HAL HARTLEY'S career turned a corner when his latest movie, ''Amateur,'' was shown in the New York Film Festival last year.
His previous pictures, such as ''Simple Men'' and ''The Unbelievable Truth,'' had established him as one of the most promising young American independent filmmakers. Entering the lineup at Lincoln Center raised his reputation another notch, and his visibility should soar farther still now that ''Amateur'' is headed for theaters.
All of which gives Hartley a mingled sense of satisfaction and amusement. His greatest heroes in the movie world are European art-film directors like Jean-Luc Godard and Robert Bresson, who have little interest in mass-market success. Yet he also sees himself as a follower of Howard Hawks, one of the most popular filmmakers in Hollywood history.
If ''Amateur'' appeals to ticket-buying audiences as well as finicky critics, it could be a breakthrough picture that gratifies both sides of Hartley's artistic personality.
Early assessments have been mixed, with some commentators hailing the film's mixture of crisp formalism and dramatic narrative, and others berating a lack of spontaneity and emotional depth.
The movie's main characters are an odd assortment: Martin Donovan as a man who abruptly loses all memory of his past, Isabelle Huppert as a nun entering the secular world after 17 years of seclusion, and Elina Lowensohn as the amnesiac's wife, an actress of very dubious morality.
Hartley agrees with some observers that ''Amateur'' is his darkest film to date.
But he adds that the twists and turns of his tragicomic story are meant to probe deeper issues that have always interested him -- including the complicated nature of identity, and the tendency for people to exploit and objectify one another, especially where gender relations are concerned.
''I could ask a million questions about identity -- how we see ourselves, the sense of responsibility a person has,'' Hartley told me in a recent interview. ''And all my films deal to some extent with the implications of objectifying women.
''I exploit people as a filmmaker,'' he continued. ''I do it in a benign way, I hope, but I take actors and use their bodies and souls, and make stuff out of them. I haven't always been certain how I felt about that. I pushed [this issue] to an appropriately creepy level [in the new film] because I thought it needed a certain amount of weight. The film needed a certain amount of deep sadness and a tragic end.''
This doesn't mean Hartley sees himself as a moralist with neat solutions to the questions he explores. He is drawn to the problem of objectification because it directly concerns him as a male storyteller.
''I like objectifying women to a certain extent,'' he admits with a smile. ''But the other side of me says, 'You shouldn't do that, it's not a good thing.'
''I think all of us constantly objectify each other -- men, women, fathers, daughters, moms, kids, everyone. The implications are just more obvious where femininity is concerned.
''I don't think my questioning it will help it go away,'' he adds, ''because sometimes it's nice to be objectified, too. It's fun. I see it as a large part of being human -- not that it's good, but when I check off the big general aspects of human beings and the problems they cause each other when they're in a group, it comes down to things like that: faith, money, objectification.''
When he speaks of objectification, Hartley means ''having an abstract notion of femininity, or masculinity, or what a good parent is, that doesn't grow out of the concrete reality of your existence....
''I used to have a girlfriend who'd look through her Victoria's Secret catalog and be sad because she didn't look like those people. I'd say, 'Jill, that's $150 worth of makeup and $1000 worth of light, and they used spray painting, too. This is not real. Don't compare yourself to these things.' We have a willingness to objectify ourselves -- to wrap the idea of what we want around us, to feel protected.''
Hartley knows that exploring such philosophical notions can be risky at the box office, but he has built a thriving career by keeping his ideas focused and his budgets low.
''Wim Wenders spends a lot of time in his films asking how a person respects a woman, and who makes the image of ourselves,'' he says, referring to the respected German director who helped inspire him to become a filmmaker. ''I don't go to popular movies and expect to be engaged on that level.... But it hasn't been difficult [for me] to get films made. I don't need a lot of money to work, and since my films have pretty much made money, I'm a safe investment.''
As a youngster growing up in the New York suburbs, Hartley thought less about movies than about more-immediate interests such as baseball and carpentry. Later he went to art school, dropped out for a while, and fell in love with cinema through a course he took in Super-8 filmmaking.
''It was that kind of immediate recognition that something really, really excites you,'' he recalls. ''The pictures moved! I think it was as simple as that. There was such a mystery about it. The miracle of light and shadow totally overwhelmed me.''
Today he tries to combine his love for moving images with strong narratives that investigate the subjects he finds most meaningful.
''I think of myself as a storyteller,'' he says, ''but I've always recognized ... that this is one of the best moral exercises imaginable. By morality, I mean the ability to make a decision. That's all storytelling is -- dreaming up situations in which to put characters who have some relevance to you, and then watching the kinds of decisions they make ... and comparing your notion of what's acceptable and unacceptable to the ones in the story.
''That's why stories work, why we get involved,'' he continues. ''It's a moral situation you find yourself in -- not just the storyteller but the audience, too.... I would hate to be a moralist, because I'm very uncertain how I feel about almost anything. But storytelling takes vague or abstract notions and makes you deal with them in a concrete way.''
* ''Amateur'' opens April 7.