicler of the kiss - kisses are not frequent, but when they come they are generally climactic: people munch hungrily at each other while the camera pores over them.

But if kisses are rare, consummation is unheard of. The comparatively happy ending of The Unbelievable Truth, in which the closing embrace is interrupted by the distant sound of (possibly) nuclear missiles was followed by a series of endings in which love is thwarted by armed policemen - Martin Donovan in Trust is dragged away in a squad car; at the end of Simple Men police handguns are held to Robert Burke's head as he lays it on his woman's shoulder; in Amateur, Donovan is shot dead by marksmen at the door of a convent before he can fulfil his promise to make love to Isabelle Huppert.

So this is romance that never quite comes to anything. The inability to settle into a relationship, whether from circumstance or temperament, has haunted all of Hartley's central characters - Flirt is just a matter of making this official. On the line from New York, Hartley agrees that an ambivalence about commitment in his films has reflected his own life: "Because I didn't feel myself entirely committed, although I guess I envied or possibly admired people who were. I didn't feel good about not being committed myself."

The question is, will this change now that he has committed? In the autumn of 1995, a few months after finishing shooting on the Tokyo segment of Flirt, Hartley married his heroine, Miho Nikaidoh. Now, he concedes - he tends to concede opinions about his films rather than put forward strong ideas of his own - he may find it difficult to keep ploughing the same furrow: "I don't think you can expect me to be making stories that are enormously preoccupied with that."

Where he sees the change coming, though, is not in the sorts of plots he pursues, but in the way he pursues them. "It seems to resonate with a more formal aspect of my work - concentration on activity rather than reflection." Since getting married, "I feel the urge to talk less." He sees the Tokyo episode in Flirt as marking a step forward in his style: "I've always been dissatisfied with my ability to capture activity and to render the space of an environment"; here, though, working in a culture where he didn't speak the language, he was forced to depend less on dialogue, to "develop a vocabulary that has more to do with the way I experience spaces".

This may mark a new departure for Hal Hartley: perhaps he is now, as he has claimed in interviews, a film-maker who thinks in terms of images first, and whose films are no longer driven by dialogue, as he says his earlier films were. Perhaps now that he's made a film that finally makes explicit the self-plagiarism that's characterised his work, he'll go ahead and make a new one. To be honest, that strikes me as a shame: I kind of liked the old one.