Berlin Film Review: ‘Return to Montauk’

'Return to Montauk' Review from Berlinale

Volker Schlöndorff has made a drama, starring Stellan Skarsgård and Nina Hoss, about a rekindled love affair. It may just be a classy soap opera, but it's his best film in a long time.

Return to Montauk” is Volker Schlöndorff’s tasteful, high-minded Euro-literate version of a Lifetime Movie — and I mean that (mostly) as a compliment. It’s the story of a famous novelist, Max Zorn, played by Stellan Skarsgård (and based on Schlöndorff’s friend Max Frisch, the celebrated Swiss novelist who died in 1991). Max arrives in New York from his home in Berlin for a week-long stay to plug his latest masterpiece, but once there, all he can think about is reuniting with Rebecca (Nina Hoss), who lit his flame 17 years ago. It’s a tricky situation, since Max is married. His wife, Clara (Susanne Wolff), lives in New York, half a world away from him, and if that sounds like an unconventional arrangement, it speaks to the essence of Max’s nature. He’s in his early 60s, worldly and authoritative, not just a novelist but a Continental philosopher of fiction, yet beneath the cultivated trappings he’s still reveling in a life of adolescent “freedom.” “Return to Montauk” is about how he tries to have his no-strings cake and eat it too.

Schlöndorff, at 77, is still best known for “The Tin Drum,” his most acclaimed film (it took the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1979 and won the Academy Award for foreign language film). Over the years, he has made a number of high-profile English-language dramas, like “Swann in Love” and “The Handmaid’s Tale,” none of which worked out too well (though I do retain a fondness for his ripely femme fatale-stocked 1998 film noir “Palmetto”). In “Return to Montauk,” however, Schlondorff seems a bit of a born-again filmmaker; he works with a surprisingly direct and youthful spirit. He sends his camera jostling through the New York streets and into drunken literary cocktail parties and after-hours clubs, and he establishes a spontaneous communion with his actors. The movie is all about what they reveal, especially Skarsgård, who invests Max with a personal history that never feels less than lived in.

The film opens with Max speaking directly into the camera, describing a piece of wisdom his father imparted to him on his deathbed: that the only two things that matter are the biggest mistake you ever made, and the biggest regret you have for what you didn’t do. The film’s whimsical intellectual charm is right there in that tidbit: If you ponder it for a few moments, you realize that the point is ludicrous (as if the things that aren’t regrets don’t matter), yet it spices the drama with a pleasingly weighted European fatalistic urgency. Making the rounds of highbrow talk radio and bookstore readings, Skarsgård’s Max is the literary star as saddened libertine. His wife, who’s much younger, is devoted to him, but he can’t allow himself to be happy with her, because he thinks that’s too easy. To feel alive, he needs to go back and touch his big regret.

He had lost track of Rebecca, but fate hands him a second chance when he runs into Walter (the wily Niels Arestrup), his wealthy old mentor-benefactor, who knew her as well. Rebecca, it turns out, is now a high-powered corporate lawyer, and Max stalks her to her office, where she meets him in the lobby and seems cold and nervous and unfriendly. But then, after another encounter, she asks him to spend Saturday afternoon driving out with her to Montauk, at the tip of Long Island, where she’s considering buying a friend’s beach house. It was Montauk where the two enjoyed the most idyllic moment of their love affair, and the day trip sets the movie up as a romantic drama of intimate suspense that will confront the question: What happened back then?

For a while, you think the question is going to be: Will they or won’t they (sleep together, that is)? Schlöndorff milks that rather shamelessly, but actually, the sex, when it happens, turns out to be nice and no big deal. The German actress Nina Hoss lets her beauty mingle with remorse, which only makes her more captivating. For a good long while, “Return to Montauk” seems to belong to Skarsgård, whether he’s brooding in that heavy/light Scandinavian way or pretending to be above it all. In the end, though, the film refuses to indulge Max as single-mindedly as he indulges himself. It shifts over to Rebecca, to why she’s so suspicious of re-triggering these feelings. And Hoss’ performance hits a note of painful purity.

None of which takes “Return to Montauk” out of the realm of Lifetime Cinema. The movie really is a soap opera — it’s just a good one, the kind of strolling-on-the-beach, twilight-of-love drama that could connect with audiences of a certain age for what the Volker Schlöndorff of old might have said were the wrong reasons. It’s refreshing, in its way, to see that he’s younger than that now.

Berlin Film Review: 'Return to Montauk'

Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (competing), Feb. 15, 2017. Running time: 106 MIN.

Production

A Gaumont, Ziegler Film, Pyramide Prod., Volksfilm, Savage Prod. production, in association with Barefoot Films, Senator Film, Starhaus Filmprouktion, Film & Music Entertainment, WDR, BR, ARTE France Cinéma, ARTE, WDR/ARTE. Producers: Regina Ziegler, Volker Schlöndorff, Francis Boespflug, Stéphane Parthenay, Conor Barry, Hartmut Köhler. Executive producer: Hartmut Köhler.

Crew

Director: Volker Schlöndorff. Screenplay: Schlöndorff, Colm Toíbin. Camera (color, widescreen): Jérôme Alméras. Editor: Hervé Schneid.

With

Stellan Skarsgård, Nina Hoss, Susanne Wolff, Niels Arestrup, Isi Laborde, Bronagh Gallagher, Mathias Sanders, Malcolm Adams.

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  1. Emma Lundwall says:

    How can I see this movie in the US, is it showing in NYC? I loved the book.

  2. Johannes Reuchlin says:

    A man clearly in love with none other than his own Great self.

    A man who clearly hates women or has borderline user-mysongyny.

    How on earth did a great writer such as Colm Toibin get involved with this little nonentity.

    He made one single half way good film 40 years ago and has been dining out on it ever since

    Let’s hope this is the last…

    Surely it must be.

  3. Peer Raben says:

    This review doesnt go far enough. Yes. It says that the film is crap. and that Schloendorff is past it. We all know that. But he doesnt describe what a dreary old steaming mass of ordure it is. It really is beyond the pale. Poor Stellan and Nina having to act these unspeakable words. Volker. Do yourself a favour and retire. And dont go teaching any poor students to repeat all your own mediocre mistakes.

  4. Renate schmidt says:

    What an excellent review. The reviewer understands that this dreary little spiesig soap opera for the suburbs has no place in our cinemas. It is so beyond competent that one wonders if Schloendorff is actually still alive as it seems to have been directed by a lazy corpse and apparently cost a fortune. Clearly the best investment in it is the great Irish writer |Colm Toibin – but even he cant resucitate any life out of Schloendorff’s endless endless dreariness. Hopefully he will see this comment and stop imposing his octogenarian mediocrity on the world. When was Tim Drum anyway? 1969? He’s been dining out on that fluke for 40 years.

  5. SMS says:

    “For a while, you think the question is going to be: Will they or won’t they (sleep together, that is)?” And then you answer that question for us. Yet another film Owen Gleiberman gives away spoilers for. Your a good writer, but you have no business being a film critic. Lost count how many films you’ve wrecked for me with your disregard for spoilers. Many I just then skip. Variety should have fired you long ago. (How many other people skip films you’ve wrecked? “Passengers” would have done better if your review wasn’t a complete give away of every plot element and twist. The studios should be paying you to NOT review their films.)

  6. Joyce Tyler says:

    I’ll watch anything Nina Hoss is in. I even watched her episodes on “Homeland.” She’s the German Isabelle Huppert.

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