Despite the relatively low rating I've given it, there's much to like
in Henry Fool especially if you are a Hal Hartley fan. There's plenty
of cool detachment and clever dialogue. There's food for thought on
topics like witing, critics and the internet, fashion, censorship,
intellectualism, politics, mass culture and mass thought, the new
fascism, violence and the family. There's also a fascinating new
character - Henry Fool, a vagabond philosopher who's clearly meant to
function along the lines of the Shakespearean Fool - the person who
says and does things others can't or won't. Henry often talks in long
speeches - something of a departure from the Hartley norm. Hartley's
films are usually populated by rather more tactiturn characters.
However, there's still the usual signature flat lighting, and minimum
use of location shooting. Most of the action takes place in a house,
and cafe and a warehouse. But this film marks a definite departure for
Hartley. There seems to be more reality here. The film is less
detached, the characters more human than before. These are people who
sometimes do very bad things, damaging things, things that hurt. And
they can be hurt themselves.
The actors are all excellent, particularly Thomas Michael Ryan as Henry
Fool. He plays a character who might be a genius and might be a maniac,
and has certainly transgressed one of the great taboos. Yet by the end
you are still not sure about him. Ryan plays him as if he's a
schizophrenic in his lucid moments, or a manic depressive in a creative
phase, and in the end it is a very moving portrayal of a selfish man
whose great genius is as a muse for others. Parker Posey also puts in
yet another solid and edgy performance as Faye. When Faye lashes out at
her brother - she tips boiling water on him - the scream of pain she
emits is the more blood-curdling of the two.
The first half moves along pretty fast, with the occasional scene of
sex or violence to punctuate the clever lines the actors say. But about
2/3rds into the film it begins to sag, the pace slows to a crawl and
you begin to feel that Hartley is groping for a way to finish the film.
He does manage to finish it, quite eloquently, and with a terrific
image. But it goes on about 30 minutes too long. I thought back to some
of Hartley's earlier, much shorter films, and wished he'd employed that
sort of economy here. That's really the reason for my mediocre rating.
Still, there's much to admire in the film. The music, composed by
Hartley himself, is subtle, but very effective indeed. There are also
some very funny moments, including one which takes place rather
graphically on a toilet! But of course in a Hartley film, the most
important thing is always the ideas. And unusually for a film, the
written word is critical throughout. Hartley shows us beautiful old
books being rescued from the garbage truck, and lovingly lingers on
their rumpled pages. The internet is good, he seems to be telling us,
but the book is better. My favourite scene involved the comingling of
two scenarios, both of which which show the power of words. In one part
of the house, sex takes place; in another room there's a tragedy. Both
are caused by the written word. Could Hartley be telling us to go home
and read a book?