Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool , A Study in Rejection

Hal Hartley’s Henry Fool was not well received at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and now I can see why. This very dark parable of success and failure in the very fallible literary world brazenly violated the hedonistic and self-congratulatory spirit of Cannes, where worship of that bitch-goddess Success is unconditional. From what I had heard of the plot, I suspected that Mr. Hartley was playing some kind of cruel joke on his eponymous character, played by a screen newcomer named Thomas Jay Ryan. Poor Henry arrives in town just out of prison for having sex with a 13-year-old. He carries with him an enormous confessional diary with which he plans to blow a big hole through the literary establishment.

The geography of the film is vague to the point of abstraction. Most of the action takes place within the constricted compositions of rooms, bars and a weird kind of garbage-disposal factory in which Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) works through his dull if occasionally traumatized existence with his suicidally depressed mother (Maria Porter) and his promiscuous sister (Parker Posey). Henry cannot stop talking; Simon can barely start. Even as an adult, Simon has to disabuse people of the impression that he is mentally retarded. When Henry takes up residence in the basement of Simon’s house, he encourages Simon to write down the thoughts that he has trouble voicing in the form of a continuous

poem. The ironic payoff is fame, fortune and a Nobel Prize in Literature for Simon, and utter rejection for Henry’s overliterary magnum opus , even from Simon, who deeply regrets not liking the work of his benefactor.

The moral would seem to be that some people have talent, and most people don’t. But is it? Mr. Hartley never presents any samples of Simon’s work, with its allegedly scatological content, and it is not clear whether Simon has real talent or turns out to be unwittingly a trendy cultural intimidator because of the “authenticity” of his long-suppressed rage as a forgotten garbage man. For that matter, we never get a glimpse of Henry’s supposedly sordid Confession .

What we do get that is new in the world of Mr. Hartley is a volubly articulate character in Henry who ends up displaying the courage of his nonconformist convictions in the stunningly revelatory final camera movement of the film. Henry may be a fool, literally as well as nominally, but he is clearly Mr. Hartley’s fool, and as I listened to him spilling his guts, he reminded me at first of people I have known in that vast urban and suburban American sprawl of unproductive and uncreative talk, but, ultimately, he reminded me uncomfortably of myself, a creature who has always talked beyond prudence and discretion, and yet has never been as averse to compromise as the soul mates Henry Fool and Hal Hartley.

No, Henry Fool is not Mr. Hartley’s breakthrough to mainstream accessibility. The writer-director-producer is still paddling in the cultish Long Island lagoon of The Unbelievable Truth (1990) and Trust (1990). Trust , especially, impelled me at the time to speculate that Mr. Hartley might be the one Sundance kid to break out of the pack. What has happened instead is that Mr. Hartley has spread his canvas around the world without altering his Long Island neo-Godardian style in the slightest. If anything, Henry Fool is more rigidly controlled and carefully composed than anything Mr. Hartley has done before. Very early on, the director distances us from the hapless Simon by having him throw up on two occasions. As for Henry, he defecates the mother of all defecations while Simon’s sister is listening in horror as she takes a shower behind the shower curtain. But for all the cleansing of the intestines that takes place, there is no sense of organic behavior in a given milieu, but rather of a literary injection of disgust into the audience’s relationship with the characters.

One has to go back to Josef von Sternberg and Yasujiro Ozu to find a compositional control within the frame as rigorous as Mr. Hartley’s. The world at large is excluded, and even the signs on New York City subway entrances are rendered with the precise signification of early Pop Art renderings. The behavior of characters in the various subplots taking in the large subjects of political commitment, bigoted nativism, and various forms of spousal and child abuse, are even more abrupt, arbitrary and absurdist than the actions of Henry and Simon, singly or in tandem. Yet the whole mix has the emotional and philosophical charge of an adventure in the jungle of artistic careerism for both the characters and their creator. Henry Fool is an unsettling experience, but it works as a piece of art on its own terms. See it and think.

