Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Hal Hartley Films

It was hard to resist.

Fay Grim

A spy film with Parker Posey in a long black trench coat? Too good to pass up! But who was Hal Hartley and why had I never heard of him?

20 minutes into Fay Grim, I began to have doubts about my pick. The characters Fay Grim (played by Ms. Posey), her brother Simon (James Urbaniak) and the CIA agent (Jeff Goldblum) appeared to be straight out of a stage play, delivering dialogues in a quirky manner. I was not sure where this film was going.

But I am very glad I stayed with the film because Fay Grim is one of the most refreshing films I have seen in a long while, although there are plenty of things that require getting used to. The first challenge is getting dropped into a film which is the sequel to Henry Fool made almost a decade ago and not knowing the history of the characters. But the biggest challenge was getting used to the filming style, which included the slanted camera shots. The entire film is shot in a skewed manner and while this style works to perfection in some sequences, it does not in others scenes. Still, what is remarkable about the film is how a simple story is elevated to a global tale of espionage, which involves the CIA, KGB, French Secret Service, Israeli spies, British agents, Arab informers and even some free lance terrorists.
Fay Grim

The overall end result is watching a precise dance between Fay Grim and the international assortment of spies. The tilted camera only allows the relevant details to filter into each frame. Never before has a film filmed in Paris and Istanbul allowed so little of the street side or a foreign city in each frame. This tactic works in Fay Grim as the real interest lies in observing the characters and listening to their words as opposed to caring for which location they are in. And the characters are quite interesting indeed. The core of the story involves the "confessions" written by Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan). Henry does not make an appearance until the final third of the film, but he does not need to because he already laid the foundations for Fay Grim in the 1997 film Henry Fool.

Henry Fool starts off when Henry rents a basement from Simon, who works as a garbage man. Henry encourages Simon to write in order to let his feelings out. But Simon's writings cause a stir. While some view it as soulful poetry, others call it pornographic. Shockingly, Simon's mother slits her wrists after she reads her son's work.

Simon manages to get published and raise the profile of the Grim family. On the other hand, Henry's diaries ("confessions"), are deemed worthless. Even Simon cannot see the merit in Henry's work. But the true value in Henry's writing is established in Fay Grim when it turns out the books contain espionage information which could be quite harmful if they fall into the wrong hands.

At the center of Hartley's wonderful universe are the three fascinating characters of Fay, Simon and Henry. But the trio are surrounded by an equally impressive assortment of characters. Overall, Hartley's two films stand perfectly well on their own, but when put together, they form a fascinating and unique story.

Earlier work:

There are plenty of Hal Hartley films out there. I decided to visit just one of them, his 1994 film Amateur, to see if it shared some similarities with Henry Fool.

Amateur also features a mysterious man, Thomas (Martin Donovan), who survives an attempt on his life but cannot remember his past. Thomas runs into Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) who agrees to help him. A parallel story of Thomas's wife, Sofia, involves her trying to extract money from a porn film gangster. In one thread, we see Thomas go about his new life casually while on the other thread, we get to hear about Thomas' dark past from Sofia.

Even though there are some interesting elements in Amateur, including a cameo from Parker Posey, it is not as engaging as the adventures of Henry Fool.

Note: It was different to see Isabelle Huppert in a completely English speaking role.
Ratings out of 10
  • Fay Grim (2007): 8.5

  • Henry Fool (1998): 8

  • Amateur (1994): 6.5
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