American filmmakers working within the comedy genre often draw upon similar themes and modes of narrative story telling. That is a fact, which very heavily informs the following comparison between Hal Hartley’s 1991 film Surviving Desire and the work of Woody Allen.
Like Woody Allen’s film Manhattan, Surviving Desire deals with the intelligentsia, and the inherent problems of a relationship between an older man and a younger woman. However, Hartley’s older man, Jude (Martin Donovan), isn’t so much older than the woman he pursues, Sofie (Mary B. Ward). Hartley doesn’t need a large age gap to dramatize the verboten affair; Jude is Sofie’s professor.
Hartley has also raised the stakes of Allen’s scenario as well. The characters in Woody Allen’s films function neurotically, and are not capable of any self-evaluation beyond their neurosis. Hartley, on the other hand, permits his characters the intelligence to scrutinize themselves directly and openly in dialogue exchanges that are void of Allen’s heavy referencing, but instead focus primarily on either the mundane or the emotional turmoil of the characters, and even in some scenes there is a balance between the two. Allen’s male protagonists are nervous and guarded even around their closest male companions. Hartley permits the men in his film to trust one another, and to exchange healthy doses of criticism (Jude has no qualms about admitting what a terrible teacher he is).
That does not necessarily make Hartley’s characters less intelligent or interesting than Allen’s. The sort of referencing Allen is so dependent upon is relegated to situational motivation (Jude discusses books only in a bookstore), and therefore allows a naturalist tendency to the film. Though, such a tendency is superficial to the film’s construction, it remains a more matured or perhaps learned employment of the referential device.
Unlike Allen’s romantic comedies Annie Hall and Manhattan, Hartley pushes Jude’s self reflection to the unreal comedic extremes Allen employed in his earlier films of the seventies (Sleeper, Love & Death). In one scene, following Jude’s romantic fulfillment with Sofie, he walks into an alley and dances, and as the dance progresses, other “happy” men join Jude (this tactic will be adapted quite successfully by John Turturro for Romance & Cigarettes).
This subjectivity is not misogynistic the way Allen’s is in Annie Hall. Allen’s protagonists are manipulative of women, and objectify them at every turn. Though Hartley allows Jude to walk the same line as Allen’s characters, he balances it with a strong female counterpart to Jude, and will even relent in his subjective portraiture to empower Sofie. There are a handful of scenes in Surviving Desire in which Sofie and her roommate/girlfriend evaluate Jude and harshly criticize or even make-fun of him behind his back. Hartley’s ability to empower Sofie this way also makes for a comic counterpoint to the hopelessly in love Jude. In this way, it is easier to laugh at Jude, as opposed to simply feeling sorry for him and rejecting him based on his obsessive behavior toward Sofie.
It’s a very careful juggling act of themes and styles in Hartley’s film, pointing to a matured understanding of his material and the genre in which it is presented. He is aware of the clichés Woody Allen has established, and the trap of imitating other filmmakers working with the same class of intelligentsia (Whit Stillman). By diversifying the mechanics of Surviving Desire, Hartley manages to re-invigorate this kind of romantic comedy, giving it a fresh dimension that eludes audience expectations so that the film stays engaging.
Upon discussing the formalist executions in Surviving Desire, it seems best to address the bigger picture. Hartley’s film is quite short, just over eighty minutes, and stands more as a transitional film between his early features and those that would follow Surviving Desire. But to label Surviving Desire an exercise in manipulating film constructs would be unfair. Though the film contains fewer narrative threads than Hartley’s earlier films, it has a fresh and mature execution, and deals with more mechanical issues within the genre than either Trust or Unbelievable Truth. Yet, one cannot escape his indebtedness to the films of Woody Allen and later Whit Stillman. But it is Hartley’s reinvention of filmic dialects that make him, at least in my opinion, the most intriguing of the three.