“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.