Eye For Film >> Movies >> The Girl From Monday (2004) Film Review
The Girl From Monday
Reviewed by: Themroc
With the six films he made during the 1990s, Hal Hartley staked himself a claim as perhaps the most genuinely original auteur in American cinema. His fascinating comedies about alienated men and women searching for love, redemption and identity in a strange and amoral America were instantly identifiable by their surreal humour, sly irony and wilfully eccentric approach to performance – a post-modern appropriation of the mannered speech patterns of hardboiled American film noir from the 1940s. So idiosyncratic was his body of work and so completely did he master his own distinctive idiom that it could be argued he managed to create his very own sub-genre of American character drama.
Yet since the release of Henry Fool in 1998, Hartley’s career seems to have run aground. Henry Fool was not just his most accomplished, moving and coherent film to date - in a sense it was the film that all his other films had been working towards. The nagging questions I was left with were: Where does he go now if he’s to avoid simply treading water? Now that what was once fresh and exhilarating is becoming increasingly familiar (and even formulaic within its own bounds), where will his artistic curiosity take him? The rather disappointing answer seems to have been into abortive experimentation in genre film-making.
Hartley has only made two subsequent feature films, both of which have attempted to shoehorn his quirks into a generic framework. 2001’s monster movie No Such Thing was greeted with a combination of derision and bafflement at Cannes before sinking almost without trace. His latest film, The Girl From Monday, which disingenuously announces itself as “A Science Fiction” will, I fear, meet a similar fate. Set in an indeterminate but clearly recognisable near future, Hartley’s latest offering is in fact a simple-minded and dismayingly dull political satire.
The new city-state of NYC, we learn, has been “liberated” by the Major Multimedia Monopoly (MMM). Citizens now live under a regime known as “The Dictatorship of the Consumer” in which everything is commodified and made to bend to the demands of the market. Individuals’ worth is now measured on the stock exchange, everyone wears a barcode tattoo which they use for all transactions, and sexual intercourse is used to quantify their market value and hence their worth to society.
Hartley regular Bill Sage plays Jack Bell, an executive at the advertising agency whose public relations campaign helped propel MMM to power. Appalled by the results of his personal brainchild The Human Value Reform Act, Bell has begun moonlighting as the head of a disorganised and apparently ineffectual counter-revolutionary insurgency. Into this world or self-interest and endemic corruption drops the eponymous Girl from Star 147X on the edge of the Monday constellation, a planet where everyone exists in a state of groovy existential bliss as one benign consciousness. Bell finds her wandering naked out of the sea in an assumed human form (fortunately for her the assumed body is that of a Brazilian model) and takes her under his wing.
Toothless as a satire or a piece of polemic, Hartley seems torn between wanting the film’s message about the soullessness of the modern age to be taken seriously and an almost coy embarrassment that he should presume to lecture anyone. The upshot is that the film takes aim at vast, inviting and worthy targets, and then misses them entirely.
Much of the complex exposition is perfunctorily handled in a confusing slab of introductory narration so dense with information that it’s difficult to take on board in detail. However, the details are less important than the basic conspiracy theory which goes something like this: So taken in is the public by the received wisdom of free-market hegemony, that self-perpetuating elites can cynically market a nightmare as a paradise with barely a whimper of protest. The powerless masses have allowed themselves to be persuaded that they are still in control of our own desires and destinies when in fact capitalism has them by the throat. The shared drive for efficiency, productivity and profit of which we are all an acquiescent part makes us all responsible for the unintended consequences: a society in which we’ve forgotten how to love, care and empathise. In short, we live in a social and economic hell of our own making.
One would have thought that if these over-familiar arguments were worth re-stating it would be only be worth doing with either passion or thoughtful revisionism. Hartley opts for neither. His style has always been curiously dispassionate and, to be fair, he initially gets his points across with enough wit and dry irony to compensate. During the first half, despite pulling its punches, the film chunters along entertainingly enough for its own sake even though it never really threatens to go anywhere particularly interesting. However, having hit all his socio-political targets twice over within the first thirty or forty minutes, all it has left to offer us is depressingly banal story that uneasily mixes hard-nosed cynicism with the kind of insipid whimsy that typifies the worst impulses of American independent cinema.
Like a magician who has used up all his best tricks with half the show still to perform, Hartley is forced to fall back on shallow gimmickry in order to fill out his running time. Unusually for a Hartley film, The Girl From Monday is shot in a highly stylised manner using digital video and employing a battery of slow shutter speeds, freeze frames and passages pointlessly shot in black and white. I presume that this was designed less as a conscious attempt to paper over the film’s dramatic cracks than to give New York’s contemporary locations a strange and otherworldly appearance that the art direction budget couldn’t afford. Or perhaps it was intended to ironically highlight the artifice of style in a film about the malign effects of technological advancement. Whatever the rationalisation, the decision seemed to me to be completely misguided. Not only did the extra layer of stylisation further frustrate my sense of identification and involvement, but it felt completely incongruous with Hartley’s unique dramatic style. The blank, dead-pan stare of the camera was as much what made the dry comedy of his previous films so witty and acerbic as the performances and the dialogue. His prodigious talent lay in constructing a cinematic idiom in which style so perfectly complimented content that even the most outlandish plot development or surreal aside seemed completely rational. The in-camera and post-production trickery used here feels as if it has been unwisely imported from another creative universe. It’s almost as if a Hal Hartley script has been shot and edited by another director with no understanding of the writer’s sense of humour. That the entire film is unfolds in this manner quickly becomes wearisome and, combined with the film’s rather flat tone, one note performances and lack of either real emotion or momentum, strangely soporific. As if to underline the point, two of the critics sitting near me at the press screening slept through more than half of it.Reviewed on: 06 Nov 2005