No Such Thing (2002)

2002-03-29 (Limited release)

Genre deconstruction, fairy-tale send-up, social commentary, a Hal Hartley joint: No Such Thing, the indie darling’s first feature in nearly four years, is all that and so much less. With its far-flung locales, bigger-name stars, the most fantastic of scenarios, and Francis Ford Coppola as executive producer, the movie evinces the continuing inflation of the director’s canvas, the next logical step in his evolution as a filmmaker. Yet, as recognizably Hartley-esque as it is, No Such Thing is altogether new in its bloodless ineptitude. Arid and hermetic, it’s the first misstep in Hartley’s intriguing and varied career.

The concept, on paper, seems inspired: a Hal Hartley monster movie, a modern-day take on the Beauty and the Beast myth. Arch and detached, Hartley’s films look and sound like nobody else’s, which makes the idea of his taking this story out for a spin particularly delicious. He’s shown an interest in playing with genre before: 1994’s Amateur was a deadpan, stripped-down stab at a thriller, replete with chatty hitmen, a nymphomaniac nun, a porn star, and an amnesiac searching for his identity. The title itself was the biggest joke, referring to Hartley, a novice at this genre thing.

Even more irreverent in its approach to genre, No Such Thing is considerably less charming. Hartley regular Robert John Burke stars as the hideous, choleric creature, more misanthrope than monster. Doomed to live forever, the fire-breathing, alcoholic brute lives in an abandoned plant in a remote part of Iceland, occasionally terrorizing local villagers and snoopy reporters. His Beauty is Beatrice (Sarah Polley), a pig-tailed assistant at a New York-based news network. Finding her way to his lair, Beatrice fashions a deal with the monster: he’ll come back with her to New York but only if she helps him find Dr. Artaud, a scientist who’s the only man capable of putting him out of his misery.

Working with prime material for tawdry fun, Hartley botches the job with his perverse aversion to pleasure. Uninterested in commenting on the familiar archetypes at his disposal, Hartley sees the forms of horror and myth primarily as platforms for his satirical broadsides. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Other directors have used the far-fetched elements of pulp fiction as springboards for their own peculiar visions, illuminating both the genre and world beyond it. A recent example is Claire Denis’ Trouble Every Day. Flawed as it is, Denis’ movie injects personal reflections on sensuality, anomie, and Catholic self-abnegation into the vampire myth, making something compelling out of shopworn material.

No Such Thing accomplishes no such thing. Painfully dull and suffocatingly dour, it pushes Hartley’s disregard for narrative convention to its breaking point. Working with minimalist fervor, Hartley makes leaps in storytelling that he assumes the audience will make with him, as when Beatrice, in the blink of an eye, becomes high on her newfound celebrity, or when the monster refuses to hit back at thugs beating him up because of his promise to Beatrice. She embraces the dark side of fame because it is what Hartley the social critic demands; the monster never harms a human because it is what Hartley the romantic wishes. The characters are little more than mouthpieces for a disinterested storyteller. His nonchalance is breathtaking: what in earlier movies seemed like a bracing indifference to the demands of narrative has now curdled into contempt for the audience.

There has always been a half-baked quality about Hartley’s movies, but the cheap profundities of his characters’ expository screeds can be disarming, as they declare, flat-out, “ideas,” that other filmmakers laboriously conceal as subtext. Delivered in pitch-perfect deadpan, a semi-serious harangue on love, sex, or identity acquires unexpected charm.

In No Such Thing, though, Hartley’s banal hectoring is embarrassing. Within the first few minutes, we are treated to an obnoxious newsroom meeting where the editor (a shrill Helen Mirren) berates her staff for failing to dig up bad news for the bloodthirsty public. (Among the deep-sixed story ideas are a federal government shutdown, some terrorist attacks, and a Presidential suicide attempt.) Later, after Beatrice survives a plane crash, the editor tries to convince her to give the network exclusive rights to her account of the ordeal. She warns, however, that the story will only hold the public’s attention for a couple of days, tops. And so it goes. Hartley’s reactionary riffs on media exploitation, commodified journalism, and instant gratification, among other targets, are overly broad and disposable; they’re a high-school student’s idea of sophisticated critique.

Still, and at least, Hartley retains his visual mastery. Movie after movie, he has developed a strong visual signature — pronounced blocking; an aversion to shot-reverse shot coverage of dialogue; graceful, almost dance-like, movement of figures within the frame. The cinematography, by longtime Hartley collaborator Michael Spiller, is, as always, muted and precise, and the windswept exteriors of Iceland finally allow him to stretch his legs. Perhaps the greatest of the movie’s few pleasures are Polley and Burke. Though coming nowhere close to salvaging this mess, they exude an easy warmth in their scenes together. Playing the monster as a cantankerous grouch, Burke squeezes the conceit for all its comic worth. When asked by Beatrice how he deals with his depression, the monster admits, “Drinking helps.” It’s the kind of oddball exchange that Hartley has patented, and that’s in short supply in this movie.

Critics lukewarm to Hartley’s work — Jim Hoberman and Roger Ebert come to mind — in past reviews have held out hope for some promised masterpiece. No Such Thing is the kind of failure of which I was afraid he was capable: a warts-only Hal Hartley movie. Where is the brittle romanticism of The Unbelievable Truth or Trust? The inspired kookiness of Simple Men? The generosity and meaningful expansiveness of Henry Fool? For all their flaws, his movies have never before failed to provide witty curlicues or offhand epiphanies. Alas, there’s a first time for everything.