If there is one area where a small, low-budget, independently produced UK film can distinguish itself from a US indie scene that seems to have run into a dead-end with mumblecore or from the low-fi and self-restrictive approach to making films that is Dogme 95, it’s primarily in the development of an intelligent, articulate and meaningful script. Hardly Bear To Look At You has just that, and seeking to find the best way of expressing those ideas in a film, unrestricted by a need to adhere to any kind of filmmaking movement, it makes the most of all worlds, taking the best qualities of those modern styles, which have the benefit of immediacy, spontaneity and better reflect the pace and rhythms of modern life, while also having a sense of studious independent classicism and rigour of Cassavetes or Rohmer.
The subject matter of Hardly Bear To Look At You remains the familiar independent staple of relationships, the difficulty of communicating meaningfully with another person in the modern age. The characters here however aren’t alienated, disaffected teenagers of US indie movies, they are older, more experienced, both in business affairs (filmmaking in this case) and, more pertinently, in affairs of the heart, as well as being versed in the art of dissemblance and deception. They are confident and sophisticated – they aren’t inarticulate, they know the right lines to say and the right moves to make. Or at least, they think they do. Unfortunately, in reality, they are no wiser about the complexities of love and relationships than their younger, US counterparts...
Daniel (Jeremy Herman) is a writer, constantly frustrated in his relationship with Stella (Anna Neil), a street-performer who has been engaged to work with him on a film project directed by his friend Hank (Huck Melnick), and confused over whether there really even is a relationship between them beyond friendship. There must be, Daniel tells his friends – on a visit to Paris together, while out dining and getting on wonderfully in their conversations, she willingly suggested getting drunk before going back to share a bed with him at the hotel. Although nothing happened then or in the days that follow, Daniel claims he is making progress, but Stella remains cold and remote. His friends warn him that she’s leading him on and using him – Stella has in reality prevailed upon Daniel to take her to Paris to help her retrieve her ailing Citroën van "Babette" from a French garage – but Daniel is too besotted to see the truth, or perhaps too proud to see his “investment” fail to yield results. Things don’t improve as the work progresses on the film, the relationship becoming confused with the working relationship, and further complicated when an old boyfriend of Stella’s turns up out of the woodwork. Daniel, increasingly desperate, seeking as a writer to perhaps gain something out of it all, starts to see Stella as a puzzle to solve, while Stella seems to be happy to remain simply an object of desire.
A simple enough subject you would think, and one that everyone should be quite familiar with, but Hardly Bear To Look At You manages to show that when it comes to what lies between two people there are a multitude of complexities and an infinitude of possibilities. For Daniel, our filmmaker, this becomes a torment in his relationship with Stella. He is certain if he makes the right move at the right time, he’ll succeed in seducing her. Let’s just say that this is the ultimate object of his aims. Perhaps he is truly in love with her and perhaps he wants her to fall in love with him – that’s just one of a number of possibilities that he is certainly willing to contemplate, but if she would at least have sex with him first! Again, it’s all about believing that every moment and encounter, no matter how seemingly small, has potential and can, if we know how and where to look for it, yield incredible riches.
There are many moments in the film that attest to how incredibly difficult and frustrating it can be to find the right combination of circumstances. The “love isn’t blind, just extremely short-sighted” theme of the film’s tag-line is humorously explored in an incisively witty script (by Jeremy Herman who also plays Daniel) that nails the problem with precision, capturing the disparity between what one is saying and what one is thinking, between the impression one thinks one is creating and the reality. It's most obvious when Daniel is trying his best to impress at a Parisian restaurant, but creating entirely the wrong impression with a crumb of food on his lip, and in his attempt to seduce directly through romantic words (“If the universe can come up with something like you, it’s truly an amazing place”) when the object of his desire is half-drunk and only half-listening. Even in way that Daniel claims to deliberately speak French with an English accent so that it won’t sound quite so stupid as using incorrect words or grammar in a perfect accent, the script succeeds delightfully in capturing the complexity of trying to control the impression one is giving against the inhibiting factors of conflicting intentions, misread signals and projected emotions of flirtation and desire.
The script is very strong in this regard, being light, amusing and authentic, while also being expressive of the inner personalities and intentions of the characters. But it’s more than just snappy exchanges, otherwise Hardly Bear To Look At You wouldn’t be greatly different from Linklater’s Before Sunrise and After Sunset, but it’s also more than ‘Breakfast At Tiffanys’ that is obviously alluded to in Stella’s Audrey Hepburn fascination. Rather, it’s like a modern-day reworking of Hemingway’s ‘The Sun Also Rises’, with a similar economy of expression matching the lifestyle of these free-and-easy characters in the movie industry with Hemingway’s ex-pats in Paris - another Lost Generation, living an itinerant life, able to freely travel abroad and live life as a series of hedonistic parties, getting drunk, eating well, taking trips with the hope of a casual affair, and then looking for rescue when the time comes to pick up the pieces. Stella is the Lady Brett Ashley to Daniel’s Jake Barnes (Stella even claims that she once had an affair with a matador), talking freely about sex and sleeping with “beautiful boys”, but never doing it with Daniel. Rather, he unwittingly and unwillingly becomes the one consistent element in this woman’s life as she flits and flirts around the continent with other men. It’s an unenviable hand that poor Daniel has been dealt, but always optimistic that the cards will surely one day fall his way, he has no choice but to play the game.
Still, what makes Hardly Bear To Look At You thoroughly modern are all these post-modern references, self-references and film-within-films. One can argue that neither Holly Golightly nor Brett Ashley were aware of how much of a cruel tease they were to their sensitive male writer friends – or if they were aware, they were at least unable to do anything about their nature, being used to being desired to men, but unable to offer anything deeper themselves. Stella however is no doubt conscious of these characters and obviously sees them as role models, wanting to be written about and immortalised in the same way (and perhaps even Daniel’s writer’s sensibility and ego leads him to be drawn to play the Capote/Hemingway in this tragi-romantic role). It all adds a further level of complexity to the already troubled minefield of relationships. Are we and other people really being ourselves or are we just acting a role, playing out a movie of our lives in our heads as we’d like to see it rather than really experiencing it? (The huge weight of literary antecedents may also be referenced in the huge writing desk monument that Daniel and Stella walk past in the park in a later scene).
This takes the film very much into Hong Sang-soo territory (A Tale of Cinema in particular). Where does life stop being life and become performance? Where is the dividing line between life and art? Does this self-awareness make our lives more romantic or does it make it difficult to recognise our true feelings and simply stifle any possibility of forming a meaningful connection to someone else? And it’s here that the relevance and cleverness of director Huck Melnick’s approach to technique and form comes into play, showing this conflict in the context of making a movie, as a film-within-a-film, adding to the layers of complexity and elucidating the situation while simultaneously blurring the lines between reality and fiction.