Desperately Seeking Salvation

Hal Hartley's Amateur finds redemption in amnesia and the barrel of a gun

The path of the righteous man is beset on all sides by the inequities of the selfish and the

tyranny of evil men. — Ezekiel 25:17 (as quoted by Jules in Pulp Fiction)

Intoxicated by the fall of the Berlin Wall, triumphalists proclaimed not just the end of a totalitarian era, but the End of History. The collapse of Soviet communism, the joyous chorus sang, marked the final victory in the march of progress, the universal recognition — give or take a billion laggards in the Far East — that liberal democracy is the endstate of human society.

But natural and unnatural disasters soon erupted from Rwanda to Waco, and a new generation of Checkpoint Charlies cropped up between Bosnia and Serbia, Santa Monica and South Central. The world quietly turned a hardened eye toward the bottom line. McDonald's, Smith & Wesson and the seedier second cousins of Playboy became the lingua franca of the new order. In what alcoholics call a moment of clarity, sober voices admitted that Europe's shopping-cart revolution barely made the world safe for consumer capitalism, much less democracy. Time to get down to business.

Born of this world without borders or scruples is Amateur, the latest sidelong study of alienation from writer-director Hal Hartley. A dispassionate exploration of passion, this movie makes love like an intellectual, seducing with distant emotion and slowly accumulating detail. Those inclined to tenderness at arm's length should appreciate the gentle strokes on the forehead.

Like recent films from The Pelican Brief to David Salle's upcoming Search & Destroy, Amateur makes no distinction between boardrooms and back alleys; both high crimes and misdemeanors have become as commonplace as cashier's checks. The sole pre-condition of business is that your associates conduct themselves like professionals: The moral economy may be in decline, but there's money to be made if you just do your job. Witness Tony Baker (Horst Buccholz), in Wim Wenders' 1994 film Faraway, So Close, who has returned from the U.S. to unqualified success in reunited Germany; he's doing a brisk trade from his warehouse selling weapons and videos to discriminating customers.

Likewise Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames), in the Los Angeles of Pulp Fiction, a big businessman who oversees diversified operations that pay for his house in the hills and his wife's habitual trips to hashish bars in the Netherlands. A smaller entrepreneur, Lance (Eric Stoltz) imports smack from around the globe; his home business is thriving and he'll “take the Pepsi challenge with shit from Amsterdam any ol' day of the fucking week.”

At the midway point — geographically and cinematically — between Wenders' Berlin and Tarantino's City of Angels lies the New York City of Amateur. Merging criminal conspiracy and religious odyssey, Amateur assembles a band of outsiders in a Big Apple that is identifiably Old World and New World, at once American megalopolis and European village. Slick cafes and cellular phones, squatters and white supremacists fill Hartley's vision of Manhattan, a drifting urban island almost interchangeable with Frankfurt or London. In this city uncoupled from history — this New Amsterdam — the best place to find redemption is in amnesia.

The film begins with a frightened-looking woman fleeing a slumped body in the street. The man twitches, then snaps up from the cold cobblestones, his stylish suit spattered with blood. Their relationship and the secret behind the blank look in his eyes is the mystery at Amateur's heart.

But it's quickly evident — as a world-weary female voice declares, “And this man will die” — that the mystery has little to do with the physical fate of the condemned (Martin Donovan, the stone-faced veteran of several Hartley films including Simple Men and Trust). At issue is his spiritual destiny, a fortune torn between two diametrically opposed lost souls: Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), the former nun and virgin nymphomaniac who pays the rent writing stories for a smut magazine while she waits for a sign from on high; and Sofia (Elina Lowensohn), the world's most notorious porn starlet, who shoved her evil husband out the window when she decided she wanted to change her life.

Of course, deliverance has its price, and because Hartley intertwines the invisible hand of the marketplace with the hand of God, Amateur's wayward love triangle must survive a plot involving blackmail, a Dutch arms dealer/pornographer, a pair of corporate assassins, and floppy disks containing the damning dirt on a “highly respectable but ultimately sinister international corporation with political ties.”

Beneath the deadpan action-film gestures, Amateur revolves around a simple rhetorical question: “What will you do when you find out who you are?” The indefinite answers vary from character to character but converge on the recognition that the law of the marketplace has become a barrier to love.

Drier than droll and occasionally hilarious, Amateur bristles with formalist pairings: Sofia and Isabelle, the yin-yang embodiment of the whore-madonna syndrome, complete with dueling decolletage; Jan and Kurt (Chuck Montgomery and David Simonds), the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern hitmen; Thomas (Donovan) and Edward (Damian Young), the partners-cum-enemies who exhibit opposite responses to having their minds wiped clean.

The most flamboyant of Hartley's characters, Edward incarnates Amateur's mordant riff on the cult of professionalism. He is transformed from a kind-hearted “good accountant” who repairs other people's taxes to a wild-haired ur-capitalist brute, hysterically acting out id impulses and trying to sever his connections to the past. (In a deft stroke, Edward is literally tied to a chair — twice.) A clever variation on the theme appears in the profoundly empathetic person of Officer Melville (Pamela Stewart), a policewoman who registers people brought in without identification. Unable to continue shuffling her charges out into the cold, unfeeling world, Melville breaks down at one point, pleading, “What do I have to do — become completely insensitive?” Answers her partner: “Just do your job.”

Or, as Amateur suggests, let the Sisyphean rock of responsibility roll right over you and start fresh. A moral tabula rasa, Thomas has forgotten the ruthlessness that made him a “success.” But like his fellow “amateurs,” by shedding his professional skin he has gained the possibility of forgiveness. And what might have been merely a highbrow remake of Desperately Seeking Susan becomes a poignant meditation on the true price of passion.

Unlike Faraway, So Close, which beat the wings of desire into epistemological pulp before degenerating into a kind of divine Mission Impossible, Amateur transcends its sense of intercontinental ennui. And unlike Tarantino, Hartley renounces both the businessman as the agent of our hope and his coldblooded confidence. As Ezekiel 25:17 — and Pulp Fiction's born-again badass Jules (Samuel L. Jackson) — puts it, “Blessed is he who, in the name of charity and good will, shepherds the weak through the valley of darkness, for he is truly his brother's keeper and the finder of lost children.”

Amateur opens Fri, May 5, at the Lumiere in S.F. and the Shattuck in Berkeley.

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