A Matter of Beauty: Hal Hartleys No Such Thing
Hal Hartley’s enigmatic No Such Thing begins where Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein ended—with a seemingly immortal monster seeking death in the arctic. Hartley’s exploration of the highly generic monster and fairy tale traditions, as well as the visual possibilities of landscape, marks a major and welcome departure from his previous New York films. The chances he takes within this supernatural genre, combining the familiar outlines of the Beauty and the Beast fairy tale with his signature philosophical meditations, stylized dialogue, and offbeat humor, make for a wonderfully irreverent love story that is also visually and intellectually compelling. The film features Helen Mirren and Julie Christie in addition to a cast of Hartley regulars, and Francis Ford Coppola is its executive producer. This is Hartley’s most commercial film to date (though it has attracted almost universally unfavorable reviews), and simultaneously marks a significant turning point from the smaller canvases of his previous films.
Set in Iceland and New York, No Such Thing moves between the worlds of supernatural monsters and monstrous materialism as it retells Beauty and the Beast with characteristically Hartleyan humor. In Iceland, a world-weary Monster (Robert John Burke) has killed a New York TV crew sent to investigate him, and invites retribution in order to end his eternal suffering. Looking like a battered devil from a seventeenth-century woodcut, Burke’s Monster maintains a good balance between fallen grandeur and insolent humor, both in his physical gestures and sarcastic delivery. Back in New York, the ruthless Boss of the TV network, played with cutthroat zeal by Helen Mirren, dispatches the cameraman’s ingénue fiancée, Beatrice (Sarah Polley), to investigate. En route to Iceland, Beatrice’s plane crashes and she alone survives, continuing her quest for her fiancé’s murderer after an Icelandic doctor (Julie Christie) restores her shattered body in a series of painful operations. Hartley unfolds Beatrice’s quest with care, and gives close attention to the sublime landscape of the arctic and its contrast to an almost apocalyptic vision of spiraling violence in New York. The heart of the film lies in the lively exchanges between Beatrice and the Monster, whom she befriends and brings back to New York in order to help him find an end to his life of suffering. As in King Kong, the clash of these two worlds has tragic consequences, but Hartley offers genuinely original insights as he engages with this rich tradition.
Hartley’s inspired choice of Iceland as his main setting allows us to visualize the sublime experiences he is consistently after—faith, love, beauty, goodness—and even the wardrobe, almost exclusively in electric blues and grays, seems to reflect the ethereal beauty of the Icelandic landscape. The film’s original score, composed by Hartley himself as in most of his films, complements the visual atmospherics subtly, an increasingly rare feature when too many directors rely on source music to do much of a film’s emotional work. The Icelandic setting both embodies the mythic scope that Hartley is after, and connects nicely to his social critique of American materialism and imperialism. The Monster lives not in a ruined Gothic castle, but in the modern equivalent according to Hartley’s spot-on critique of contemporary “evil”—an abandoned American missile silo. Icelandic film has often explored the scars left behind by the American military and cultural presence in Iceland (Fridiriksson’s Devil’s Island (1997) being a prime example), and Hartley joins this political critique to the monster genre by telling us that the Monster began his latest reign of (half-hearted) terror after the Americans built their missile silo on his remote island, an affectionate nod to Godzilla in its antinuclear message.
Landmark films in the Gothic, monster, and fairy tale traditions serve as important visual and thematic touchstones throughout the film, and Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein plays a particularly important role, even when compared to more obvious points of departure like Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. Whale’s iconic creation scene of the female Monster features prominently in the scene where Beatrice is re-created through a modern medical miracle. Here Hartley offers an original take on the connection between the monstrous and the miraculous. Upon Beatrice’s return to New York with the Monster, she is transformed from the stereotypical fairy tale princess we saw at the film’s start—all braids, velvet cot, and pinafore—to a unique hybrid heroine, her bondage dress and makeup alluding not merely to her newly acquired sexual knowledge, but to the monstrous Bride of Frankenstein.
Hartley handles archetypal themes such as innocence/experience with his usual imaginative playfulness. We are familiar with sympathetic monsters, and Burke’s wise-cracking, jaded Beast is exemplary in this regard, stealing the show (and the funniest lines) whenever he is on screen. But Hartley’s Beatrice defies categorization as an innocent beauty through her visual associations with the monstrous Bride of Frankenstein, becoming a counterpart of the Monster himself as he loses some of his fearsome edge. Hartley is known for his enigmatic female characters, who are fiercely intelligent and move far beyond the innocence/experience dichotomy according to which femininity is typically classified. Hartley’s signature shots of his heroines, lit as with a halo, evoke iconic images of the Virgin Mary in modern, secular frames of reference (e.g., the overtly religious context of Amateur (1994) allowing for direct visual comment on this connection, often by shooting Isabelle Huppert alongside images of the Madonna). No Such Thing traces Beatrice’s fortunate fall into experience while revealing the Monster’s gentleness and innocence, the film continually challenging these categories.
Femininity is the key to goodness (or grace) in Hartley’s fallen world, but not in the typical sense of women as embodying an idealized otherness. The Monster delivers one of his most important monologues while we see an epiphanic image of Beatrice living up to her role as Beatific vision, straight out of a Renaissance painting, and a beautiful example of Hartley’s “choreographed” close-ups. The Beast is in this key scene at his most Satanic, recalling the millennia he has endured in solitude, watching humanity evolve from pond scum, occasionally throwing rocks at anything that moved but lacking any sense of “diabolical accomplishment.” “I know of no god who could be so cruel,” he says; “I know of no god. Unless of course I am god, but what difference would that make? I’d still be fucked.” Milton’s Satan similarly suffered while watching humanity steadily eclipse everything else in creation, and like Hartley’s Beast, Satan appeared vulnerable only once, while watching Eve, when he was nearly disarmed by love. Hartley is a direct heir of the Romantic Satanism we associate with Blake and Shelley, most overtly in Henry Fool (1997) and the little-known but brilliant Book of Life (2000). But with his usual light touch Hartley is careful to undercut the potentially melodramatic overtones of these heady speculations, so that, in this instance, the Monster’s “changeless existence” manifests itself in the all-too-human afflictions of insomnia and alcoholism.
