Amateur was the first independent movie I ever fell in love with. I grew up in rural America where most people never strayed from Ralston’s Party Mart’s New Release section. I took that anti-intellectualism with me to college, where I viewed my first independent films with hostile boredom. Fortunately, Hal Hartley came along and saved me from my viciously parochial tastes.
At first glance, Amateur‘s plot looks wholly conventional: Thomas Ludens (Martin Donovan) wakes up with amnesia and sets out to determine his identity. He happens upon a café, where he forms an improbable friendship with Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), an ex-nun and self-proclaimed nymphomaniac virgin (“I’m just choosy,” she says), currently writing pornography. She agrees to help Thomas piece together his life, which begins with finding his wife, Sofia (Elina Löwensohn), whom he abused and forced to make porn. From here, Thomas, Sofia, and Isabelle are on the run from hit men.
Whereas the typical movie amnesiac seeks reasons for his memory loss, in Amateur, that mystery is rather banal: Thomas was a bad person. As the ramifications of who he was continue to plague him (in the form of the hit men), Thomas finds little comfort in expanding self-knowledge. The film’s most pressing questions don’t hinge on his past secrets so much as his present ambiguities.
Amateur‘s strengths lie not in this improbable plot, but in Hartley’s challenges to conventions. For one thing, as in all his films, language and tone become inscrutable, as actors deliver their lines flatly. In the DVD’s featurette, “Professional Amateurs: The Making of Amateur,” Donovan describes the difficulties of being asked, essentially, to “do nothing”: “It’s what you do that’s important, not what you act. It’s what the character does.” Hartley, for his part, discusses his use of humor to “dilute” his intellectualism, admitting that he enjoys making films “about ideas,” where characters are launch into meditative asides about the nature of the universe while munching sandwiches.
Amateur‘s apparent voids of typical cinematic “feeling” and explanatory dialogue are filled with subtleties that accumulate into fully formed characters. Isabelle watches Thomas bathe while she sits smoking on the toilet. She runs her hand along the length of his body without touching him while he is sound asleep. They’re in love even if they rarely make eye contact.
Through such seeming abstractions, Amateur interrogates connections among memory, self, and responsibility. Set free from our past, do we revert to some former “core” or do we proceed anew, building a self out of current influences? Here, the questions plaguing Thomas are no different from anyone else’s. Sofia must figure out how to live her life without her Svengali-like husband. Isabelle struggles against a destiny announced to her by the Virgin Mary. As much as the characters remain amateurs, so the film makes its viewers feel like amateurs as well, by thwarting our expectations and pleasures. Thomas will not have an epiphany. Isabelle will not lose her virginity to Thomas. And Sofia agrees to forgive Thomas, though she says she cannot forget.
Uninterested in resolutions, Amateur is most compelling during its frequent moments of meditative stillness, as when Isabelle slowly zips up her dress, or she and Thomas stand in silence outside his old apartment, engulfed in a blue haze. Prone to exaggerated eloquence and open-ended questions, Amateur take the scenic route to its conclusion.