Thursday, March 20, 2008

The Inner Life of Martin Frost (2007)

Paul Auster’s The Inner Life of Martin Frost is a feature film based on a segment of The Book of Illusions, his haunting and expertly crafted novel about a bereaved intellectual’s search for a reclusive silent film director. In the book, The Inner Life of Martin Frost is one of the master director’s short films, and Auster’s protagonist sketches out a stream of consciousness description of it as he sees it for the first time. It’s a masterful sequence, one of the best things Auster has written in his lengthy career, and from the vivid and detailed way it is described in the novel one could be forgiven for assuming that it would make a great film.

Unfortunately, Auster, in his attempt to expand the content of what should be a short film to feature length, sullies the beauty of the original story and creates a film that is meandering, pretentious and ultimately meaningless. By building a narrative around what should be a brief and mysterious tale, he manages to downplay its strengths and exacerbate its faults, to the point that by the end of the film one wonders how they ever could have thought such a story would work onscreen.

The plot starts out simple enough. Martin Frost (David Thewlis, uncharacteristically awkward and wooden), a depressive and mildly successful writer, has just finished a new novel and retreats to a friend’s country house to decompress and relax, “to live the life of a stone.” But not long after he arrives he formulates an idea for a short story, forty pages or so, and resolves to remain in the house until it is finished. After beginning his story, he is surprised one day when he wakes to find the mysterious Claire Martin (Irene Jacob) in bed with him. After some initial tension, the two begin a romantic relationship, and we come to realize that the perplexing Claire is a kind of spiritual muse come to Martin Frost to inspire his creativity and help him write his new story. (That she seems to do this solely by having sex with him is disappointing, if not expected).

The remainder of the film intends to be a meditation on creativity and the sacrifices a writer will make for his work, as Frost realizes that as soon as he completes his story his new love will disappear, but Auster’s attempt to beef up the sparseness of the story by adding subplots-- including the introduction of Michael Imperioli as an aspiring writer with his own muse, played by Auster’s daughter, Sophie-- robs the film of whatever inertia it had in its first half hour, and The Inner Life of Martin Frost quickly becomes a lumbering mess.

For his part, Imperioli manages to be immensely likable and interesting as Jim Fortunato, a heating and air conditioning tech with a penchant for writing bizarre short stories, but one can’t shake the feeling that he seems to have walked into the story from another (probably better, less pretentious) film, and his place in this particular story never manages to materialize. As for Auster’s daughter, I'll only say this-- haven’t filmmakers realized by now that casting your children in your film is always a bad idea? Paul Auster, god bless him, clearly thinks his daughter is talented, but her introduction as a muse “with the voice of an angel” completely takes the viewer out of the film (especially since her singing is mediocre at best), and plays exactly like what it is-- the cringe-inducing boastings of a proud parent.

If Auster had dispensed with the subplots and filmed this story as it should have been-- as a short film-- then it would likely retain some of the magic and palpability of the written version. As it is, he seems to be over-explaining and over-analyzing every tiny part of the story to the point the he sucks the life out of it. The mystery of where Claire has come from remains unexplained in the written version, but here she is given lines about an otherworldly “they” that is responsible for when and where and with whom she materializes, which quickly conjures up absurd images of some clandestine committee of muses that only serves to highlight the inherent silliness of the situation. Throughout the latter half of the film it is apparent that Auster is trying to inject some kind of overarching meaning into the story, but there simply isn’t anything to give that wasn’t already there in the first third. All these new dimensions do is introduce a number of troublesome plot holes and unanswered questions about the nature of Claire’s role as a muse that bog the film down.

The story Martin Frost finally writes is 37 pages long, and that’s how many minutes the film stays interesting. From then on, The Inner Life of Martin Frost devolves into an affected, solipsistic, and ultimately masturbatory exercise. Which is not to say it doesn’t look great. The film was made in Portugal and shot by French cinematographer Christophe Beaucarne, who manages to weave some truly interesting images into the story, but his attempts to hint at depth through imagery only increase the sense of vapidness that seems to radiate from most of the characters.

It might be unfair not to judge the Inner Life of Martin Frost on its own terms and instead compare it to its source material, but I simply can’t reconcile this flawed vision with the infinitely better version that already exists, the version that Auster should have set out to make. What I can do is recommend that you read The Book of Illusions right away, and try to forget that this unfortunate attempt ever existed.

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