Hal Hartley, once a darling of independent film, has fallen from critical and popular favor as his films have become weirder and more abstract. Not many people besides me liked his 2001 film No Such Thing; and his most recent feature, The Girl From Monday (premiered at Sundance last winter, and currently distributed on DVD by Netflix — see the trailer here), seems to be even less popular. But it’s a strong film, haunting and at the same time deliberately frustrating and insubstantial.
The Girl From Monday was evidently made on an extremely low budget, and shot on digital video. In this respect, it somewhat resembles Hartley’s pre-millennium short The Book of Life, with which it shares many stylistic traits, notably the exploitation of the video for stop action, strange light diffusion, motion blur, and so on. The Girl From Monday adds to this mix desaturation (so that scenes shot in color look washed out, almost black and white) and lots of jump cuts and unexpected close-ups. The result is a film that is gorgeous in its relentlessly kinetic and fractured cinematography, although (or precisely because) its spare look is diametrically opposed to the photographic lushness that is commonly described as “gorgeous.”
In terms of genre, The Girl From Monday is a science fiction story, focusing on commodities and commodification (which is a sub-genre I’ve been especially paying attention to recently). But it’s also, this being Hal Hartley, a Godardian, highly self-conscious auteurist film. It doesn’t exactly have a straightforward plot, and it works more by digression and intense focusing on (seemingly irrelevant) details, than on conventional narrative momentum.
In any case, the movie takes place in a slightly-future New York (the look is entirely contemporary, and not at all “futuristic” — the only special effects are those of Hartley’s video cinematography) in which a “revolution” has given supreme power to an advertising agency. Everything is based on commodity acquisition; instead of the dictatorship of the proletariat, we have “the Dictatorship of the Consumer.” People receive exactly what they desire (assuming they can afford it); their desires are incited by advertising campaigns, which in turn are directed by focus-group surveys, whose choices are in turn circumscribed by corporate sales agendas… It’s a solipsistic closed loop, so that everyone is by definition maximally satisfied, while at the same time people’s ability to act is extremely circumscribed. High-tech police stand on alert on every street corner, and everyone has a bar code permanently tattooed on their wrist.
Everything in the world of The Girl From Monday is sexualized, and sexuality itself is entirely commodified. As the description of the film on Hartley’s website puts it, “Citizens are now public offerings on the stock exchange; each time they have sex and remain unattached their value increases depending on the current state of the market.” In contrast, any sexual act unaccompanied by market valuation (like fucking either for love, or simply for pleasure and enjoyment) is considered (at best) a shameful perversion (sort of like how masturbation was regarded in the 19th century).
Of course, there is an underground rebellion against this state of affairs, and Hartley’s male protagonist, Jack Bell (played by Bill Sage, who in both looks and affect is quite similar to Martin Donovan, the male lead in a number of Hartley’s earlier movies) is both an advertising executive responsible for the commodification of sex, and the secret leader of the underground. Jack is involved in typically Hartleyesque romantic situations (missed encounters, confused signals, discontents that fail ever to be articulated clearly) with two women, his co-worker Cecile (Sabrina Lloyd) who eventually joins the underground and gets sent to prison, and the Girl From Monday (Tatiana Abracos), an alien (from, we are told, “Star 147X in the constellation Monday”) who emerges naked from the sea in front of Jack’s eyes (despite the fact that he has seemingly committed suicide several scenes earlier).
Confused? The plot and background, as I am trying to recount them here, are in fact not a big part of the movie: they are presupposed by it more than they are narrated by it; they come out mostly as throwaways in Jack’s voiceover narration. Bear with me; as I’ll try to explain, it’s all pretext. What does matter is the aliens — or “immigrants,” as they are called in official euphemism — and apparently there are many of them; all acts of the underground are attributed to them, and by the end of the film we even discover that Jack himself is one, though he has apparently forgotten it. The aliens come from a planet where they don’t have individual identities, being all parts of one another; which means, also, that they don’t have bodies — they only incarnate themselves when they come to Earth. Some of the most beautiful scenes in the movie involve the nameless Girl From Monday learning how to use and to understand her body: how to eat and drink and piss and shit, how to have sex, even what it means to cry. From the official point of view, only such an alien — devoid of the endless commodity cravings of consumer capitalism — could possibly be opposed to the atomistic self-empowerment that is the watchword of the Dictatorship of the Consumer.
