Hardly Bear to Look at You (IMDB), directed by Huck Melnick and written by Jeremy Herman (who also stars as Daniel), is one of those films that somehow simultaneously feels refreshingly original while also fitting neatly within various American indie and European art house traditions. It’s a quietly contemplative meditation on the activity of filmmaking and, more broadly, on the act of looking, on our ability to truly see another individual. That Melnick and Herman have managed to engage with these questions while also presenting a bittersweet love story between a gourmet-turned-screenwriter, Daniel, and his street-performer muse, Stella (Anna Neil) makes this film even more powerful.
The plot focuses on Daniel’s attempts to seduce Stella, a street performer who has been hired by Daniel’s friend, Hank (played by Melnick), for a film he is directing. Daniel describes their outings in obsessive detail, reading every line for clues that Stella might be interested in more than friendship. But despite any number of details visible to his friends, Daniel remains blind to Stella’s desire to remain an object of desire. Here, Stella’s status as a performer becomes crucial. Her fascination with Audrey Hepburn makes her into a postmodern Holly Golightly, as Noel Megahey points out (in a review that teases out many of the film’s literary and cinematic allusions), a “performance” reinforced by Stella’s attention to fashion: the costumes, hats, and hairstyles that seem to change on a whim.
As Nick Rombes points out in his review, Hardly Bear adopts many of the conventions of the Dogme 95 movement: hand-held cameras and ambient noise and music place us in the cafes and sidewalks of France and England where Daniel and Stella talk, laugh, eat, and drink. But where many Dogme 95 films seemed to treat their subjects with a clinical distance (or seemed something like an academic exercise), Nick is right to identify something more “humane” about the settings and conversations depicted in Melnick’s film. In this sense, Melnick’s film seems to tap into the intimacy of American indie pioneers like Cassavettes, even while acknowledging the ways in which that intimacy is constructed through the processes of scriptwriting, filming, and editing, much like Charlie Kaufman’s scripts and films but without his morose introspection.
This thematic of vision and of the filmmaking process is introduced at the very beginning of the film. Before the opening credits, a hand-held camera silently films Stella, her party clothes, a black scarf in particular, peeking out over the white bedsheets. The camera holds much longer than any normal camera. A jump cut changes our angle, but without an establishing shot it remains unclear who is doing the looking, implicating the viewer. Off-screen we hear a director shout “cut,” setting up the film-within-a-film motif. This subplot manifests itself more explicitly, as we see Daniel on set watching Stella playing a role he has written, which only exacerbates Daniel’s confusion about their relationship. At one point, Stella suggests that Daniel write their story. “It’s a beautiful story,” she observes, reminding us, yet again, of Stella’s status as a performer (and, quite possibly, her own role in authoring their story).
Hardly Bear to Look at You is a smart, subtle relationship drama, one that engages with past cinematic traditions and forms of realism, even while finding its own path, painting with a new set of brushes, even while allowing its brush strokes to remain visible.