Can Hal Hartley’s moment in the indie limelight really have happened? It seems too special and rarified, arriving just before we were besieged by wisecracking gangsters in skinny ties. Mainly, it consists of a pair of hyperintelligent features starring the lovely Adrienne Shelly (RIP): The Unbelievable Truth (1989) and Trust (1990). Watching these comedies—with their dialogue loops and plaintive scores (also by Hartley, using a pseudonym)—you could believe that a reinvigorated Jean-Luc Godard was at work on Long Island.
Surviving Desire (1991) came directly thereafter, and while the freshness was already fading, it captures a peak turn by the director’s brainy surrogate, Martin Donovan, as a Dostoyevsky-quoting professor who gets involved with a sylphlike student (Mary B. Ward). The material is unapologetically academic, yet the message is lusty; Hartley loves his head-bound hero and pushes him into the coed’s bed, through a band’s live performance in the street and, memorably, into a choreographed dance number.
Just shy of an hour (Hartley’s commitment to weird lengths was exciting), Surviving Desire often gets grouped with two shorts, as it does here: “Ambition” and “Theory of Achievement,” both from 1991. Collectively, they depict a gentrifying Williamsburg and anxieties that now seem quaint.—Joshua Rothkopf
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