WIDE ANGLE

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Indy Lifestyle Online
"An acquired taste - the American Harold Pinter" was how film distributor Ira Deutch-man tagged American independent director Hal Hartley. For many, that first taste came in 1989 with The Unbelievable Truth, a laconic, suburban comedy which proves that furious farce doesn't have to be speedy, but can, instead, unveil the anger and frustration felt by heroic "oddballs", shoehorned into respectable bourgeois existences.

Made when Hartley was an office worker, the movie revolves around the romance between a misunderstood schoolgirl and a handsome stranger, suspected by small-minded locals of being a mass murderer. It was a calling card for a rare talent, an intellectual screenwriter somehow able to package a perspective of rarefied alienation into a style so accessible that it was almost flip. The narrative is elliptical, the dialogue blissfully non-naturalistic - full of aphoristic reflections and the most dessicated of dry humour. No wonder, then, that Hartley seems to split independent audiences into fans and fanatics.

Since then, Hartley's work has manifested all the same qualities: a concern with large issues (Trust: the title says it all), Simple Men (well, actually, it's more about male bonding and the gap between the sexes), Surviving Desire (the cerebral versus the sensual); a fascination with form (Godard is a major influence, although Hartley's laid-back philosophising thankfully prevents him from political didacticism), and droll humour.

But like most rich dishes, Hartley's work can sometimes be a little indigestible, his droll violence and intellectual slapstick sitting a little heavy on the brain. Amateur, hailed by many critics as his finest film to date was, for this fan, a disappointingly cool piece of cinematic posturing. A typically unreal scenario (amnesiac falls for nymphomaniac nun) bereft of charm or emotional conviction, left you to pick over the bare bones of formal cleverness.

Still, that shouldn't stop devotees and neophytes alike relishing his latest movie, Flirt. Taking a characteristically thorough approach to his chosen subject, Hartley sets up a scenario and repeats it three times, showing how culture and gender influence the dynamics of plot. A brave, experimental work from a director who takes no prisoners.

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