'Return to Montauk': Film Review | Berlin 2017

Courtesy of Berlin International Film Festival
A thankless journey.

Stellan Skarsgard stars as a European writer on a New York book tour stop, with Nina Hoss as the ghost of his romantic past in Volker Schlondorff's wintry love story.

Is there a snoozier narrative template than the middle-aged male intellectual torn between the spirited young woman who adores him and the cool beauty he allowed to slip through his fingers all those years ago? Perhaps, but you might struggle to recall one while watching Return to Montauk, Volker Schlondorff's emotionally inert drama about an author trying to reanimate the past. Stellan Skarsgard's burly physicality and innate humor are subsumed in an ill-fitting role that's basically a series of prolix, prose-style word dumps in search of a character. He's first encountered giving a public reading, setting the tone for a movie that's pretty much an audio book with pictures.

The presence of Skarsgard, alongside the brilliant Nina Hoss — sadly, a long way from the churning psychological depths of her work with director Christian Petzold — carries a promise of strong acting that might generate interest in this English-language feature. But that won't help much once word gets out.

The title and plot dynamics echo Max Frisch's Montauk, a 1975 autobiographical novella inspired by the Swiss author's affair during a U.S. book tour with a much younger woman who worked for his American publisher. The romance bloomed during a weekend in the land's-end beach town of Montauk, Long Island. Schlondorff's 1991 film Voyager was based on one of Frisch's most widely read novels, Homo Faber. By the director's own account, he had discussed Montauk's screen potential with Frisch, but they both believed its personal, essayistic style made it unfilmable.

Based on this torpid riff, that instinct appears to have been correct, though Schlondorff has attempted to get around the challenge by starting from scratch with a story that shares similar elements without being a direct adaptation. His co-writer is the supremely gifted Irish author Colm Toibin (Brooklyn, The Master), for whom this marks a disappointing move into screenwriting. The film feels like a literary work in the dullest, most lifelessly pagebound sense, with characters spewing great chunks of chiseled prose even when they're supposed to be channeling spontaneous memories.

Skarsgard plays Max Zorn, in New York for the publication of his novel The Hunter and the Hunted. The excerpt Max reads in the film's opening recalls the disdain of the narrator's philosophy-professor father for fiction, and the old man’s thoughts as he approached death about key missteps and regrets in life. The narrator then jumps to his own such mistakes, in relation to one woman he wounded and another he failed.

As if that ponderous intro weren't distancing enough, we then get a second dollop of prose at a New York Public Library event the following night. Max keeps assuring everyone it's purely a work of fiction, but it becomes impossible for his younger wife, Clara (Susanne Wolf), to ignore the evidence that she's the one he settled for, as opposed to the great love that still haunts him.

That mystery woman is Rebecca (Hoss), a German transplant who advanced from Yale through a series of increasingly heavy-hitter law firms, where it's inferred she now defends indefensible finance criminals. Max has his publicist, Lindsey (Isi Laborde), reach out to invite Rebecca to the Public Library event, and when that draws a negative response the two of them ambush her at her office, getting a chilly reception. Feeling unmoored amid all his resurgent memories, Max turns up unannounced at Rebecca's palatial Irving Place apartment, which she shares with three cats named Crosby, Stills & Nash. However, this is a movie in which even the animals lack personality.

Schlondorff punctuates the action with chapter headings marking days one through six. Inevitably, by day three Rebecca's reopened wounds have healed enough for her to invite Max to accompany her to look at a beach property in Montauk, a place with strong associations for them. A scheduling glitch forces them to stay overnight and that weekend turns back the clock 17 years, prompting Max to wonder if it's too late to correct his mistakes.

Regardless of how much the Frisch story figured in the writing process, this is a script hopelessly stuck in the aspic of literary conception. Max is such a stodgy bore, even after he sheds the baggy jacket for hipper threads, that there's no compelling reason for any of these women to be fluttering around him — not Carla, an editorial intern he steered into a New York job; not Rebecca, who has her cats and her plucky friend Rachel (Bronagh Gallagher, who seems to be in a different movie); and not Lindsey, who provides the voice of sobering feminist censure, without much conviction.

Hoss brings a hint of gravity to the picture, notably once Rebecca reveals how much her life continued to evolve without Max, stirring up her own weighty memories. But her floods of tears at one point, rather than providing access to her raw feelings, just smack of unearned emotion since we don't know these characters in any way meaningful enough to make us care about them. The other significant figure in the story is wealthy philanthropist and art collector Walter (Niels Arestrup), whose past connection to both Max and Rebecca sheds minimal light.

Schlondorff weaves very little texture around these characters. That goes for the early scenes, which play up the disorienting noise and energy of Manhattan to familiar effect, and later the Montauk interlude, where the melancholy winter-in-a-summer-town vibe fails to yield much in terms of atmosphere or mood. Visually crisp but undistinguished-looking, the movie just plods along, accompanied by decorous snatches of strings or piano, sifting through the embers of a supposedly still smoldering failed love story without raising a spark.

Production companies: Ziegler Film, Volksfilm, Pyramide Productions, Gaumont, Savage Productions
Cast: Stellan Skarsgard, Nina Hoss, Susanne Wolff, Isi Laborde, Bronagh Gallagher, Mathias Sanders, Malcolm Adams, Niels Arestrup
Director: Volker Schlondorff
Screenwriters: Colm Toibin, Volker Schlondorff
Producers: Regina Ziegler, Volker Schlondorff, Francis Boespflug, Stephane Parthenay, Sidonie Dumas, Conor Barry
Executive producer: Hartmut Kohler
Director of photography: Jerome Almeras
Production designer: Sebastian Soukup
Costume designers: Majie Potschke, Angela Wendt
Music: Max Richter, Thomas Bartlett
Editor: Herve Schneid
Casting: Amy Rowan, Cornelia von Braun
Venue: Berlin International Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: Gaumont

105 minutes