Art, like romantic attraction, is subjective. In both cases, there are certain things a person digs and certain things they don't, and what might be the bee's knees for one person might be the bee's rheumatoid arthritis for another. And having seen Huck Melnick's Hardly Bear to Look at You three times now, I can sum up my reaction in three statements: one, there's a lot of stuff I dig about it; two, there's a lot of stuff I don't dig about it; and, three, I know full well that the stuff I don't dig is stuff that a lot of other people do dig.
Statements two and three are in reference to one of the central themes and structural devices of Melnick's film, namely the transformation of experience into art, of longing and pain into writing, of life into cinema. It's a fairly thorough examination, at that, and Nick Rombes went as far as to say that it is "a love story, but also a story of the making of a love story... a film to love, even as it shows you its source code". And if you dig art about the artistic process and cinema about cinema, created by a director who is obviously quite cine-literate and not afraid to acknowledge great filmmakers by name, then there is a lot to fall in love with here.
The thing is, that whole thing just isn't my bag, at all. My tolerance for meta-film and films-about-making-films and the creative process is extremely, extremely low. It's one of the things that I generally can't stand and that almost always turns me off. (Exceptions: The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Red Shoes, La Belle Noiseuse, Boogie Nights, Celine and Julie Go Boating, though that last one is about watching and engaging with art, not making it.) For the same reason, I also have a low tolerance for Godard (ssh, don't tell Filmbrain).
And yet, I have watched the film three times. What is it, then, that has kept me coming back? Well, as I said at the top, there's a lot of stuff I dig about it.
First and foremost among these is the acting and the writing. The two lead roles are fully-realized: precisely defined yet dynamic enough that the characters can occupy different poles of behaviour without the end result being schizoid or otherwise straining belief.
Daniel (Jeremy Herman, who also wrote the script) is at times cynical, almost mercenary and cruel in his pursuit of Stella (Anna Neil), while at other times appears to be in full-blown puppy-love mode and many times is able by way of actorly alchemy to occupy both spheres at once.
In doing so, rather than reducing the role to one thing or the other, Herman and Melnick have created a performance that is more realistic than either extreme, one that speaks to a certain facet of the human, and especially male, experience. That is, they find the thing within people and men that allows us to be both monstrous reptiles and lost lovesick children and that's the thing that they put on the screen.
A similar balancing act is at the heart of Anna Neil's performance as Stella, but because Daniel serves as our viewpoint character, and because his lack of understanding for Stella is a crucial part of the film's design, she is deliberately a bit mysterious and hard to read. This doesn't make her performance any less stunning or any less the equal of Jeremy Herman's.
And I love the way, in certain key scenes (for example, the business about the temperature of wine) Daniel can barely hide his exasperation and, yes, his intellectual contempt for Stella. And the character reminds me a bit of certain men who like to play Pygmalion, romancing women that don't pose a threat to them, women they can mold and teach and own, body and soul. This fits in also with Daniel's odd possessiveness (witness how he bristles when another man kisses her, or invites her to a porno festival, despite the fact that they aren't in a relationship themselves). Smart writing, that. Smart acting.
And smart direction, because as any director with even the slightest trace of an ego can tell you, great performances don't just spring out of an actor fully-formed but as the result of collaboration and taste. A director has to know when to say "more", when to say "less", what to leave in and what to take out. And if you can judge a director's taste by the performances his actors give, then I can say hands down that Melnick's is impeccable.
That taste also expresses itself in some of the film's ballsier stylistic moments. The first few minutes of the film, in fact, are comprised of a silent, shaky-cam look at the sleeping Stella. The camera work is invasive, even violating. You feel every second as it zeroes in on her neck, and the feeling is a bit queasy. It's almost like a sort of challenge, a mocking invocation of the film's title: can you bear to look at her?, how much longer?
A friend said of our film Son of a Seahorse that the first twenty-two minutes felt like a "fuck you" to the audience, but what Melnick does is far more audacious (and perhaps even a bit incendiary) than anything we were doing. I wish I had the cajones to start a film like this.
And then, the sound cuts in briefly only to announce that the footage we just saw was being shot for a film. And, well, of course it was, as we're watching a film and there it is, but it's also footage from the film-within-the-film, and which is the real film, anyway? With even this first scene Melnick raises questions about the nature of film and the morality of capturing reality and invading intimacy (sleeping) for art. And he continues to ask these questions throughout the film, the blurring between "reality" and "art" being made more complicated by the fact that the "art" employs the "real" "people" in the same roles, re-enacting the same scenes, as they do in the "real" portions of the film. (Again, it's not a question that I personally find all that captivating, but your mileage may vary and if this is your kind of thing, seek it out.)
A visual that sticks with me even longer is a one of Daniel removing his contact lenses. Melnick shoots it really, really close, so that we can see every blood vessel in the eyeball, so that this monstrous finger is reaching in and digging around the eye sockets. It's a grotesque image, and Melnick knows it, and he emphasizes it by shooting it as close as he does, he understands the way close-ups de-tether people from their bodies. And the accompanying voice-over from Daniel-- cynical and with hints of anger-- complements the image with its own monstrousness.
And this, too, is the sort of shot I wouldn't dare put it one of my movies. The fact that Melnick had the audacity to try it, the taste and discretion to know it'll work, and above-all the talent to pull it off--
Well, that is, in short, what keeps me coming back to the film. And it fills me with anticipation for his future work. And the fact that he's done this with a film that's explicitly about making a film is a testament to that skill. Whether you love the meta-stuff or despise it, Hardly Bear to Look at You is worth looking at. (Sorry. Couldn't resist.)