Hartley’s interrogation of good and evil, and of the possibility of the spiritual in an aggressively materialistic world, remains central to all his films. In Amateur he used the conventions of the romantic thriller in this pursuit, and in No Such Thing he takes even more chances. Perhaps this experimental quality is partly to blame for critics’ dissatisfaction with this film. No Such Thing: A Modern Day Fable introduces this generic disjunction in its paradoxical subtitle, an uneasy contradiction that Hartley explores with imaginative flare through such allegorical figures as the Boss, the Beast, and Beauty.
Hartley takes time to develop Beatrice’s transformation in Iceland, but when she returns to New York with the Monster to find the mad genius who alone can destroy him, the film seems more rushed. Relying on the familiar narratives of King Kong and of traditional “animal husband” fairy tales, Hartley also introduces a new element into his modern fable in the character of Dr. Artaud. Like Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wandering Jew, or Milton’s Satan, the Monster’s immortal existence is misery from which he seeks release. The only person who can kill him is Dr. Artaud (Baltasar Kormakur), who was been incarcerated because of his esoteric research into a “Matter Eradicator,” which the U.S. government hopes to develop into a weapon. Dr. Artaud is the least developed of the characters yet bears much of the responsibility for the narrative’s conclusion, something critics have clearly found frustrating.
The historical Antonin Artaud, French author of the revolutionary Theatre and Its Double (1938) and of numerous volumes on the struggle between spirit and matter, was himself incarcerated in an asylum and effectively tortured with electroshock. Artaud’s work profoundly influenced 20th-century philosophy and theater, and deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world. He is the voice of madness in Michel Foucault’s Madness and Civilization, and in a similarly sublimated way he remains an enigmatic but nearly uncredited presence in No Such Thing, providing an important clue to a nexus of associations that Hartley brings together in innovative fashion.
In 1935 Artaud revised, directed, and performed Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Gothic drama about incest and damnation, The Cenci (1819). Artaud starred as (and sympathized with) the monstrous Count Cenci himself, who raped his daughter Beatrice and dragged her (and with her the possibility of goodness) into a living hell of vengeance. Hartley’s Beatrice is much closer to Shelley’s in his original Cenci, for both men are deeply sympathetic to what she (and not her monstrous father) symbolizes. Yet in alluding to this older and darker version of Beauty and the Beast, Hartley also engages with Artaud’s fascination with monstrousness and “evil” in all their philosophical richness. Artaud’s actual incarceration and electroshock ordeal effectively materialized him both as Beast and as victim, outcast and abused by twentieth-century regimes of reason, medicine, and morality. Hartley’s Beast is similarly exploited by the media and scientists who capture and experiment on him when he reaches New York, his only hope for escape being the oblivion that Dr. Artaud promises, and which the historical Artaud relentlessly pursues.
The film’s sympathy for the Beast thus works wonderfully on multiple levels: as the ironic end of the virginal Beatrice’s search for her fiancé, he is obviously, as in traditional fairy tales, a vision of sexual desire as potentially monstrous. Yet Beatrice’s disarming beauty and innocence are inseparable from the dangerous nature of desire, i.e., from the Beast, who embodies endless experience. And in subtly introducing the dangerous associations of Artaud and his Satanic Cenci, destroyer of Beatrice, No Such Thing remains open to more speculations on the nature of the Beast than are traditionally possible in familiar readings of this fable as one of feminine sexual awakening.
Beatrice is a living miracle, escaping certain death with a saint-like presence that literally draws crowds; the Beast is similarly a monstrous miracle, defying the laws of matter and time. The usefulness of a “Matter Eradicator” in destroying an eternal creature who is “no such thing” is doubtful, and central to Hartley’s enquiry into the status of the miraculous and the material. Morever, Dr. Artaud’s device is reminiscent of both the medical contraption that restored Beatrice’s ruined body and of every laboratory scene in Frankenstein films, again connecting the fates (and symbolic values) of both characters. Dr. Artaud’s “Matter Eradicator,” seemingly a hastily thought out plot device for resolving the narrative, thus invites us to speculate about matter and spirit, certainty and ambiguity, in the larger context of the historical Artaud’s legacy. Convinced that “all matter is one,” interpenetrating and indeterminate, Dr. Artaud wears coke-bottle glasses and must feel his way from object to object, an ironic effect of his visionary genius. Hartley suggests these Artaudian connections only tangentially, and one need not untangle them in order to enjoy the film, but Dr. Artaud’s comical myopia and nonsensical ravings probably could stand more elaboration.
Hartley’s Beatrice and Beast, miracle and monster, are equally inhuman and vulnerable, and so their fates remain inextricably bound in the film’s ambiguous conclusion. No Such Thing playfully and affectionately foregrounds its aesthetic and generic inheritance, perhaps more so than any of Hartley’s previous films, and the ambiguity it maintains to the end is evidence of an original director who is not afraid of taking risks. Like the highest forms of art, it is poetic, in the literal sense of exploring the conditions of its own making and the status of its vision. Not only Hartley admirers but anyone interested in the larger themes he addresses, and in the elastic potential of highly generic forms, should see this beautiful film.
Adriana Craciun teaches Romantic literature at the University of Nottingham.