Young at Heart Film Festival Road to Montauk: Haunted by the past

Road to Montauk
© Road to Montauk

Nostalgia is modern-day cinema’s hottest commodity; if a movie isn’t capitalising upon it courtesy of filmmaking’s recurrent fondness for sequels, remakes, reboots and the like, then it’s selling it in various guises. Somewhat surprisingly, 'Road to Montauk' falls into both categories — one in a standard fashion, the other not so.

In an unremarkable manner, the feature tells of a novelist haunted by his past, penning a somewhat fictionalised memoir about a prior romance and actively trying to chase the former lover in question. Writer/director Volker Schlöndorff strives for something comparable in a professional context, crafting a movie loosely based on an autobiographical novella by a scribe he has previously adapted, and trying to recapture his own winning ways behind the camera in the process.
 
Visiting New York to promote his latest book, writer Max Zorn (Stellan Skarsgård) can’t escape his history. It’s in the pages of his latest tome, and, as a result, it’s on his mind as he works the media circuit. With his text focused on a love long lost, the novelist is particularly fixated upon the one that got away, even though he’s now happily married to the younger Clara (Susanne Wolff). The ex-paramour in his thoughts is Rebecca (Nina Hoss), a lawyer who Max romanced 17 years earlier when she was a German exchange student. Returning to the city of their affair, writing about their time together and reading its passages aloud, he’s driven to track her down. Alas, she doesn’t share his wistfulness, proving reluctant to meet and still uncertain even after she agrees.

Asking the inevitable question

Burning in Max’s eyes is a common, inevitable question, as well as the many others it always sparks. “What if?” isn’t something that he literally wonders aloud in those exact words, but he may as well — it’s written across his face, not to mention throughout his book. Revisiting Long Island with Rebecca only amplifies his pondering, as the pair walk in their previous footsteps, discuss where and why their lives diverged, and relive old times. Theirs is a tale packaged as a recognisable romance, but filled with just-as-recognisable existential turmoil, as Max contemplates whether he made the correct decisions and followed the right path.

Road to Montauk © Road to Montauk As it charts Max and Rebecca’s reunion, Road to Montauk is warm, soulful but overly familiar; however the universal urge to consider how the past shapes the future anchors this softly filmed account of middle-aged yearning with much-needed sincerity. Co-scripting with Brooklyn author Colm Tóibín, Schlöndorff overplays his hand slightly — positioning his protagonist as little more than a cliché indistinguishable from countless similar characters in similar features — but the film’s obsession with history never feels less than genuine. From the tentative glimmer of hope in Max’s eyes to the excavation-like conversations that unearth years of unspoken emotions, the intimate drama is handled with the sensitivity of someone who can relate to analogous circumstances. Indeed, the writer/director demonstrates as much in taking inspiration Max Frisch's 1975 story Montauk, in his latest effort based on the author’s works after 1991’s Voyager. The filmmaker mightn’t be interrogating a previous romance, but he too is enjoying the comfort of looking backwards.

The ever-luminous Nina Hoss

Max and Schlöndorff’s fixations with the past each have a focal point, of course. Schlöndorff’s affection for Frisch's work mightn’t convincingly translate to the screen — the director’s visuals, mood and pace are routine rather than vibrant — but the allure of Rebecca shines through thanks to Hoss’ luminous performance. She’s hardly challenged in the way evident in her collaborations with Christian Petzold, and nor does her portrayal rank alongside her efforts in Something to Remind Me, Wolfsburg, Yella, Jerichow, Barbara and Phoenix, but she aptly turns her role into more than just an object of male regret and desire. In fact, breathing life and texture into a figure that could’ve remained a flimsy fantasy, Hoss proves the movie’s most fascinating element. She’s not wading through her own history, and nor is her character — but, turn either into a film, and the results would be more than welcome.