Surviving Desire

USA | 1991 | Directed by Hal Hartley

Logline: A college professor falls for one of his students but becomes a confused emotional wreck when she decides to end the short term relationship not long after they’ve become lovers.

I was a fan of indie darling Hal Hartley’s early movies, and still am, especially his first feature The Unbelievable Truth. But it is this featurette - only 60 minutes in length - that is my favourite. It also happens to be one of my favourite comedies and favourite love stories, albeit a comic-tragedy wallowing in literary mire (I’m loathe to call it a rom-com).

Martin Donovan is brilliant as Jude, the uninspired English professor who is spouting Russian literature at film’s opening; “I believe that you are sincere and good at heart. If you do not attain happiness, always remember that you are on the right road, and try not to leave it. Above all, avoid falsehood, every kind of falsehood, especially falseness to yourself.” Mary Ward is excellent in the role of Sophie the object of Jude’s lust. Flirtation turns to infatuation, and inevitably he must come crashing down from the lofty heights of such a heady elusive romance. There is a divide of years between them, but they’re brought together over their love of words and ideas, and the sexual chemistry is fueled by their respective adulation of each other.

Of course Sophie is swept away by Jude’s command of language, and she allows herself to be wooed, as she quietly seduces. Jude is entranced by her pixie good looks, sly knowing glances and arts smarts. Their charisma and coyness become entwined, divine, divine, but there will be tears before bed time. She is so young, full of curiosity and contradiction, he is blind to the heartache on the horizon.

It’s a poignant movie and the edge of seriousness is given a dynamic and refreshing twist with Hartley’s delightfully wry observations on the fragility of charm and the pulse of passionate abandon. The movie was produced for American Playhouse, a cable television show, which is why it’s shot in 1.33:1 ratio. Hartley also made two short movies at the same time of similarly playful philosophical ilk: Ambition and Theory of Achievement (and are included on the DVD).


There is a beautifully understated quality to Surviving Desire. It looks and feels self-conscious, yet it floats with such delicacy, the nuances of Donovan’s and Ward’s performances are deliberate and theatrical, but still command a cinematic je ne sais quoi. The dialogue crackles and caresses with stunning insight and droll humour. These are the little ironies of love’s cruel game. There is no such thing as romance and adventure, only trouble and desire. Jude rises with hubris, but falls with humility.

The movie’s highlight comes in the form of a dance routine, which expertly parodies movies like Singin’ in the Rain, but skillfully indulges them. Jude is drunk in love with Sophie and as the guitar chords echo away Jude’s desire manifests itself as a dance without accompanying music. It finishes with Jude’s arms outstretched like those of the Saviour. It’s a golden moment, and I remember first watching the movie at a film festival and the audience cheered this scene.


The support cast is all wonderful, but especially notable is Matt Malloy as Jude’s theologian friend Henry and Rebecca Nelson as Katie the lost soul street monger whom Henry becomes involved with. They share a hilarious rapport. The rock-folk music credited to The Great Outdoors and Ned Rifle (Hartley under a pseudonym) fits the movie like hand in glove; loose, and jangly, lilting, but uplifting, it’s the perfect foil for the beautiful battlefield that is surviving desire. “Gather ye rosebuds while ye may …”