So on one hand, we have citizens obsessed with their own bodies and body-images, consumed by insatiable desires whose only expression comes in the form of commodities, and whose main activity is at once conspicuous consumption and relentless self-valorization — so that the consumer is identical with the capitalist, or better with Capital itself. On the other, we have aliens who are beautiful precisely because they seem so self-sufficient, which is because they do not know desire or need, which is in turn because they do not know separation (except in the shock of reification that occurs when they fall to Earth) which in its turn is because they don’t have bodies (though, interestingly, there is no suggestion of anything spiritual or mental or dualistic in this bodylessness; without a body simply seems to mean without lack, without deficiency or desire, which makes the definition of the alien into another closed circle).
What this all means is that the film is structured around a sort of Gnosticism — albeit (this being Hartley) a particularly wry and unapocalyptic one. We have fallen, not into materiality (the classical Gnostic lament), nor even into instrumental reason (the modernist paradigm) than into commodification itself (which makes for a postmodern Gnosticism). The only salvation would seem to come from a sort of slipping away, dissolving away, back into the non-personhood of the aliens. We are told that an alien can return home by re-immersing him/herself into the ocean from which he/she initially emerged; but also, that once you have become too caught up in the body, and in the desires of this world (of consumer capitalism), such a return becomes impossible. Jack says he is unable ever to return — the waves reject him (this is perhaps why his suicide early in the film leaves him untouched?), and at the end of the film, when the Girl From Monday does go back under the waves, Jack’s narration states that he will never know whether she made it back home, or just drowned. In any case, active resistance seems futile — it turns out that rebellion, sabotage, and the like, just as much as conformity and enthusiastic shopping, is good for business and serves only to increase sales.
Consumerism requires discontent; thereby, it also inevitably breeds a discontent with this very discontent. But no such “negation of the negation” will get us out of the consumerist trap. For such a move only breeds still more commodified desire. If you fail to be a properly self-valorizing subject, your punishment is to be commodified instead as an object (selling your labor as a commodity). Offenses against the spirit of the marketplace are punished by “hard labor” teaching high school; repeated offenses get you sent to the moon to do low-level service-sector work in a DisneyWorld-like theme park.
The one thing that “redeems” this unredeemable situation is the formal (visual and sonic) structure of the film. (Though “structure” is probably not quite the right word, for something so willfully fragmentary and impalpable). It’s not just the jump cuts and washed-out colors and self-referential-reminding-us-that-this-is-just-a-video-moments that do this — although these features do, as Adorno might put it, rupture any sense of formal closure, destroy the possibility of any “false totalization.” It’s also the way that Hartley’s camerawork and editing remain anchored in a sort of everydayness. Though we hear a lot about ultra-commodification, what we see on the screen is not Starbucks, but 89-cent cups of rotgut coffee from the local streetcorner bodega; and not interiors expensively set out with lavish but suitably minimal yuppie furniture, but ratty couches, fire escapes, and bookcases filled with random volumes. (One of the negative reviews I found complains, not just that the camerawork seems “cheap” and “grating” — which to my mind is precisely what is right about it — but also that “Hartley shot the movie in haphazard locations, nodding to the future with just a few elements of costume and prop design. So, for instance, the hero’s office features a copy of “The Beatles Anthology” on a shelf. Huh?” — which again, to my mind, is precisely the point).
There’s a beauty in this casual rundownness, just as there’s a beauty in Hartley’s characteristically precise blocking of speech, gestures, and movement, so that every statement seems to be said with a well of ironic reserve, if not actually put into “quotation marks”; and the actors’ gestures and movements are (not robotic, but) too clipped and carefully articulated to be expressive (they cannot be imagined as expressions of deeper inner mental states, but instead reinforce the principle of what-you-see-is-what-you-get, or “nothing is hidden”). This sort of beautiful reserve and distance in both the actors and the decors — and also in the perpetual incompletion of what the movie shows us, as editing and camera movement are similarly clipped and curt, never lingering in the “right” places (which is one reason why there is so much voiceover narration, since we need to be told what Hartley declines to show directly) — all this restraint and distance, which yet stubbornly remains within the ordinary (however extraordinary the science fiction premises of the whole film), serves, in its understated beauty, as the counter-instance both to the meretricious yuppie- and Donald Trump- beauty of the Dictatorship of the Consumer, and to the absolutely unrepresentable, sublime otherness of Star 147X. What the film actually shows us (and I ought to include in this, if I could write better about it, Hartley’s techno-y soundtrack) is what escapes the otherwise ubiquitous pressure and solipsistic closure of what it tells us, or narrates. Which means, I suppose, that The Girl From Monday succeeds precisely to the extent that it makes itself unmarketable — which in itself might be thought of as a classic high-modernist strategy; and also that (unlike a high modernist work) it seems to slip through one’s fingers, so that I cannot hold on to it, cannot find it memorable (since that would re-commodify it); so that — for all of Hal Hartley’s tics and idiosyncrasies — it seems almost anonymous.