Fay Grim: Hal Hartley’s Disappointing Film Starring Parker Posey

2cxo7k2brm5Hal Hartleys droll 1997 allegory about art and celebrity, Henry Fool, is given a loose updating with Fay Grim, a frenzied, surreal espionage thriller that plays like John Le Carre recast as a postmodern absurdist yarn.

In the 1997 film, set in a forlorn working class Long Island neighborhood, the eponymous Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) was a garrulous autodidact whose stream of conscious monologues on art, identity, purity and truth carried a startling resonance for Simon Grim (James Urbaniak), a mechanic, and his sister, Fay (Parker Posey). Fool and Fay fall in love, get married, and have a child.

Hartley sketched out a convincing lower middle class milieu, and addressed his most explicit political content by exploring the roots of reactionary native fascism in the form of a demagogic local politician. The reach and ambition of Henry Fool was mildly entertaining and perversely suggestive. Henry helps transform Simon into a Nobel Prize winning poet. Pursued by the police for his involvement in the death of a local pederast, Henry assumes Simons identity and flees to Stockholm.

Henry Fool marked a conclusion in Hartleys work (Trust, Flirt, Amateur), a deeper engagement with character and psychological detail. But the subsequent work has been ephemera, commercially marginal pieces such as the abysmal No Such Thing,” and the disappointing “The Girl from Monday, that were insubstantial and even embarrassing.

Fay Grim is only slightly more fun and deeper than those films, and it has some snarling wit and bounce, trafficking in many of the same ideas of its predecessors, though the political content is even more pronounced.

Unfolding in New York, Paris, and Istanbul, the plot is delirious and insane, and a great part of the fun is not trying to resolve the mysteries but simply luxuriate in them. Unlike Henry Fool, which was shot in 35mm, the new work is done is HD digital video. Hartley loves corkscrew angles and alienating points of view; nothing ever appears direct, head on. Everythings a little skewered, and so is the story.

From the opening scene, Fay summoned to her son Neds school, because he has been caught with a hand cranked photographic device that shows an orgy, underlining their tenuous status in the community. Have you ever considered moving Neds teacher asks.

Fays world is in tatters. Her brother Simon is in federal jail for his part aiding Henrys escape. Her son has been expelled from his school. Fullbright (Jeff Goldblum), CIA operative, arrives at her door, and informs her that Henry is dead. Fullbright drafts her into a plot to secure two of the original eight notebooks that comprise Confessions, Henrys Finnegans Wake collection of graphic, bawdy, pornographic through the looking glass text, obscenities and incomprehensive garbage, that is either his literary masterpiece or encrypted text for military and scientific purposes.

Part of the plot’s mystery is disentangling the identity of Henry Fool. If the politics of the first film are inherently localized, the contents of Fay Grim has international consequences, touching Chile, Argentinas Dirty War, Afghanistan, and the first Gulf War. Fay agrees to travel to Paris to secure the two notebooks in exchange for Simons release from jail.

The opening movements are built on speed and movement and achieve an exquisite timing, the deliberately stylized and artificial environment.

Parker Posey, one of the most original performers around, flaunts body movements, tonal inflections, facial movements (what she does with her mouth should be outlawed) wreak havoc, making men (and women) melt in her path. Hartley intends the plot to be an escalating series of betrayals, shifting identities, political collusion and personal gain.

Going to Paris, Fay turns everybodys world upside down. The body count multiplies, and before long, she has outmaneuvered the French security police, Goldblums CIA operative, Interpol, British double agents, and crossed paths with Bebe Konchalovsky (Elena Lowensohn, making a very welcome return to Hartleys ensemble).

The violence is mocking, stylized, deprived of actual pain or suffering. In the most spectacular, the presumed dead Henry Fool makes an entrance that is the equivalent of Orson Welless entrance in The Third Man.

In the third movement, the story shifts to Istanbul. Simon and Fay are reunited, and Henry is confronted by his past when we discover he is being imprisoned by a notorious terrorist. Hows the jihad going, you lazy [expletive] Henry snarls at him. Hartley loves quotations and allusions to movies, scripts and books. He names characters after directors Andrei Konchalovsky and Werner Herzog. Fay Grim evolves into a funny, fast, whirling tribute to the international espionage thriller. The artifice only seems to acknowledge how strange, unsettling and realistic is real world stagecraft.

Its a great location, though unfortunately the movie loses something substantial by the last act. A symphony of perversity up until then, the crazed incomprehension of the plot dissipates the sting. The film has pretty much everything, except a musical number. Everything dances and flows, and the material has a pain of recognition.

The farce is always interrupted by darker motifs of violence, fascism and war. Fay Grim is a dance, a fever dream that sweeps you with its sparkling mood of insouciance, wit, and glorious mischief. You take from it what you wantheartbreak, exhaustion, exultationeven if the whole is never quite the sum of its parts.