Last night marked the halfway point for Louie’s delightful-so-far, six-episode “Elevator” arc, which juggles various narratives while giving us an unusually sustained glimpse into our bumbling protagonist’s interior life. One of those narratives has been the introduction of Amia, niece of Louie’s elderly Hungarian neighbor Ivanka (Ellen Burstyn). Played by the radiant Eszter Balint, Amia is warm, playful, and intelligent, and our hero’s latest belle d’amour.
She’s also a winking homage to Jim Jarmusch’s 1984 indie classic, Stranger Than Paradise. Balint made her debut in that film, a muted travelogue about New York hipster Willie (John Lurie), who’s tasked with housing his Hungarian cousin Eva (Balint). C.K. is an avowed fan of the film, calling it “a black and white movie with people in their leather jackets” that was “obviously an influence” on his early films Ice Cream and Tomorrow Night.
The “Elevator” episodes suggest that influence is ongoing: Balint’s Amia shares several similarities with Eva. Both are native Hungarians, like Balint herself, visiting New York City for a short time—Amia for a month, Eva for a week. Both are in America to visit an ailing aunt. And both are characters who come alive through music—Amia is an accomplished violinist (like Balint); Eva strolls through city streets with a blaring radio and, in a famous scene, sways to Screamin’ Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell On You.”
What’s more, Louie’s relationship with Amia takes several cues from the one between Willie and Eva in Stranger Than Paradise. The men’s initial encounters with Balint don’t go well: Willie makes immediately clear that he doesn’t want to host Eva, which yields a frigid rapport; Louie, for his part, first stumbles upon Amia while she’s sleeping on her aunt’s couch, and upon awakening she screams bloody murder and runs him out of the apartment.
Despite these blunders, both men become intrigued by, even fixated on, Balint’s character. Willie eventually drives across the country to see Eva, and Louie spurns old flame Pamela (Pamela Adlon) to explore his sudden enthrallment with Amia. Their specific gestures of affection seem of a piece, too. Take, for example, how each tries to endear himself to Balint with a gift framed as an introduction to New York life. Willie spontaneously buys Eva a dress so she can look “like people here,” while Louie takes Amia to Russ & Daughters for some of their signature smoked fish. In both cases, Balint’s character comically disapproves of the offering. But she also begins to function as a sort of escape for these flawed men, a refreshing fount of energy and inspiration in their stale, joyless, city lives.
It seems likely that at least some of these similarities are intentional. What they imply is less clear. C.K.’s own Hungarian roots (his given last name is Szekely, which is roughly pronounced C.K.) may be relevant, but the major shared subject here is strangers in a strange land. Balint—a literal foreigner, whose characters do not know the language but communicate on a deeper register—could be seen as an embodiment of that theme, a motif manifest in the flesh. In both Louie and Stranger than Paradise, her character is a foreigner who ends up exposing the estrangement of a man who is perhaps only superficially comfortable with his surroundings.