In a way, Volker Schlöndorff has had The Tin Drum hanging around his neck for the past 35 years. After making what was perhaps the most important post-war German film, the 77-year-old director has never been able to emulate the success of that film, either artistically or critically. He is unlikely to do so with his latest effort, Return to Montauk. His reputation as a major director having long faded, he is still able to land a Berlinale competition berth on name only though, but whether Montauk really has the quality to occupy that spot is debatable. In the end, it is the performances, most notably by German-born Nina Hoss (returning to Phoenix form), that make it in any way memorable, even if it is quite a lovely film. But one cannot shake the impression that Return to Montauk would have rapidly fallen into oblivion if not for Schlöndorff’s name at the top of the bill.
Max (Stellan Skarsgård) is a successful European author who travels to New York for a book reading of his latest novel. Although he is in a relationship with Clara (Susanne Wolff), a return to the city where he broke up with the love of his life, Rebecca (Nina Hoss), brings back memories and a yearning to see if he can patch up the errors of the past. Rebecca, now a highly successful lawyer, initially turns down any form of approach, but succumbs after an impromptu night visit by Max. She invites him to take a short trip with her to Montauk, the place where their relationship had its high point almost two decades before. What was supposed to be a couple of hours, by accident turns into a night that rekindles the flame. But can they keep the flame alive, or will their painful history prove too strong?
The most interesting aspect of Return to Montauk, besides the acting, is the way the screenplay slowly deconstructs its protagonist. Initially a charming, good-natured and eloquent character, Max’s history catches up with him, as he progressively turns out to be a severely flawed and self-centered man, especially when it comes to his relationships with women. Co-written by Schlöndorff with Colm Tóibín (best known for his Brooklyn screenplay), the story is skillful as it turns the tables on Max, and in parallel warms up the character of Rebecca, culminating in a long quasi-monologue that gives Hoss the opportunity to sweep Skarsgård off the Montauk beach. Unfortunately, in any aspect that doesn’t involve the central relationship, the screenplay tends to falter. A side-story with Niels Arestrup as a longtime art-collecting friend of Max is undercooked, and Max’s relationship with Clara is too thinly drawn to make her reactions to Max’s excursion with Rebecca resonate. Isi Laborde-Edozien and Bronagh Gallagher as, respectively, Max’s PA and Rebecca’s best friend are essentially thankless non-characters, existing solely to spice up the New York-based scenes. Add in dialogue that is at times inspired (Max’s intellectual eloquence is given fitting verbiage), yet also at times excruciating (“You can’t fuck a ghost” is probably the worst line in competition, certainly in context).
What holds the film together is the chemistry between Skarsgård and Hoss. From the moment Hoss literally ascends in the film, the history between their characters can be felt in their verbal sparring, and later, once the initial dust has settled, in their comfortable body language. The two actors are perfectly matched as they go back and forth at each other, yet after a night that shouldn’t have happened, Hoss finally gets the chance to colour in the background of Rebecca since their break-up, and she sets the screen ablaze. However melodramatic Rebecca’s history may be on paper, Hoss eschews grand gestures and lets the lines in her face tell their story of hurt. In those few moments, Return to Montauk soars on the Long Island winds. It’s unfortunate that before and after, the film is little more than a gentle breeze: pleasant while it lasts, but not the kind of storm you will remember.