No Such Thing (2001)

25 01 2011

It is getting a little repetitive to proclaim every other Hal Hartley film I see as one of the most profound and moving statements one could put on film, but well, it’s pretty true. This might not be his best effort, but at the very least, one must concede that it is without a doubt, his most polished and most accessible. There’s a lot less dialogue for one and thus, a lot less of that dry delivery that is likely to irk many newcomers to his work. At the same time, the film manages to be just as philosophical (if not more) than his most verbose scripts. It manages to capture the essence of Hartley’s cinematic universe. There’s a lot of “big things” talked about and implied, but it all becomes centralized into something uniquely personal and moving.

The IMDB entry for Sarah Polley is unusually opinionated and states that her face enables many filmmakers to express with her facial muscles and focus less on dialogue. I can’t say this exactly applies for a cinematic disaster like David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ but it does here. The biggest difference between this and every other Hartley film is definitely the amount of talking. It probably helps a great deal that this is the best any Hartley film has looked, but that could be attributed to the DVD’s quality, seeing as how so many of his other films are treated less than satisfactory by American DVD companies. That’s a subject matter for another day and most likely, another blog. This is definitely one of the most visually appealing films in the Hartley catalogue.

As it so often is the case with Hartley’s films, the story while seemingly straightforward enough, has this opaque tone, which fits like a glove in a universe in which philosophy is embedded in the image, rather than implied or read into by overly eager viewers. At first, it seems like a pretty simple satirizing of the news, something better left to works that are grounded more in reality like The Network or Broadcast News. The crux of the film does not lie in criticizing the near cannibalistic nature of sensationalist journalism, but instead in observing its effect on those who it intends to publicize.

Sarah Polley is so great in this as Beatrice, who acts as the example of said journalism. She has a calm and peaceful demeanor, one that is easy to graft on to her ethereal physical look. Her compassion for not only the film’s monster, but the rest of the world is one that seems to resist any knee-jerk or impulsive response. When she is first introduced to the monster, she is not the slightest bit upset to find out he killed her fiance. She shouldn’t be, obviously, as it was something that had been implied and essentially accepted before she even began her investigation. If there’s anything that makes a film less appealing it is when its characters become motivated by impulses like retribution, it is the sort of reaction that seems so distant from humans with even the slightest bit of understanding in their heart. As this is the case, Hartley’s film will not appeal to everyone, not even all arthouse goers.

This is not to say that I completely mirror or even understand Beatrice’s reactions, but at least they aren’t made to contribute to some conventional narrative arc. If anything, her compassion is overwhelming that it seems to easy blur into the lines of indifference. The way in which her character floats around bares more resemblance to the alienated individuals in the world of Tsai Ming-Liang or Michelangelo Antonioni than Hartley’s usual humanized mouthpieces. I’m not saying this is inherently better, as I have come something of a fan of these mouthpieces, but Beatrice’s conversations seem much more pragmatic than those in any other Hartley films. I suppose this is sort of ironic because the film deals with a monster and surviving a plane crash, but part of me hopes that was intentional. That the film’s fantastical elements gain their legitimacy by the fact that they are downplayed by the filmmaker.

So, as usual with Hartley, there’s a lot to chew on here and I can’t honestly say I’ve come into contact with even a fraction of it, but that sort of what makes people rewatch movies, no? While this is much more reflective (which just means less talking I guess) and has a greater emphasis on visuals (which just means it looks a lot better) it seems to embody everything that makes Hartley’s work so fascinating and that is that it is completely mystifying. Like all the best films, you’ll never get anything resembling an answer, just more questions. That sounds vague and probably pretentious as hell, but the same can be said for Hartley in a way and I don’t seem to mind that in his work.

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One response

30 03 2011
Matt

You’re articulate and have good insights. I’m a big Hartley fan but this film was a mess to me. I like Trust, Simple Men and Flirt so much more. This one is certainly more ambitious but it seems to lack the core of what makes his films so appealing and funny and serious [to me] at the same time. Great blog though.

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