There's a man lying in the street, and it appears as if he's dead. A young woman in black takes a look at him, then hurries away, but he's not dead at all and gradually awakes in a daze then rises to his feet. Meanwhile, Isabelle (Isabelle Huppert) is writing what she hopes will be an easy sale: a pornographic novel. However, because she's speaking her words out loud as she types them, and as she's sitting in a cafe as she does so, she is bothering the other customers and is asked to leave by the waitress. Apart from anything else she has been sitting there all day and only ordered two or three cups of coffee. However, this argument is forgotten about when the dazed man (Martin Donovan) wanders into the cafe and scatters Dutch coins over the counter. Isabelle is immediately intrigued....
As well she might be, but will she stay interested when she finds out what he does and exactly who he is? Amateur was a change of direction for writer and director Hal Hartley as his previous films had featured his characters talking at great length, while here, although they did chatter away in the deadpan Hartley style, there was a proper plot to move things along. Not that as a thriller the film was especially exciting, even with the addition of amnesia, guns and hitmen to the mix, because it was all better when the characters simply partook in those conversations. Although there were long silences and pauses between lines, those guys certainly did like to discuss with each other.
We find out who Donovan's mystery man is pretty quickly even if he doesn't, thanks to the scenes with the woman in black, Sofia (Elina Löwensohn). There are two narratives running parallel for the first half of the film until they converge, and Sofia reveals in hers that she is a pornographic actress who was married to the mystery man, who is called Thomas. And although he doesn't know it, and Isabelle doesn't know it, he's not a very nice fellow, which is why Sofia pushed him out of that window and why he has lost his memory. Sofia, thinking he's dead contacts the shadowy Jacques in Amsterdam to work out a deal where she will hand over a MacGuffin (in this case floppy discs - yes, they're square and not floppy) in return for "a million dollars".
However, Jacques sends hitmen to retrieve the discs instead with the orders to kill Sofia, and her partner in crime Edward (Damian Young) who is captured and electrically tortured, leaving him silent but maniacal. How funny this is is debatable, as is how thrilling it is as well, but Hartley's method can be summed up by Isabelle's character who finds she's too poetic to write pornography. Perhaps Hartley is too poetic to really be a success at suspense, but that's part of the charm, and Isabelle is expertly brought to life by the blank-faced Huppert, an ex-nun who claims to be a nymphomaniac but is still a virgin because she's "choosy". This plotting and scheming doesn't really answer the question it poses, that is, can someone reform despite their past and can they be forgiven for their misdeeds, whether they recall them or not? Mainly due to an abrupt ending that eliminates the need to ask. Music by Hartley and Jeffrey Taylor.
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.