Henry Fool - Tepid

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?