No Such Thing

Hal Hartley’s No Such Thing got almost no favorable notice when it came out in 2001. But I found it deep and compelling, one of Hartley’s best films. It’s sort of his version of Beauty and the Beast, or maybe Songs of Innocence and Experience

The two main characters are schematic, or allegorical, figures. Beauty, or Innocence, is Beatrice, played exquisitely by the admirable Sarah Polley. The Beast, or Experience, is called the Monster–he has no other name–and is played by Hartley regular Robert John Burke, decked out in prosthetic makeup that falls just this side of tacky. (He has horns, a hairy face and hairy hands, and breathes fire). Beatrice and the Monster are really exaggerated versions of the female/male pairs who have appeared in many of Hartley’s earlier films–like Adrienne Shelly and Burke in The Unbelievable Truth, or Shelly and Martin Donovan in Trust. Like Shelly, Polley’s Beatrice at first appears utterly naive, but turns out to have an inner strength, and even a kind of hardness, that doesn’t contradict–and isn’t compromised by–her honest innocence. Burke’s monster is a disaffected loner, like so many of Hartley’s male protagonists. And the movie is ultimately a love story, in which the contact between the monster and the ingenue humanizes him, while drawing her out of herself and allowing her to reach her deeper potential.

Hartley disdains American film’s dominant mode of naturalism; he’s always been rather Godardian instead, filling his movies with offbeat allusions (albeit not anywhere as high-cultural as Godard’s), framing characters’ speeches as it were in quotation marks, calling explicit attention to the soundtrack music (most of it written by Hartley himself), and presenting the viewer with stylized visual tableaus that have to be contemplated on their own, for their own emotional effects, rather than just serving the characters and the story. In No Such Thing, this stylization is carried further than ever before–which is probably what most people didn’t like about the film, but which is what really made it work for me. The actors don’t move as much as they are congealed into poses, which are in turn contemplated from different camera angles, against a variety of different backgrounds: cramped interiors (hospitals, barracks, business offices), sublime exteriors (the bleak Icelandic landscape and seacoast), and finally the busy streets of Manhattan. What interests Hartley is not any sort of superficial narrative plausability, but a sort of poetry of emotional tones that shift as the characters’ experiences and adventures do.

So we have a Monster who is disgusted with life and with humanity, and only wishes to die. The trouble is that he can’t; he’s effectively immortal. He drinks a lot in order to numb the pain and the frustration, but it doesn’t really help very much. He kills people in order to release the tension, but this doesn’t help very much either. The Monster is really at a loss, and his only hope is to find his former neighbor, the mad scientist Dr. Artaud (Baltasar Kormakur), the one person who knows how to put an end to the Monster’s otherwise interminable existence.

Beatrice, for her part, is almost as magical as the Monster. She’s the sole survivor of a plane crash at sea. When rescued, she’s a quadraplegic, but a bizarre and miraculous operation restores her to mobility and health. She is radically transformed in the process, though it is difficult to put one’s finger on precisely how. In all visible respects, she’s the same person as before, only she has a mysterious aura, an inner, invisible glow. Maybe it’s because of this aura that the Monster becomes fascinated with her, finds himself incapable of killing her, and ultimately accepts her offer: that if he promises not to kill anybody else, she will help him find Dr. Artaud.

Well, just like in a fairy tale, the quest is finally accomplished, but not quite in the way you would expect. Beatrice and the Monster are forced to evade the CIA and run the gauntlet of humiliation at the hands of the sensationalistic press, among other things, before the Monster can avail himself of Dr. Artaud’s apparatus, which turns out to be the same one that was used in Beatrice’s rehabilitation. Artaud also explains that the Monster is immortal because he is the product of human imagination. And the movie ends with the question mark of the operation itself: we are not shown what will result from it, what the Monster will become if he is indeed shorn of his immortality.

All in all, No Such Thing is a film about strange metamorphoses, unknowable in advance, and the ways we seek to control them, but also find ourselves compelled to give ourselves