Like most ordinary Americans, I often wonder what kind of movie 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault would have made if he'd been given a small budget, a digital video camera and a cast that was capable of artful, non-natural acting, as well as great emotional depth.
Now, finally, I have the answer in the form of Hal Hartley's The Girl From Monday. This film is science fiction as it should be, an arena for exploring ideas that cannot be fully realized in an ordinary setting.
The world of Girl From Monday is a near future that follows the pattern of increasing institutional control foretold by Foucault. Basically, a merged mega-corporation called Triple M has taken over the entire world. The revolution is so successful that the citizens are convinced that they themselves have chosen this way of life. Everything has become commodified; everyone is tracked and numbered, and all activities are designed to enhance one's market potential. Not surprisingly, this world looks exactly like the one we're already living in.
Bill Sage stars as Jack, an account executive at a marketing firm. He plans campaigns to make elective heart surgery more popular with young people, oversees the "Brutal Youth" kids' wear line and works on bringing more soda pop into corporate schools.
He's also part of a resistance, a group of "counterrevolutionaries" who do horrible, antisocial things, like have sex because it feels good, and refuse to buy things on credit. One day, while walking on the beach, Jack encounters a naked woman who doesn't seem to understand how her body works. Recognizing that she is the earthly form of a being from a distant star, he takes her in and hides her from those who might notice that she lacks a credit rating.
All this may seem somewhat simplistic, but Hartley has a self-awareness that lets him play around with the science-fiction and social criticism conceits in a script that is at once obvious and hilarious. When Jack's co-worker sees that he might be available, she propositions him with, "Let's fuck and increase our buying power." A judge sentences a woman to "two years hard labor: teaching high school," for the sin of "having sex while generating no value" and "a perverse insistence on one's own selflessness." When corporate types become aware of the resistance, they note ways that it can be used to increase sales as one of them points out, "the resistance is good for business!"
The vision of a loss of distinction between commerce, government and society, and a world where all action, even that which is designed to resist power, becomes a means of increasing the extent and productivity of that power, is one that social theorists have long warned about, from Huxley in Brave New World to Eisenhower's "Military/Industrial Complex" speech to the hackers of 2600 magazine.
But Hartley brings a dramatic subtlety and charm to this idea that not even Huxley really attempted. The stories at the center of his sci-fi are sad and human, an effect he could not have attained without the acting talents of Bill Sage, Sabrina Lloyd, Leo Fitzpatrick and James Urbaniak. None of them are household names (although Lloyd got some attention as "Natalie" on Sports Night, and Fitzpatrick had some brief notoriety for his lead roles in Kids and Storytelling), but they all should be. They follow Hartley's standard of stiff, almost Brechtian acting that works in the exact opposite way that Brecht had envisioned, which is to say it increases the humanity of the characters and makes them easier to identify with. It's an odd effect, and Hartley is at his peak using it here.
The only downside to this film is the fact that it was shot on digital video. It looks terrible, but then, digital video generally looks terrible. Hartley uses a lot of video effects, including motion blurs and some oddly choppy cutting that only make things worse. Hartley's previous films have all been reasonably visually pleasing, but I found this one visually irritating.
Still, the world that Hartley has created is cohesive and enveloping, and has just enough weirdness to make it compelling. The oddest and most interesting stuff happens in the second half, so I can't really touch on it in this review, but as the story progresses, the social commentary is illuminated by a personal story of alienation that is distinct from the alienation produced by the corporate culture, and in fact sees in that culture a means of lessening alienation.
This kind of depth, combined with Hartley's wickedly strange and funny script, makes Girl From Monday a treat, though I imagine its appeal is quite limited. If you liked Hartley's earlier films, or the films of Jon Jost or maybe the work of Todd Haynes, I think you'll want to see Girl. If you think Million Dollar Baby was a subtle and moving experience, I imagine you'll want to avoid it. But hey, they can't make every movie for you!