Hal Hartley makes no secret of his fondness for Godard. This makes his films interesting and out of step with virtually everything else going on in U.S. film. Eschewing mainstream story-arcing and conventional characters, Hartley translates Godard’s work in the ’60s into an American idiom.
The obvious formal debts — the guerrilla location shooting, the choppy editing, and so on — bleed into conceptual debts. These include voiceovers with overlapping voices, characters reading to each other from books or speaking in quotations. The imagery toys with what is and isn’t diegetic, with genre expectations, and concerns with verisimilitude. The dialogue is typically stylized to a deadpan, haiku fineness, set against capricious structures, full of airy spontaneity. Hartley restores the shock and cruelty to violence, while mining pathos from otherwise ludicrous moments. He attempts socio-political critique that is both oblique and ham-fisted. And like his idol, he tends to fetishize beautiful, short-haired women.
Sabrina Lloyd plays the latest of these bobbed women in The Girl from Monday, a science-fiction dystopia shot in New York, which owes a lot not only to Godard’s Alphaville, but also to Chris Marker’s La Jetée, particularly in its use of evocative still frames and voiceover. Marker’s film, the basis also for 12 Monkeys, uses fractured form (an entire film comprised entirely into still images held for a few moments) to amplify the themes of his time-travel narrative. It suggests how memory preserves a series of snapshot-like moments (as recent neurological research has suggested) and reveals how much more a still image can evoke than a moving one. Hartley’s film plays similar games with form, his DV images stopping, slipping into slow motion or blurring at unexpected moments, refusing to let a viewer settle in and lose sense of the medium itself.
In Monday‘s America, the government has been replaced by an advertising firm. The perpetual stoking of desire, consumer or counterrevolutionary, is the primary order of business. Recalling Gary Becker’s notion of the individual consumer as a kind of business firm “producing” satisfaction for himself, the film imagines a society where individuals self-consciously see themselves as firms, where their acquisitive individualism is pushed to its absurd endpoint. All behavior is as self-interested as neoclassical economists imagine it to be — sexuality is directly linked to credit rating, an income-generating act.
One of Hartley’s early films, Surviving Desire, considered this at the level of the personal relationship, with sexual desire exploited by women with short dark hair as opposed to advertisers. But the uneasy feeling the inaccessible short-haired woman in Surviving Desire evokes is extended in Monday to an entire society that revolves around desire elaborately instigated, then perpetually unfulfilled.
Another common Hartley trope concerns the idea of trust. It crops up in Simple Men, where brothers confront their fugitive father, and Amateur, where Isabelle Huppert’s amnesiac nun turns out to be a brutal criminal. In the disquieting Monday, there is no “right” side or related question of trust, since all struggle, all yearning, ends in unmet desire, here given a literal value. In this society, desire tends to isolate people; when it brings them together, it is only so they may exploit each other.
Opposed to the society of ultraindividualists is an alien race of ultra-communitarians, who share one body and all feelings, none of which is desire. The film uses these impossible idealized creatures to work out the various trade-offs involved in obtaining a concept of self, even if this means submitting to market forces. The girl from Monday herself (played by newcomer Tatiana Abracos, charged with the unenviable task of having to act as though she’s just discovering what it’s like to have a body) is an alien overwhelmed with both the capitalist cornucopia of commodities and the inexhaustible pleasures that another person’s attention can provide. Her experience hints at the ways the desire to have a self (and commodities) can become indistinguishable from the desire to merge, to move beyond one’s own limits.
Humans are all trapped in this paradox, but corporations, made up of no particular humans, transcend this and can thereby perpetually profit from it. Institutions, immune to desire, can always position themselves to exploit it, and forever. In Monday, the ad boss realizes that both revolution and counterrevolution are good for the ad business. All desire, understood as discontent and instability, is good for business, even if desire’s paradox and ambivalence are bad for the specific humans who make up the businesses. So in the film, Jack (Bill Sage) carries out the business of the corporation he works for even as it traps him in his quixotic desires. His role in the corporation, enforcing its individualist creed and extending its persuasive reach, works to exacerbate his own need while offering only the tentative and incoherent solutions of selfhood and selfishness. Unfortunately, the ending Hartley offers feels like an escapist cheat, a disappointing sidestep around the insoluble problems of identity he had so deftly raised.