Since his debut, Unbelievable Truth (1989), Hal Hartley has made consistently challenging films about the disruption of daily life, love and loss, emotion versus intellect, and societal outsiders. All of these films deal in some measure with pain. Sometimes emotional pain, other times physical pain. Usually the instances in which pain is inflicted are comic in presentation or ironic in concept. In his film Henry Fool (1997), the central focus is pain; repositioning pain from the margins of his films narratives and to the center of the characters experience marks a dramatic shift in Hartley’s filmography. The emphasis of Henry Fool is pain, in all its forms; a meditation on the cause and effect pain has on the trajectory of lives from the victim to the aggressor and even the bystander.
To put it roughly, the film is about two siblings, Simon (James Urbaniak) and Fey (Parker Posey) who live comfortably with their depressed mother in a quiet suburb. Their lives are void of any significant emotional trauma, they live like a pair of over grown children, with Simon only occasionally falling prey to the bullying of local tough Warren (Kevin Corrigan). Then one day, Henry Fool (Thomas Jay Ryan) arrives to rent a room. Henry Fool is no stranger to pain. He is a drunken struggling writer fresh out of prison where he was jailed for eight years after having carnal relations with a thirteen-year-old girl. Upon Henry Fool’s arrival, he becomes the epicenter; the starting point of all the pain Simon and Fay will endure in the film.
Henry Fool works pathologically, pitting siblings against one another. Fey douses her brother with boiling water in one scene, only to sit beside Simon whilst he nurses his wounds in another. Hartley allows the audience to witness at all of the details of these events with a detached humor. Simon’s horrendous scream and fall upon contact with the boiling water is shot wide, so that no details can be missed, and every detail of the event may share an equal significance. In the following scene, the same visual tactics of scene construction are implemented. Hartley encourages us to look on at Simon, naked in a bathtub of ice cubes. Beside Simon, on the toilet, Fey sits, face contorted with sorrow and guilt, weeping. Hartley is fascinated by the cyclical transference of pain between his characters. The initial physical pain Simon endured has in turn caused his sister tremendous emotional pain.
On a larger scale, this cyclical mechanism is the foundation of Henry Fool’s relationship with Simon. From their first meeting, Henry Fool simultaneously inflates his own personal history to encourage admiration from Simon while he also pushes Simon to write poetry. Henry Fool is successful in both, and enjoys with Simon a relationship that for him is ideal in its exploitation. That bliss soon gives way to betrayal. Upon hearing Henry Fool speak of his publisher friend, Simon goes out on his own to meet said publisher. Henry Fool’s alleged friend rejects Simon almost immediately, but he is also made privy to the truth. When Simon returns, he confronts Henry with what he has learned, that Henry has no friends in publishing. A feeling of betrayal sets in. Henry feels betrayed by Simon, for Simon had not consulted him before seeking out the publisher. Simon likewise feels betrayed by Henry’s exaggeration of the truth.
It soon becomes clear through an analysis of the relationships in Henry Fool that in Hal Hartley’s vision of the world no one is without blame or responsibility, and that the experience of pain is the crux of all relationships, since, whether you deal with it or not, the experience of pain is shared by all parties involved. Hartley goes so far with this thesis as to have Simon and Henry Fool “switch places”. Simon does eventually become a successful poet, Henry Fool eventually lands Simon’s old job as garbage man, and even inherits Simon’s family when he marries Fey. This role reversal exposes sides to both characters that until this moment had remained unseen. Henry’s anxieties and displeasure in his new life are those which Simon could not articulate except in his poetry, and vice versa. Through this transference of “roles” for the characters, Hartley executes the above-mentioned thesis of shared experience and shared pain.
The dark themes of Henry Fool (many of which I left out such as murder, suicide, rape, domestic abuse, alcoholism) place the film in an isolated position in Hartley’s filmography. His other films, some with profoundly dark and sinister moments, maintain a comic air of irony, which he discards in Henry Fool in favor for an ambivalent acceptance. Hartley even addresses pain directly, as opposed to the in his other works in which pain was an unpleasant necessity, one needed to experience life. I prefer the darker Hal Hartley. After all the best films are equally challenging and rewarding.