Hal Hartley's Amateur flirts with pretension, but Hartley always pulls its head out of the clouds with dark humor.

Consider: A French ex-nun named Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert), who believes the Virgin Mary has appeared to her, is now living in New York, writing pornographic sketches for a skin magazine. A brutal slavemaster and criminal called Thomas (Martin Donovan) gets thrown out of a window onto his head; when he wakes up, he's Mister Nice Guy and remembers nothing. His abused wife, a notorious porn star and prostitute called Sofia (Elina Lowensohn), reinvents herself as an innocent heroine. A cool, shady accountant, Edward (Damian Young), is tortured by international assassins and turns into a raving lunatic.

All this could be rough going, if not intellectual garbage. But Hartley, the idiosyncratic director of Trust and Simple Men, once again brings his unique dual sensibility to bear: Amateur is about starting over and redemption, which probably reflects the young filmmaker's American concerns (he was born in New York); it's also about the moral particulars of exploitation and the dark caverns of the mind, which shows the influence European artists have had on him, something evident in all his work.

Lest we start feeling too comfortable with action-movie conventions like purloined floppy disks, arms-dealing and gunplay, Hartley skews them with a vision of two hitmen whose cell phones are comically on the blink. Too deep into theological discourse? The nun/virgin who thinks she's a nymphomaniac explains, "I'm choosy." Think the porn queen looks whorish and depraved in her black leathers? She gives the accountant a cheerful bouquet.

If we pay attention, these little dramas and twists start to work magic, and we begin to see the real identities of people who have been wearing masks all their lives. Amid cruelty--and some cruel Hartley humor--they even start to love. But my favorite scene, which has a loose but wonderfully right connection to the multiple journeys of discovery at hand, happens on a park bench, where the amnesiac Thomas borrows a copy of The Odyssey from a teenage boy in exchange for a periodical called Wet & Wild. Both are pleased by the trade, and so are we.

From such juicy collisions of the sacred and the profane does Hal Hartley's smart, quirky kind of filmmaking spring.


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