- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 30, 2002

"No Such Thing," playing at the Cineplex Odeon Dupont Circle, presumes to formulate the last polemical word on the "Beauty and the Beast" myth.

Evidently, a trip to the Cannes Film Festival a few years ago led to an invitation from Icelandic producer-director Fridrik Thor Fridriksson to Long Island independent filmmaker Hal Hartley.

Mr. Hartley responded with this awesome dud. The movie's only saving grace is the often wonderful quality of natural light available in Iceland, which can do extraordinary things for seascapes and landscapes.

Unfortunately, Mr. Hartley is the sort of maverick who often remains missing in rumination. For "No Such Thing," he recruits a favorite acting instrument, Robert John Burke. Mr. Burke is heavily disguised in a smoky-visaged and hard-surfaced makeup to play the last of the mythological beasts, discovered fuming on a barren isle.

Occasionally, the creature rows over to the mainland and terrorizes a village of expectant cretins. Solitary-rock rage drives him to commit mass murder. An inquisitive TV news crew is slaughtered while intruding on his harsh turf. The victims were in the employ of a cutthroat media boss (Helen Mirren). Back in Manhattan, she decides to authorize a small-scale investigation. The assignment goes to office flunky and pure-hearted heroine Beatrice, played by Sarah Polley of "The Sweet Hereafter" and "Guinevere."

Beatrice volunteers to pursue the trail of disaster and miraculously becomes the sole survivor of an airplane crash. She is fished out of the North Atlantic desperately in need of spinal surgery. Upon recuperating several months later, she is regarded as a saint by humble folk. This near-death interlude is quite irrelevant but permits Mr. Hartley to insert Julie Christie as some kind of nurse or medical observer or heaven knows what.

Finally reaching the scene of the monster's crimes, Beatrice is slipped a mickey and prepped as a bridal sacrifice by the villagers.

The Beast gives Beatrice a lot of guff but agrees to accompany her back to New York City, in hopes of arranging the mercy killing he wants. This journey permits Mr. Hartley to mock the idea of instant, freakish celebrity. He also flirts with devastating irony by showing the Beast being abused by vicious New Yorkers.

Fame so goes to Beatrice's empty head that she becomes a fashionable slut. Remembering her mission, she rejects hedonism and finds the crackpot scientist, Dr. Artaud, who can engineer a belated kiss-off for the Beast.

Back on Monster Rock, the agony comes to an end. Mr. Hartley seems to believe that we should think twice about banishing monstrous impulses from the face of the Earth. There's no sign that they have been eliminated, especially when the filmmaker is preoccupied with giving New York a hard time for its Beast-bashing.

Mr. Hartley has kind of manuevered himself into a rhetorical corner, with the Beast personifying all that is potentially monstrous, dating from the day of creation. While it's impossible to believe that human malice and strife will be affected in the slightest by the resolution of this fable, there is a scary parting suggestion: The Beast could be supplanted as a household myth by Beatrice, the angelic twerp.

The polemical drift is shambling and nonsensical in the extreme. More often than not, "No Such Thing" justifies itself as a shaggy, heavy-footed laugher. For example, the Beast under siege in New York reminded me of the impish lyric from a long-ago Broadway revue: "Man's inhumanity to man is wrong/And so we welcome you to our show."


1/2*

TITLE: "No Such Thing"

RATING: R (Frequent profanity; fleeting sexual candor and allusions to bestial violence; episodes involving surgery and hospitalization)

CREDITS: Written and directed by Hal Hartley. Cinematography by Michael Spiller

RUNNING TIME: 103 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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