Monday, 14 May 2012

Hal Hartley & Isabelle Huppert… Amateur (1994)

Sometimes you come back to a film and it’s not quite what you remember. I saw Amateur in the cinema on its original release being a fan of Hal Hartley’s earlier work and, of course, eager to see how Isabelle Huppert fared in another American feature (I'm one of those that like Heaven’s Gate…but not so much Bedroom Window…).

was possibly too delicate to leave a strong impression or maybe I was wrong-footed by its subtle subversions… either way, I feel it is a more defined and rounded work than I did before viewing it again, two decades and two children later. Funny how memory can change...

Martin Donovan is lying on a side street motionless, a young woman runs out, looks at him and quickly moves off. She thinks he’s dead and so do we but with a start, he wakes up. Staggering to a café, numbed and free of memory he encounters a French woman who has been sitting, eeking her coffee out and writing on a portable word processor (a proto-laptop… ).

The woman is Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) who, it transpires, is that rarest of creatures, a nymphomaniacal nun who writes pornography for a living and has yet to have sex… Thomas has only dutch money in his pockets but Isabelle has enough to buy him food which he promptly gives to her recognising that food is another habit she hasn’t really got into.

There’s a kindness between them in spite of their strangeness and Isabelle, who is searching in her own Christian way for a direction and purpose in life, decides that Thomas will be it.

Isabelle is confused on many things… she wants to write poetry and is employed by a pornographic publisher to write erotica for his magazines. But she doesn’t really know what to write or how to make the stuff she really wants to write, sexy. She’s almost blank and, of course, Huppert is just perfect for this. Nobody does “almost there” as well and I can understand why she was so keen to work with Hartley.

Isabelle has to go on a date she met through a phone dating service and does not know how to respond when her companion for that evening starts to make advances in the cinema. Before she exits we see the girl from the start of the film… off the wall moments abound. The film is funny but in that only one-small-blip-away-from-reality way that Hartley specialises in.

The other woman, Sofia (an enigmatic Elina Löwensohn - hair a marvellous Brooksian bob) is revealed to be Thomas’ wife and a star of adult movies. Thomas’s back story is revealed a little as we find out that she thinks she has killed him and that she is also in possession of certain “floppy discs” (ah, 90’s IT nostaligia…) that will incriminate their employer back in Holland – Mr Jaques.

She calls Mr Jaques and tries to blackmail him in exchange for the discs. Meeting up with her friend and colleague Edward, (Damian Young) she explains the plan and is horrified as he is caught at their drop point.

Edward is one of Mr Jaque’s accountants and he is tortured by two former colleagues who have obviously progressed onto the next stage of their financial careers by becoming assassins… “What happened to you, you were such a good accountant, “ Edward says to Jan (Chuck Montgomerie), the more intelligent of the two. “I saw the light”, he replies.

Jan leaves Kurt (Dave Simmons) to do the dirty work and both believe Edward, who has been electrocuted, to be dead. But, as with Thomas, he revives, Amateur is about confusion, accident and the hap-hazard at this point and it’s also quite funny about torture and porn...

Meanwhile, Thomas has rented one of Sofia’s films and watches it with Isabelle. It stirs something... but he has no idea what. Isabelle senses this too and decides her mission needs to include the girl in the video as well whom she recognises from the cinema.

Like a Paul Auster novel, much is driven by co-incidence and that New York probability of bumping into the same kinds of people in the same kinds of places…

Isabelle and Thomas break into Sofia’s flat and Isabelle instinctively puts on Sofia’s clothes (is she is replacing her in the unconscious mind of Thomas?). The two almost make love but are disturbed by the door opening. Kurt and Jan have found the flat as well and begin to search.
Sofia returns and is captured.

Jan leaves Kurt to torture her whilst he goes to see what is on the discs. Kurt is fascinated by Sofia’s role as a sexual commodity, his financial training momentarily getting the better of him.

Isabelle surprises him by provocatively holding a power drill…Thomas circles round and pulls a gun and shocks Kurt into falling through the window…

The three escape to a safe house Sofia knows. But they are not safe for long as Edward, by now in a crazed and murderous frenzy, calls the number and recognises Thomas’ voice as he picks up the phone. Jan is also on the way having found the address in Sofia’s disguarded handbag…

Everything comes together as (almost) everyone hates Thomas although we never really find out why. Sofia eventually tells Isabelle everything but she has seen a different man and believes in him not who he was. Thomas can still not remember himself but he too is seemingly sure of his new love.

I won’t spoil the ending but it comes with a powerful moment from Isabelle Huppert who has controlled the emotional story all the way through.

The idea of a criminal/assassin figure with memory loss was recently “explored” in a Liam Neeson (excellent actor, Liverpool supporter… maker of lucrative films) vehicle, Unknown in which his memory loss leads to an – unexplained - change of character. Here we’re not sure that Thomas has been “reborn” as a goody; Hartley doesn’t want to push things too far towards the definitive.

There are plenty of blurred edges around the central message that it’s never too late to find your way even if you must travel alone. It’s Isabelle’s journey and she has been changed in a way that is as equally unconscious as Thomas' shift. Perhaps you need to forget yourself to keep moving forward?

Amateur is a film of its time – big phones and big suits – but from this distance it has stood the test of time remaining amusing and shocking in equal measure.

The DVD is available from Amazon, though it’s quite pricey now - time for a re-release! Also worth checking out is Possible Films for details of Mr Hal Hartley’s current work, whilst Martin Donovan also keeps himself busy having recently written and directed Collaborator (2011).

Isabelle Huppert remains the leading actress of her generation.


  1. Great film, I live in the UK and one of the only reasons I keep an old VHS player is so I can keep watching this and Simple Men

    1. Both great movies - well worth hanging onto that video player! The Unbelievable Truth is another good one - haven't seen much recent stuff but his latest, Meanwhile, is out on DVD.

      Thanks for reading!

  2. I'm also a big fan of Hal Hartley early work and Amateur was among my favourite films, if not the favourite among favourites. Almost 15 years and 2 children later, I enjoyed every second of it.

    1. It had been a long time since I saw it too and it really stood up (also after two children!). It's coming out on Blu-Ray soon and I don't think I'll be able to resist!

      Thanks for your comment and best wishes.


    2. I am from Brazil and it's weird to remember how popular Hal Hartley's films were here in the 90's. Ah, the past! Amateur is great, pop, funny, deep and sad filme, ALMOST the same time. And last, but not least, Löwensohn, Huppert, Donovan, Parker Posey and all the actors in this flick were very talented, sexy and sensual in their caracteres. Amateur is a Swan Song of the Indie Movies of the 90's.

    3. Agreed - at the time one made a point of seeing every Hal Hartley movie and there should have been more! He is working on a new film, Ned Rifle with Parker Posey - funding is from crowd-sourcing and hopefully he's now reached his target! Details are here: Thanks for your comment! Best Paul