Surviving Desire (1991)
Written and Directed by Hal Hartley
Cinematography by Michael Spiller
Starring Martin Donovan, Matt Malloy, and Rebecca Nelson
Boy meets girl, boy tries obsessively to make sense of his feelings for girl using recondite scholarship, boy loses girl. Like any Hal Hartley film, Surviving Desire flirts with genre while remaining unconcerned with audience expectations, so that labeling it a romantic comedy would be both accurate and highly reductive. At 55 minutes, the film also strains the definition of “feature-length” quite a bit. With all that in mind, it’s best to enter Hartley’s world without preconceptions.
That mandate would include moral preconceptions; Jude is an English professor in love with a student named Sofie, and there isn’t a whole lot of fuss regarding what some might consider an abuse of power. Sofie’s soft looks and murmur belie a strong will she hasn’t fully discovered, and when Jude asks her out at the bookstore where she works, she says yes in spite of her friend’s advice to the contrary. Almost immediately, it becomes apparent that Sofie provides the perfect foil to Jude’s long-windedness by piercing to the essence of a situation. She’s never cynical, only disillusioned beyond her years, and she takes unreserved pleasure in pointing out Jude’s minor habitual flaws that he isn’t aware of.
Jude preaches Dostoevsky to his class like a bullheaded missionary in hostile territory, repeating a paragraph from The Brothers Karamazov containing the line “Avoid falsehood, especially falsehood to yourself.” Jude claims not to give advice and refuses to provide his students with answers (much to their chagrin), but there’s no denying the self-satisfied air with which he addresses his disorderly flock. Sofie is the one student in the class soaking in Jude’s lesson, and by the end of the film she’s actually managed to teach it to him. One of the film’s most powerful shots is of him taking a seat in his own class next to Sofie, having resigned himself to the ignorance and confusion of human existence.
The nervous breakdown that follows, in which Jude lays down in the gutter while an off-screen pedestrian asks for directions, seems incongruously funny at first given the theoretical underpinnings of our protagonist’s crisis. But Hartley has never aimed for realism, and his juxtaposition of philosophical content with a heightened, stylized tone stays consistent throughout the film (if not his entire filmography). Several events feel deliberately improbable, not least of which is Jude’s marriage proposal to a deranged homeless woman who already believes herself to be engaged to his friend. Even so, Martin Donovan’s potent performance, in which he convincingly bridges the gap between his character’s passion for literature and his eventual collision with reality, goes a long way toward ensuring that the heightened emotional climax feels earned in such a short film.
The pervasive use of medium shots with carefully unobtrusive framing and eyeline match editing leaves all the stylization to the narrative itself. This is DIY filmmaking at its best, without the shaky handheld effect that’s too often used for no other reason than to convince us of the director’s “artistic integrity”. Hartley edited and scored the film himself, refusing to orient the viewer with establishing shots and punctuating key moments with untethered lines of synth melody. Without anything as showy as a POV angle, Hartley evokes the limited perspective of his characters by holding them close to the camera. The only Truth revealed is the fact that everyone seems to be searching for it, and in the final shot of the film the camera inches closer toward Sofie’s face rather than tracking out in a gesture that’s typically used to signify closure. Hartley ends on a thoroughly mundane yet existential question: “Can I help anyone?” It’s doubtful that she cares, but much like the homeless woman who proposes to random passersby, she just needs somebody to ask.