No Such Thing

Instead of arresting a downward-spiralling career, No Such Thing, Hal Hartley's new movie and latest folly, demonstrates what happens to an iconoclastic filmmaker when he neglects his instinctive talent for small, quirky, offbeat films and decides to go uproariously big. Indeed, a name cast that includes Julie Christie, Helen Mirren, and Sarah Polley, and a larger budget that allows for landscape shooting and special effects, prove of no help in this laborious postmodern reworking of such classic fairy tales as Beauty of the Beast, Frankenstein, King Kong, and the Monster films a la Godzilla and Mothra, among others.

Stateside, UA faces an arduous uphill battle in marketing a disjointed and only sporadically involving film, burdened by an obvious humanistic-existential message about the powers of good and evil and the rational versus the irrational in our daily lives. World premiere in Cannes has already generated a negative word of mouth, which will not assist distribution in foreign territories.

It's hard to believe that a decade ago Hartley stood at the forefront of the new American cinema, with such original gems as Trust, The Unbelievable Truth, and Simple Men. Then came the silly amnesia adventure, Amateur, with Isabelle Hupert as a nun, that was slightly commercial, and the academic exercise Flirt that no one saw. The Cannes' competition entry, Henry Fool, was a semi-return to form that raised hopes for a brighter Hartley future, but, alas, No Such Thing indicates a downhill slide, with the filmmaker taking the great fantasy and outdoors route–and falling flat on his face.

Inspiration for new film reportedly came from estimable Icelandic director, Fridrik Thor Fridriksson (the Oscar-nominated Children of Nature), here serving as a producer, who proposed to make a series of Monster pictures to be shot in Iceland's remote and exotic coasts.

In a particularly offputting opening monologue, the Monster (Burke), addresses the audience directly, introducing himself as a hard-drinking, foul-mouthed and bad-tempered man/creature who doesn't remember exactly how or when he came into the world. He claims that the ceaseless noise of humanity and the ever-increasing barrage of media signals fill his head as though he were a satellite dish, causing the kind of unbearable agony that only booze and slaughter can relieve. For his part, he's doomed to live in misery forever–nothing can kill him.

Cut to New York City, where senseless crime, terrorism and violence are rampant. In the offices of a sleazy TV news show, a monstrously tough woman named Boss (a blonde, glasses-wearing Mirren) constantly rails at her staff to find–or make up–sensationalist news. For her, bad news is good news: the greater the human disaster, the higher the ratings. Boss is particularly ruthless toward Beatrice (Polley), a young, sensible girl who works in a low-level position.
When Beatrice's boyfriend and his crew go missing while on assignment to find the fabled Monster for a news story, she proposes to go and look for them. Once in Iceland, Beatrice is exposed to mysterious humans who populate the frigid, mountainous northernmost edge of the world. Rather fearlessly, she confronts the Monster, who confesses to have murdered the crew and countless others.

The essence of the tale is a semi-new rendition of Beauty and the Beast, with Beatrice and the Monster forging a tentative and cautions friendship that gradually evolves and deepens, but lacks the explicit erotic charge seen in King Kong and other movies. A clue provided by the Monster that the only person able to end his constant torment is Dr. Artaud (Baltasar Kormakur), a modern-day mad scientist, propels the derivative, ever-changing plot to incorporate motifs from the Frankenstein genre.

The literal (and commercially unappealing) title sums up the film's presumably philosophical thesis that there's no such thing as monsters in today's world. But then the picture goes at great length to suggest that, in order to survive, humans actually need the mythology of absolute evil and monsters, and if they don't exist, they need to be created.

Despite exterior landscape shooting (a first for Hartley) and the facade of an effects-driven Monster saga, critics interested in subtext will be able to detect thematic continuities between No Such Thing and the director's earlier efforts. In most Hartley films, the male characters suffer from typically male anxieties, modern monsters who're insensitive and incapable of communicating with women, whereas the femmes are often stronger and more sensible. That Robert John Burke has played these men (The Unbelievable Truth, Simple Men) and is now cast as the Monster, and the physical resemblance between Sarah Polley and Adrienne Shelley (who appeared in Hartley's features), encourages even more such reading.

Polley is such a formidable actress that she can overcome the trepidations of a bulky and pretentious script–truly a mishmash–and still come up with a reasonably coherent and sensitive performance. The gracious and elegant Christie is utterly wasted as Dr. Anna, a role that's conceived as a symbolic presence: Anna is an angelic and protective guardian-witch, standing for all the good qualities in life. In a part that comes across as a parody of Faye Dunaway in Network, the usually reliable Mirren seems uncomfortable (to say the least) as the sensation-hungry TV producer, rendering one of her least credible performances.