Fay Grim (Magnolia, R)

faygrim3 With such predisposed opinions on Hartley, I approached Fay Grim, easily the strangest concoction of a sequel I’ve witnessed in years, with an open mind; I mean how awful could it be watching Parker Posey for two hours?


For me to call Hal Hartley’s latest film his best in years could mean two things. Firstly, it suggests the quality of work Hartley’s been making in the years after Henry Fool, to which Fay Grim is the sequel. Hartley has directed three features after Henry, all three of which could be nicely described as “complete failures.” From his apocalyptic The Book of Life, with rocker PJ Harvey as Mary Magdalene, to his contemporary Beauty and the Beast entitled No Such Thing, with Sarah Polley, even his biggest fans have grown weary of the filmmaker. Secondly, this review is coming from someone who’s never really understood the appeal of Hartley altogether. I’m still constantly baffled by Henry Fool’s cult appeal and have failed in appreciating even the cleverness of casting Isabelle Huppert as an ex-nun who writes pornographic novels in Amateur.


With such predisposed opinions on Hartley, I approached Fay Grim, easily the strangest concoction of a sequel I’ve witnessed in years, with an open mind; I mean how awful could it be watching Parker Posey for two hours? Instead of directly following up the events of Henry Fool, Fay Grim places brother and sister Fay (Posey) and Simon Grim (James Urbaniak) in Hartley’s idea of an espionage film. Like Quentin Tarantino’s segment of Grindhouse, it’s hard to ignore the authorship of these genre films. While stylistically and thematically attached to the girls-in-peril/fast-car exploitation film, Tarantino’s Death Proof can be seen as nothing other than Quentin Tarantino’s idea of a girls-in-peril/fast-car exploitation film. The same case is for Fay Grim, which will likely not appeal to fans of the Bourne Identity series. Shot exclusively in Dutch angles (having the frame slightly off kilter throughout the entire film), there’s an uneasiness to Hartley’s deadpan humor. If unfamiliar with his work, one might even become reluctant in laughing at the absurdity of what’s going on.

Seeing Henry Fool doesn’t seem to be a prerequisite for viewing Fay Grim, though I think it’s a lot easier to digest the film with Henry always in the back of the mind. In Henry Fool, the title character (Thomas Jay Ryan) invades the Grim family, becoming the husband of Fay and muse of “garbage-man poet” Simon. Henry is, to say the least, obsessed with his delusions of grandeur. He’s noted throughout the film as being a piss-poor author, yet he continues to write his memoirs, or “confessions,” telling wildly erratic and far-fetched cosmopolitan tales of crime and deceit. Ten years later, Fay Grim, raising her and Henry’s now-fourteen-year old son (Liam Aiken), receives royalty checks from her brother’s successful poetry, as he sits in jail for aiding and abiding Henry in illegally fleeing the country. Fay then gets thrown into a mess of international intrigue when the C.I.A., headed by Jeff Goldblum, confront her about Henry’s confessions, once thought to be dense gibberish, now believed to contain secrets of the United States involvement in South American coups, among other highly confidential information. Goldblum sends Fay to Paris to retrieve selected notebooks of Henry’s confessions, as it’s been suggested that Henry has died and that Fay is the only one who can legally obtain said documents. Fay’s life thus becomes in danger as she isn’t the only one who’s showed up in France to retrieve these confessions, from British spy Juliet (Saffron Burrows) to Henry’s partner Bebe (Elina Lˆwensohn), among slews of others.faygrim2

In a tactic used best in some of his earlier films, Hartley places Parker Posey in direct opposition to the film she’s playing in. Posey appears to not know what’s going on throughout the entire film, and this is to its benefit. Instead, she appears ripped out of the frames of a delusional melodrama directed by John Waters. Her delivery is perfectly deadpan, and she’s brilliantly misplaced within the images of Fay Grim. Hartley has said himself that the premise of Fay Grim was an ongoing joke between him and the cast of Henry Fool as the idea itself is so absurd you almost expect Posey to wake up from a dream at any minute during the film. For its first hour, Fay Grim is easily Hartley’s most accomplished film in a long time, a wickedly amusing farce dressed up as an espionage thriller. Many reviewers have noted, accurately, that, unfortunately, as Fay’s journey takes her to the streets of Istanbul, Hartley begins to forget the joke. As it becomes clear that Henry isn’t dead, the film loses nearly all of its magic, not the least of which as a result of Posey not being onscreen once Henry’s whereabouts become evident onscreen. Hartley has a gift for his brand of comedy and has found no greater muse than Posey since he stopped working with Adrienne Shelley in the mid-90s. Even when Hartley missteps, as he does painfully in the last half hour of Fay Grim, we can always count on the gameness of Posey, a radiant and woefully underappreciated comedic actress at the top of her game.

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