Who is he

American film and theatre director, scenarist, composer, editor and producer who has directed over a dozen feature films and numerous other short projects since the mid-eighties. Hartley studied art before taking to filmmaking and has been teaching film at various American universities. His 1997 movie Henry Fool won the Best Screenplay award at the Cannes Film Festival that year.

Why is he of interest?

Hartley’s rise to prominence towards the end of the eighties, coinciding with the growing popularity of the Sundance Institute, has prompted critics to classify him among the leading figures of the New American Independence Cinema alongside Steven Soderbergh and Richard Linklater. One can see the impact of the idiosyncrasy and structural simplicity of his films on present day quasi-independent films of America.

Where to discover him?

Barely an hour long, Surviving Desire (1991) revolves around on a maladroit literature professor who falls in love with one of his brooding students. A tour de force in terms of the ideas it tosses and that breakneck rhythm it imparts to quotidian conversations, Surviving Desire is a short but frenetic rundown of the ageless conflict between the head and the heart, between reason and whim, between the idea of desire and the irrational reality of it.

What Themes

One of the salient themes pervading Hartley’s films is the transactional nature of human interaction in modern society. Characters — frequently simple, middle-class, suburban dwellers caught placed in more than ordinary circumstances — are forever making and breaking deals and finding equivalences between each other’s actions. They are eternally caught in games of trust, faith, fidelity and false promises. They often have a broken past that they try to piece together or escape from. Love, for them, is that elusive object of desire, always at an arm’s length, and always shape-shifting.


The most apparent feature of Hartley’s cinema is the extended, tangential, theatrical and philosophical dialogue rife with references to high culture that characters engage in, with a deadpan expression and a flat tone of voice. Indoor scenes are especially notable with characters constantly moving between rooms, and in and out of the frame. Electronic soundtrack interspersed with songs from independent artists, symmetric narrative elements, an absence of voiceovers and flashbacks, a preference for natural light and locations and a strong sense of time and place also characterize these films.