When American Playhouse commissioned director Hal Hartley to make this film, the filmmaker was coming off one of the most impressive one-two punches in the independent film market: 1989′s The Unbelievable Truth and 1990′s Trust. Both announced Hartley as a true cinematic artist who filled his works with hyper-stylized dialog, perfectly mannered performances and a visual style that was equal parts ’70s grit and French New Wave shakiness.
The short film that Hartley made for PBS (and the two other shorts made around the same time period that are included on this DVD) follow a similar cinematic formula, but gloriously up the ante, challenging viewers with an unusual philosophical look at modern love. The story centers on Jude, a harried English professor (played by regular Hartley foil Martin Donovan) and his strange and rather endearing courtship of one of his students, the pixie-ish Sofie (Mary B. Ward). The two circle around each other, trading fractured quips as they try to come to terms with what they both know will be a doomed affair. Along the way, the two debate the nature of male/female relations with their friends, and struggle over a particularly thorny passage of The Brothers Karamazov. It may sound like thoroughly heady material, but the heart of the film is pure comedy in both the Sturges-style banter that all the characters rattle off and moments of giddy slapstick.
Being a short subject and a film that needn’t be worried about commercial considerations since it was going directly to TV, Hartley uses it as a license to get downright playful. He includes a quick, post-first kiss dance sequence, a bit of a live musical performance (a love song, natch), and a wry B-story involving the weird courtship between Jude’s beleaguered friend Henry (a brilliantly funny Matt Malloy) and a possibly deranged homeless woman who asks passersby to marry her.
It’s an incredibly original work, which is to be expected from one of the few directors who came out of this period – the Renaissance of the independent film movement – with his artistic vision and his integrity still intact. 20 years on, Desire has not lost a bit of its quirky charm, its trenchant wit and the deep truths about love that lie in its core.
DVD also features two other Hartley short subjects: Theory of Achievement and Ambition, as well as a short making-of documentary filmed in 2005.
Surviving Desire will be released on April 27, 2010 by Microcinema International
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