This may be a minority opinion, but I love Hal Hartley's Flirt. It has a speed, lightness and invention that I have sometimes found missing from this filmmaker's more leaden, schematic efforts (such as Simple Men, 1992).
The freshness of Flirt derives in part from Hartley's choice of a novel structure: the (roughly) same story told three ways, in three different capital cities, with three very diverse sets of actors.
The first version, set in New York, is Hartley's self-pastiche – all his previous films ground into a vivid twenty-minute anecdote. Beautiful, cool men and women stand around stiffly or laze about languidly, exchanging aphoristic one-liners about love, desire and commitment. Suddenly the story resolves itself in an act of violence and its aftermath – but, as always in Hartley's movies, such amateur dramatics have a flip, inconsequential air.
Having put his own cinema in quotation marks, Hartley proceeds to the core of his laboratory experiment. Playing out in Berlin, the previously heterosexual tale is given a gay twist. The black hero (played beautifully by Dwight Ewell) is more vivacious than any Hartley regular of old. The story now has a different rhythm, texture and tone – and it is increasingly interrupted by odd interludes and auto-reflections.
Some commentators have mistaken Flirt for a highly theoretical, conceptual film – and then dismissed it for not being intellectual enough. But Hartley is not proposing some dour lesson on narrative construction or the representation of gender difference. This is a playful, whimsical film, and its manner is akin to a suite of free variations on a musical theme.
By the time we reach the third episode in Tokyo – for me, the finest work of Hartley's career – this air of freedom is intoxicating. Situations previously dramatised in full are now condensed into single gestures or gazes; familiar lines of dialogue are torn from their original context and mixed up with abandon.
Anyone lucky enough to have seen Jean-Luc Godard's recent films (such as Hèlas Pour Moi, 1993) will recognise Hartley's deep debt to the Master's nutty, fleeting, gorgeous style. The underrated Amateur (1994) announced this shift in Hartley's career from all-American grunge to a more Baroque, European sensibility.
To some this is sad proof of Hartley's growing pretentiousness – a usually meaningless term of abuse hurled by clueless critics threatened by anything new, different or challenging. For me, the more ambitious and daring Hartley's films become, the better they get. Flirt is an invigorating, racy, sprightly experiment from a talented director only now hitting his stride.
© Adrian Martin September 1996