DIR: Volker Schlöndorff • WRI: Colm Tóibín, Volker Schlöndorff • PRO: Sidonie Dumas, Rainer Kölmel, Regina Ziegler • DOP: Jérôme Alméras • ED: Hervé Schneid• DES: Sebastian Soukup • MUS: Michael Bartlett, Caoimhin O’Raghallaigh, Max Richter • CAST: Stellan Skarsgård, Nina Hoss, Bronagh Gallagher
Return to Montauk stars Stellan Skarsgård as writer Max Zorn who, while on a press tour with his girlfriend, Clara (Suzanne Wolff), in New York, attempts to connect with old flame, Rebecca (Nina Hoss – Phoenix, Homeland). Written by Colm Toibin (author of Brooklyn and The Master), it begins promisingly. It feels novelistic in story while the Manhattan setting adds a cinematic feel. The supporting cast (Jacques Audiard regular Niels Arestrup, Ireland’s own Bronagh Gallagher) feels well-chosen and international. Its depiction of the literary scene is impressive. As Skarsgård zips from book launch to public reading to drinks with other authors, one gets a sense of what it would be like to a writer in that scene. What it would be like to make a living from one’s own personal experiences, to make friendly with contemporaries who appear both jealous and in awe of you, to travel the world despite not earning a lot of money.
Sadly, while all these incidental details and literary references to Henry James, Kafka and Nabokov are intriguing – the main-plot itself is quite pedestrian – eventually devolving into a stereotypical depiction of a selfish writer, hurting those who love him, in a mid-life crisis fuelled quest. Yes, it could be possible to make an unlikeable character interesting if one can empathise somewhat or even understand him (see Showtime’s The Affair). Yet, although Skarsgård and Hoss both give fine individual performances, they have no chemistry. They need to generate enough spark to make one understand why Max would risk damaging his current relationship. However, while they are together, the whole time one is thinking about Clara due to Wolff’s warm, charasmatic turn – one which makes an on-paper dull character far more interesting and from the side-lines overshadows Skarsgård and Hoss’ performances.
While the opening passages are script heavy, co-writer and director Volker Schlondorff (the original Handmaid’s Tale adaptation) edits them with visually grand scenes of Zorn making his way through the concrete jungle of Manhattan. However, once Skarsgård and Hoss make their way to the quiet, secluded Montauk – where there characters once spent some time as lovers – any sense of cinematic sheen dissipates as the film fades into a series of theatrical monologues. The cast just talk endlessly, as if reciting passages from a Tóibín novel – something which has appeal but not in the cinematic medium.
One gets a sense, particularly with its ending, that Tóibín and Schlondorff are trying to subvert the expectations of a love-story, implying that not all meaningful relationships work out. People change and often the past should be left alone (was Max and Rebecca’s relationship really as passionate as the writer had thought?). Yet, they miss the mark – downplaying all the elements of the genre until the film just feels like a surprisingly humdrum, plodding romance.
In Return to Montawk, moments of inventiveness – Arestrup’s art-dealer and mentor figure to Zorn delivers a great passage about letting his beautiful paintings fade in the sunlight: “When I’ll be gone, they will too. I find comfort in that” – are often but fleeting. It’s main story-line is a mess, too intellectual to tug at the heart strings and too wordy to accurately capture emotion.
15A (See IFCO for details)
Return to Montauk is released 8th September 2017