Flirt: Hartley’s Anthology–Three Stories, One Dilemma

A three-part anthology of variations on the same emotional situation, “Flirt” comes across as an academic treatise. The film poses some interesting questions, such as the effect of context on contents, the limits of narrative structure, and the range of possibilities of film language. But these theoretical issues are intriguing for scholars, not for film viewers.

“Flirt” the movie began with a 1993 short (23 minutes) also titled “Flirt,” in which a spoiled but good-natured man named Bill is given an ultimatum by his girlfriend Emily: Commitment or termination of their relationship. Bill promises an answer in a few hours, during which he hysterically examines his romantic options. For his bad faith, Bill is accidentally shot in the face and loses his girl.

Set in September 1994, the second segment transposes the same dilemma to a gay locale in Berlin, where precocious young American Dwight lives with Johan, an older German art dealer. Johan is flying to New York on business for 3 months and before leaving he demands to know whether their relationship has a future. Dwight begs for a couple of hours, during which he investigates another man as an alternative to Johan. Dwight gets shot in the face by the other man’s wife and is left penniless and adrift in Berlin.

In the third, Tokyo-based episode, which is set in March 1995, Hartley lets context dictate story. Through no fault of her own, Miho, a butoh dance student is perceived as flirtatious. Drafted as an accomplice to a deteriorating marriage between her instructor and his wife, Miho finds herself wanted by the police, jailed with philosophic lowlifes and shot before reuniting with her boyfriend, who is on his way to Los Angels for 3 months.

This slight and not particularly provocative meditation starts out in familiar territory, then moves to a romantic closure, with frivolous autobiographical elements thrown into the mix about Hal Hartley, who plays himself, a filmmaker. For some critics, Hartley’s offbeat oppositions and odd character detailing produced cool delight, while others dismissed it as too academically dry.

Visually, “Flirt” is more interesting than thematically. A precise sense of time place is evoked by Michael Spiller’s sharp photography: the New York act is shot in tight close-ups, the German in medium range, and the Japanese in remote style.