Of all the American indie directors who flourished during the 1980s – Jim Jarmusch, Wayne Wang, Whit Stillman – Hal Hartley is the only one not to have quite made it to the premiere league in terms of either breaking into the mainstream completely (Wang) or attracting A-list stars to appear at B-list prices (Jarmusch). Hartley has continued to work with a revolving ensemble of actors, and if the elliptical, overtly theatrical tone of his relationship comedies has kept audiences at bay, the best of his work remains as funny and wise as any of his peers.
Such is the case with Surviving Desire, a perfectly formed 60-minute film detailing the relationship between misanthropic college professor Jude (Martin Donovan, Hartley’s favourite leading man) and Sofie (Mary B. Ward), a beautiful student in one of his English literature classes. Sofie is the only member of his class not to be driven mad by Jude’s insistence on spending hour after hour on a single passage from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; she finds Jude somehow ‘tragic’ and is inspired to write stories about him. And yet, as their friendship becomes something more, she refuses to publicly acknowledge it, believing that others will interpret it as an attempt on her part to boost her grades.
Nothing outward is remotely realistic in Surviving Desire; the characters wear their hearts on their melodramatic sleeves (“If you never see me again will you be sad?” Sofie asks Jude, “Will you be tortured by the memory of having been with me? Will you become obsessed? Will you be maudlin? And anti-social? Will you get into fights?”), Donovan performs a wonderful silent dance routine in the street with two passers-by after receiving his first kiss from Sofie, while Jude’s best friend Henry (Matt Malloy) ends up engaged to an attractive homeless woman (Merritt Nelson) after a particularly drunken night out. And yet there is something quite moving about Jude’s determination to overcome the obstacles thrown his way in his pursuit of Sofie. She is far more attracted to the concept of a relationship and how it will shape her as a person than the relationship itself, while the sudden discovery of love in his life finally gives Jude something to actually care about.
The literary theme is carried throughout, Jude coming to the realisation he is in love by breaking down the constituent parts of his feelings like he would a novel in his class. He spends much of the day when not teaching reading in the bookshop Sofie works in, but the fact that none of the solutions he seeks can be found inside a book is what causes a suppressed rage to finally bubble to the surface.
If this all sounds heavy going, it’s really not, because although the themes are serious, it is also one of Hartley’s warmest and funniest films, especially when compared to latter efforts like the overtly-arch Amateur and Henry Fool. The performances are pitched perfectly, it’s crisply shot in primary colours by Hartley’s regular DP Michael Spiller, and Hartley himself provides a shimmering guitar/synth score. Best line: “Listen pal, you can’t waltz in here, use my toaster, and start spouting universal truths without qualification!”
Intelligent American writer and director who deals with with themes of love and the family in a humourous, distinctively talky style. His best films are his first three - The Unbelievable Truth, Trust and Simple Men - all of which combine a sharp wit with melancholy edge to produce affecting portraits of small town American life. Since then, Hartley's best work has been in short films like Surviving Desire, NYC 3/94 and The Book of Life, but Amateur, Flirt and Henry Fool are still intriguing, with only 2001's bizarre No Such Thing an out-and-out failure. Regularly uses the same actors, including Martin Donovan, Robert Burke, Elina Löwensohn and Adrienne Shelly.