Amateur (1994)

Written and directed by Hal Hartley

A man wakes up in an alley, his memory gone. He stumbles into a diner where an ex-nun, now fledgling erotica writer, takes immediate pity on him and gives him a place to stay as together, they try to find out who he is. Elsewhere in the city, a woman is trying to leave her abusive partner and old life behind. Are these stories related?

Amateur is a straightforward affair, despite this little initial mystery. These two stories play out alongside each other and Hartley’s script doesn’t weigh itself down with unnecessary world-building, even as the pieces of our mystery man’s life begin to come together and a picture forms. It’s a story of good people finding their calling, finding themselves, while bad men do bad things in service of even worse people. The only question is what kind of person our amnesiac used to be, and what kinda person he is now. 

The “amateur” of Amateur is really everyone involved. Isabella Huppert’s Isabella is new to life outside the convent, and unsurprisingly bad at writing smut. She’s a self-declared nymphomaniac, but admits to being a virgin. Martin Donovan’s Thomas is new to life as well, completely without memory of who he was. Alongside them, Sofia, the woman striking out on her own, is trying to blackmail some shadowy types to fund her new life. Quite the career change for someone who used to work in the adult film industry. Reinvention all around, with the only question being how successful they’ll be. That’s the fun of it all.  

While it might be hard to see this as a compliment, Amateur is like a great student movie. Stripped down and scaled back in pretty much everything from direction to set design, it feels nice and light. Apartments have beds and little else in them, the streets of New York City strangely empty. Hartley shies away from using music for the most part, and his directions for actors Martin Donovan and Isabelle Huppert see them deliver their lines with a blasé matter-of-factness. The colors of Amateur are similarly drained, with Michael Spiller’s cinematography favoring a light blue tint. For a thriller, there’s little in the way of action set pieces. 

It means there’s little intensity to Amateur. The characters don’t seem too worried about their predicament. That might prompt you to wonder too, and investment in the outcome might be lacking for some. Hartley’s film spends more time on talking than any act of violence, and it’s perhaps here we learn to care for Isabelle and Thomas, as their curious chemistry and interplay entertains. She asks him to make love to her, and even for someone who’s forgotten everything about life, he’s still a little taken aback. Still, he entertains the notion like she’s asked they go get ice cream at some point. 

Amateur’s true strength is its funny script full of great exchanges and one-liners, leaving you thankful that Hartley’s given his own script room to breathe with a simple production design. The deadpan delivery of these lines make it all the better, and grants Amateur a certain innocence, as these uncanny characters play-act at life and lend everything a disarming quaintness. 

All in all, easy does it for Amateur. It has a breezy story, performances that amuse, and a few cinematic moments that pop all the more due to the general understatement that surrounds it. A cool mystery “thriller” that might be a little too cool for its own good, depending on how invested you want to be in the characters and their future path in life. 

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