Max (Stellan Skarsgard) is a writer from Berlin. He’s doing a promotional book tour in New York. Seventeen years ago he had a brief romance with Rebecca (Nina Hoss). Neither of them realised how much they cared about each other at the time.
He meets her again now. You don’t have to be Einstein to figure out where this is going. They’ll be thrown together to see if l’amour is still in the air.
It’s set in New York but it has ‘European film’ written all over it. Think ‘nouvelle vague’. Never trust anything with ‘nouvelle’ in it, including ‘nouvelle cuisine’. You never get as much as you want.
I normally tend to praise continental films for their nuanced approach to emotional entanglements. Not here. Hollywood would have handled it better. It’s well written (by our own Colm Toibin) and capably directed by Volker Schlondorff but for a lot of the time it’s curiously lacking in atmosphere. That’s a cardinal sin in something like this, which is all about that.
Max and Becky go through their various agonies of yearning for 106 minutes. I kept thinking of Humphrey Bogart saying to Ingrid Bergman in Casablanca: “We’ll always have Paris.” It was a corny film but nobody could deny its magic.
Claude Lelouch’s A Man and a Woman reprised some of that magic with the help of a moody soundtrack and a beach. There were also slashing windshield wipers and foggy windowpanes and Jean-Louis Tringinant telling Anouk Aimée he loved her about 500 times. You wanted him to tell her 500 more times. You were crying your eyes out. You had to restrain yourself from running home to get your Kleenex.
In Return to Montauk we get the moody soundtrack and the beach but no slashing windshield wipers. They tell one another they used to be ‘world champions at happiness’ but they look more like they’ve just come through two particularly painful gall bladder operations.
Skarsgard is too inscrutable. He manages the occasional elegiac tone but not enough to convince us he’s still carrying a torch for his lady love. Hoss looks like she doesn’t know how she feels. I was reminded of those Scandinavian films I used to watch in the IFT in the old days where everyone contemplated the meaning of life for two hours and then went fishing.
Maybe some day a less capable director than Schlondorff will re-make this promising story and pull out all the stops. I’m talking violin music, poignant stares and, yes, lots and lots of foggy windowpanes. (This time I won’t forget the Kleenex.)
Make no mistake – Return to Montauk is still an impressive film. It’s just that it takes too long to get to the point. And when it gets to it you wonder what it is.
You leave the cinema feeling you’ve eaten a bowl of caviar when all you really wanted was some bangers and mash.