Paul Auster’s latest helming stint smoke-bombs the love story of a gruffly antisocial novelist (David Thewlis) and a strange young woman (Irene Jacob) with nonstop whimsical philosophizing about the subjective nature of reality. Falling somewhere between the melodramatic fantasy of Poe’s “Oval Portrait” and the comic literalism of Albert Brooks’ “The Muse,” stilted pic makes the celebrated author’s previous celluloid walkabout, “Lulu on the Bridge,” seem positively commercial by comparison. Strained dialogue, awkward mise-en-scene and weirdly uncomfortable thesping from superlative players contribute to a drearily self-reflective conceit. Gotham’s New Directors/New Films’ curtain-raiser is proposed for unspecified 2007 release.
Martin Frost (Thewlis) holes up in a friend’s empty house in the country to recuperate from a three-year writing jag. But his respite is extremely short-lived, as he hatches an idea for a new short story. He wakes up the next morning beside a comely, near-nude vivacious woman, Claire (Jacob), whose last name, Martin, is “coincidentally” his first.
They meet paranoid — at least on his side, since Claire has a radiant smile that just won’t quit. Introducing herself as the niece of the house’s owner, seeking refuge to work on her philosophy thesis (thereby setting the stage for pixie-ish ontological musings peppered with quotations), Claire proceeds to charm the pants off her unwilling host and, natch, enable his process.
As Martin’s prose progresses, Claire visibly weakens (swooning in slow-mo and lightly channeling Garbo’s Camille), until Martin, having apparently read Poe, sacrifices his art for his muse and fights to keep her in the “real” world, leading to Orpheus-tinged variations on “Ghost.”
Auster throws in Michael Imperioli as a plumber-cum-amateur writer, jack of all genres and master of none, for comic relief. But pic’s stabs at humor are so ponderously set up that relief at their completion could conceivably engender laughter. Imperioli, as it turns out, has his own otherworldly “muse,” Anna (Auster’s lovely daughter Sophie), who appears as floppily inchoate as Imperioli’s unfocused writing.
The script — originally concocted for a 30-minute entry in the German-produced “Erotic Tales” film anthology, then withdrawn and inserted into Auster’s 2002 novel “The Book of Illusions,” and finally expanded to its present form and shot in Portugal — receives very bare-bones treatment, apparently for budgetary reasons.
But nothing explains the poverty of the pic’s soundtrack, which leaves the actors’ verbal offerings unnaturally foregrounded. Similarly, thesps’ bodies never convincingly inhabit either the indoor or outdoor spaces in the film (with the exception of Anna, who gets to bonelessly slump over the furniture). Thewlis doesn’t seem to know what to do with his various appendages, his smile uneasily sliding on and off his face, while Imperioli’s intense physicality often unbalances the frame.
Auster’s frequent voice-over narration clarifies just whose “inner life” haunts the enterprise, while lenser Christophe Beaucarne struggles futilely to find nuance in Auster’s vision of paranormal creativity.