Notes on Films From All Over

Cédric Klapisch’s Un Air de Famille ( Family Resemblances ), from a screenplay and dialogues by Agnès Jaoui, Jean-Pierre Bacri and Cédric Klapisch, based on the stage play by Agnès Jaoui and Jean-Pierre Bacri, takes the very theatricality of its source and uses it adroitly to make splendid cinema. There are only six characters on a single set in search of the ties that bind and blister in family relationships. Henri (Jean-Pierre Bacri) is the less-favored son of Mother (Claire Maurier), and that has embittered him for life as he tends the seedy family restaurant in a seedy quartier . Philippe (Vladimir Yordanoff), his mother’s favorite, has become a big noise in France’s Silicon Valley, and has just appeared on a television interview program that Henri has “forgotten” to catch despite having been alerted by Philippe. Denis (Jean-Pierre Darroussin), the restaurant’s bookish waiter, has been having a fitful romance with Betty (Agnès Jaoui), the rebellious sister, but he is still regarded as outside the parameters of the family, unlike Philippe’s wife, Yolande (Catherine Frot), whose birthday is the occasion for the Friday family reunion that constitutes the action of the film.

As you may have noticed by now, the central roles of Henri and Betty are performed by the original playwrights and co-scenarists with the director of Un Air de Famille , and so the film itself is a kind of family affair, which accounts for the extraordinary emotional resonance arising from the constant bickering in a family once drowning in love (seen in lyrical childhood flashback memories) and now floundering in a morass of ancient grievances. Language barrier and all, this is a must-see for anyone with a family and its eternally unfinished business.

Lisa Cholodenko’s High Art has been generally reviewed as a change-of-pace, change-of-image extravaganza by one-time brat-packer Ally Sheedy in a drowsily decadent heroin-sniffing lesbian role as a once prestigious cutting-edge photographer in flight from her own success and notoriety. Miss Sheedy is striking enough in her reincarnation, but she is only the yin to the yang of Radha Mitchell’s Syd, the actual protagonist and the main source of the film’s subtle eroticism. But, of course, the quietly and unostentatiously talented Ms. Mitchell is an Australian actress with little publicity exposure in the United States. The rest of the cast is good, too, with such variably known but equally proficient performers as Patricia Clarkson as Greta, the Rainer Fassbinder actress and lover of Ms. Sheedy’s Lucy Berliner; Gabriel Mann as James, Syd’s boyfriend; William Sage as Arnie, the druggiest member of Lucy’s coterie; Anh Duong as Dominique, editor of Frame , a photography magazine suffused with preciosity; David Thornton as Harry, Syd’s boss; and the unsinkable Tammy Grimes as Vera, Lucy’s disapproving mother. Ms. Cholodenko employs some nervy nomenclature, particularly the androgynous “Syd” for Ms. Mitchell, and the Weimarish “Berliner” for Ms. Sheedy. Ms. Cholodenko’s direction doesn’t make High Art jump out at you with its outrageousness, but, rather, it seeks to draw you into its tentatively, almost maddeningly modulated mix of sensibility and sensuality, tenderness and titillation. On the whole, I think she succeeds.

Noah Baumbach’s Mr. Jealousy does not work for me as well as his first film, Kicking and Screaming (1995), and I wish it did. The cast is sympathetic enough. The spirit is warm and willing, but the central plot stretches my suspension of disbelief beyond the breaking point. O.K., I can imagine Eric Stoltz’s Lester Grimm being such a basket case of jealousy that he becomes so morbidly curious about his current girlfriend’s ex-lover Dashiell Frank (Chris Eigemann), now a literary celebrity, that Lester joins Dashiell’s group therapy sessions, presided over by the amusingly nonintrusive Dr. Poke (Peter Bogdanovich). I can even go along with Lester’s using the name of his best friend Vince (Carlos Jacott) as his own in the group. But when Vince insists that Lester continue impersonating him so that Vince can get feedback on his own problems, I say enough is enough. All the while I have been less than enchanted by the flaky Ramona Ray of Annabella Sciorra, an actress I enjoy in more tightly wound situations. Bridget Fonda and Marianne Jean-Baptiste are wasted in roles that call for more cuteness than verve. All in all, Mr. Baumbach has set a farcical mechanism into motion without bothering to apply any brakes. The result is a crash of confusion. Yet I was not entirely unmoved by Mr. Baumbach’s nostalgic evocations of the nouvelle vague .

Manuel Pradal’s Marie Baie des Anges is all coming attractions for a coherent movie. Mr. Pradal’s style is a repudiation of the scrupulous spatial realism of Andre Bazin and Eric Rohmer for the giddy montage-driven imagery of Sergei Eisenstein and Dziga Vertov. The two adolescent lovers, Vahina Giocante and Frédéric Malgras, are nice to look at, and the views of the Riviera are pleasant, but the rest can be called surrealism or, as I prefer, just plain chaos.