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A Rich Look at Romance in Triplicate


With his delicious "Flirt," a romantic comedy at once serious and feather-light, writer-director Hal Hartley poses a very right-now question in three locales: New York, Berlin and Tokyo.

The ways in which his people ask, "Has this relationship a future?," and the ways in which they are answered are so consistently fresh that he makes us forget all those pictures grappling earnestly with the challenge of commitment in the stressed-out '90s.

In only his fifth feature, Hartley has moved light-years from "The Unbelievable Truth," his 1988 first feature, a quirky, jagged, attention-getting take on love and romance in blue-collar Long Island. From the start, Hartley has been a bemused observer of the human comedy in all its absurd twists and turns, and his style and perspective have matured with impressive rapidity. There's an effortless, casual perfection to this worldly and sophisticated picture that belies the fact that Hartley is still in his 30s.

With his first episode, set in Manhattan, Hartley moves into the young-professionals territory mined by innumerable filmmakers before him. A good-looking guy with a roving eye (Bill Sage) is given two hours to decide whether to commit or break off by his girlfriend (Parker Posey), who's about to depart for Paris for a three-month stay. In that short span of time, he considers the notion that harmless flirtations wouldn't violate commitment.

Amusingly, the moment of truth-and-consequence is exactly the same in each vignette, yet each grows increasingly longer and more complex. Episode 1 is certainly deft, no more or no less impressive than the work of many other filmmakers, but the ever-richer complexities of differing cultural contexts make "Flirt" special and give it cumulative impact.

The next time it's a German art dealer (Dominik Bender) who asks his young American lover (Dwight Ewell) whether their relationship has a future before the dealer flies off to New York on business. While purportedly thinking over the question, Ewell's Dwight swiftly attempts to score with a German painter, undeterred that the man is married.

In a delightful stroke of inspiration, Hartley comes up with a Greek chorus composed of three construction workers who with Germanic thoroughness make an exhaustive attempt to define flirtation and its moral implications.

The deepening and broadening of perspective in Episode 2 continues with a bold leap forward in the final Tokyo episode, which is stylized as the Butoh dance troupe that is its setting, as stylized as the best Japanese cinema itself.

A lovely, demure young dancer (Miho Nikaidoh) wonders whether she has a future with her teacher-choreographer (Toshizo Fujiwara), called Mr. Ozu in homage to the great director Yasujiro Ozu. Alas, he has an intensely jealous wife (Chikako Hara), who is also his principal dancer. Meanwhile, the dancer's lover, an American filmmaker (played by Hartley) soon off to L.A. for three months, asks her what she thinks about their chances.

In only 82 minutes, Hartley brings considerable dimension to his key people in each segment; in the film's biggest role, Nikaidoh especially excels. His cinematographer, Michael Spiller, who has shot all of Hartley's films, serves him so well that the camera's every move, placement and composition seem a precise yet fluid expression of Hartley's every feeling and perception.

"Flirt" has a terrifically clean, spare look combined with an easy flow that's echoed and supported by Ned Rifle and Jeff Taylor's score, alternately spare and dramatic. There's a beguiling throwaway quality to "Flirt" that has the effect of making it stick with you.

* Unrated. Times guidelines: The film has scenes of love-making, adult themes and language.



Bill Sage: Bill

Dwight Ewell: Dwight

Miho Nikaidoh: Miho

Chikako Hara: Yuki, Mr. Ozu's wife

Toshizo Fujiwara: Mr. Ozu

A Cinepix Film Properties release of a True Fiction Pictures presentation in association with Pandora Films and Nippon Film Development & Finance with the support of Filmboard Berlin-Brandenburg Gmbh. Writer-director Hal Hartley. Producer Ted Hope. Executive producers Reinhard Brundig, Satoru Iseki. Cinematographer Michael Spiller. Editor (New York) Steve Hamilton. Costumes (New York) Alexandra Welker; (Berlin) Ulla Gothe. Music Ned Rifle and Jeff Taylor. Art director (New York) Karen Wiesel; (Berlin) Ric Schachtebeck; (Tokyo) Tomoyuki Maruo. Set decorator (New York) Amy Tapper; (Berlin) Edgar Hinz; (Tokyo) Fumaki Suzaka. In English, German and Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 23 minutes.

* Exclusively at the Royal Theater, 11523 Santa Monica Blvd., West Los Angeles, (310) 477-5581, and the University 6, Campus Drive opposite UCI, Irvine, (714) 854-8811.

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