Return to Montauk: An embarrassment of words
by Bénédicte Prot
- BERLIN 2017: Volker Schlöndorff moves away from his trademark style with this reflection on regret; the story of a disconsolate writer pining for the ghost of a long-lost love
Return to Montauk [+see also:
film profile] marks a substantial change of scene for Volker Schlöndorff. For this co-production between France, Germany and the Republic of Ireland, screening in the official competition at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival, the director has flown a whole round-up of European talent to New York, including actors Stellan Skarsgård (Sweden), Nina Hoss and Susanne Wolff (Germany) and Niels Arestrup (France). In an homage to his friend, the writer Max Frisch, the mighty Schlöndorff has strayed far from his usual stomping grounds, setting aside the historical/political/moral drama that he does so well to craft an utterly contemporary American tale, adapted from the novella Montauk. With its prolific use of words, this new film lacks the gripping sense of a historic, behind-the-scenes verbal battle that permeated his previous film, Diplomacy [+see also:
Return to Montauk even begins with a monologue. In the opening scene, we see Skarsgård’s character meticulously reproducing the wise words of his philosopher father regarding the two forms of regret: the kind you feel when you’ve done something wrong, and the kind you feel when you have failed to do anything at all. We soon learn that this obligingly descriptive account is part of a book reading. The author, Max Zorn, has come to New York to promote his latest book, a trip that presents him with an opportunity to spend some time with his partner, Clara (Wolff), whose questionable attire at least has the merit of making it clear that she is younger than he is. However, it turns out that the woman who appears in Max’s book, Rebecca (Hoss), his great lost love, is not as fictional as she might at first appear; in fact, she lives right here in New York, at an address that Max obtains with the help of his friend Walter (Arestrup), a gratuitously enigmatic character who, for reasons that remain obscure, speaks to him in French, and who is far too under-developed to justify the pivotal role that he supposedly plays in the film’s “plot”.
It’s all just a bit feeble. Despite her better judgement, Rebecca ends up coming back with Max to the tucked-away coastal town of Montauk, where they had once found happiness as a couple. After a predictable honeymoon period reliving their past embraces, Rebecca, faced with Max’s vague notion of building sandcastles, finally sets him straight about the love affair he had devoted himself to mourning, but which he is refusing to commit to now that it is his for the taking. He prefers to laze around, ignoring the woman who was prepared to devote her life to him. And then there’s Clara, who is ready to jump at his call without placing any demands on him to give up his lackadaisical attitude (he doesn’t even leave a message on her voicemail, although she states that if he loves her, he will do so). Max gets his own way in the end after barely lifting a finger, but that’s men for you, or at least writers, the film seems to be saying.
It’s a fairly predictable story, one we feel like we’ve already heard — although, in the midst of its blandness peppered with flecks of common sense, Rebecca’s speech on Max’s blind narcissism feels pleasingly cathartic. There are just far too many words, and they are all just far too vacuous, rather like in Max’s stories. When we think about it, Montauk, the place of return, has always been a destination, never the starting point (that is, the foundation) for this romance between Max and Rebecca that provides the focus of the film and that was never truly consummated, never fully embraced. This characteristic of the central driving force of the plot, the supposedly true love that has re-emerged from the past, at first comes across as phantasmal only to become downright phantasmagorical. This explains why it is so difficult to take an interest in this non-place, awash with pointless verbosity. It’s also far too basic in visual terms, from Clara’s outfits to the all-white designer house by the sea. One is left wondering which of the two forms of regret mentioned at the beginning of the film best applies to Return to Montauk.
(Translated from French)