Berlinale 2017: 'Return to Montauk' is a Tender Look at Love & Regret
by Alex Billington
February 15, 2017
"We cross and re-cross our old paths like figure-skaters." That's a line from Cloud Atlas, but I kept thinking back to that film (and that storyline in it) while watching this one. Return to Montauk is the latest drama from German director Volker Schlöndorff, set primarily in New York following a few German characters around the city. It's a very tender, heartfelt film about the great regrets and lost loves in our lives, and how we attempt to get over what happened in the past (or, perhaps, not get over our past regrets). Maybe it's because I connected to it in a very personal way, but Return to Montauk kept me captivated and awake and intrigued from start to finish. Even if I didn't feel emotionally drained by the end I was certainly enthralled.
The film opens with Stellan Skarsgård, playing a successful German author named Max Zorn, speaking almost directly to the camera about something his father had told him about the two things that define someone's life: something you regret doing that you can't change, and something you regret not doing, that you also can't change anymore. When he returns to New York City for a book tour with his German wife, played by Susanne Wolff, he decides to reconnect with an old flame named Rebecca, played by Nina Hoss, also a German woman now living in the city as a high-power, wealthy lawyer. There's an introspective philosophical side to the film, like Mia Hansen-Løve's fantastic Things to Come in a way, that presents the filmmaker's own look at what regrets mean later in life - filtered through Schlöndorff's German upbringing.
Much of Return to Montauk focuses on the idea that these regrets do indeed define us, or can overwhelm major emotional paths in our life, and that it may in fact be impossible to overcome these problems by the time we die. The opening monologue is essentially a thesis that the rest of the film attempts to prove. This kind of overt filmmaking may be off-putting for some, but it works well for this film and this particular story. Schlöndorff makes thoughtful choices throughout, especially with the lovely score by Thomas Bartlett & Caoimhín Ó'Raghallaigh (and a few songs from Max Richter), that elevates the emotional aspects of the story. Skarsgård is heartbreaking as the lead character Max, who carries the whole film and (for me at least) made me feel so sad about his situation. He just wants to be with the woman he loves more than any other.
The film is dialogue heavy, but thankfully in an approachable way. I kept thinking of Cloud Atlas because I was waiting for some truly heavy-hitting lines that would stick with me for a long time, but there weren't any. The discussion is intelligent and reflective enough to have an impact by making viewers think about their own choices and regrets and lost loves. It may have more an impact with those who have lived long enough to actually have these kind of regrets, but it has the potential to make those still growing up to be more careful with their choices. Don't screw up, don't let these moments become regrets, if possible. Maybe it's not. Maybe these regrets will define us no matter what we do. Perhaps that's the fate we all must accept.
Alex's Berlinale 2017 Rating: 8 out of 10
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