American author Paul Auster is one of the greatest literary voices, in any language, of the past few decades. His many novels are consistently, and uniquely, rewarding. From his much-studied mid-‘80s opus The New York Trilogy through to his recent twin masterpieces Book of Illusions and Oracle Night, Auster has continued to entrance, engage, and mystify his readers with each perfectly-crafted sentence, and every labyrinthine plot.
His is the ne plus ultra of writers’ fiction – the school of writing which tends toward writing about writing itself. While admittedly repetitive in his characterizations and use of symbols, Auster still manages to find new ways to approach the mystery of creativity and expression with each successive articulation.
His novels, all of them, are concerned with similar (even identical) themes: coincidence, fate, inspiration, identity, creation, language, representation. He almost always positions a writer (who is almost always a stand-in for himself) at the centre of the action. He can be read, and often is, as an author obsessed with re-imagining his own biography.
In some eyes, this is arrogance and narcissism; in others, it is honesty and self-reflection. Whichever way you approach it, be advised that Auster will somehow imprint himself, even insinuate himself, into the story in some clever, and often confounding, way. In the New York Trilogy’s first volume, to take the most famous example, the action begins when his protagonist, Daniel Quinn, receives a random, wrong numbered phone call from a stranger asking for “Paul Auster”. This is, then, an author unafraid to remind his readers that he is a part of the book, that his hand is everywhere moving, that inspiration and creativity are always intertwined with the author’s identity.
Since Auster’s first foray into filmmaking in the mid-‘90s with Smoke, he has endeavored to make a wholesale transfer of everything that I have outlined above onto celluloid. This has been met with a combination of muted praise and what can only be called a fierce critical dismissal. Audiences tended to stay away in droves from his deeply cerebral, fantastical, and mysterious movies.
While Smoke brought in some interest (riding the wave of star Harvey Keitel’s then-popularity), his two subsequent features have been theatrical non-starters. But, they were learning pictures – Auster was finding his voice as a filmmaker, making the jump from the page into this expressionistic visual medium, exploring the range of his actors, and experimenting with the script-on-film. In short, the films were training wheels that were, eventually (rather expensively) removed.
With his latest feature, The Inner Life of Martin Frost, we can finally celebrate the emergence of a fully-fledged filmmaker.
A tiny, Bergmanesque chamber movie, The Inner Life of Martin Frost takes place in a secluded farmhouse in the middle of nowhere in particular. Famous writer Martin Frost (played with a ferocious magnetism by David Thewlis) has just completed his best novel yet, and has come to this borrowed place to relax, and to “live the life of a stone”.
His friends, Jack and Diane (who are “played” in photographs on the mantle by Paul Auster and his wife, Siri Hustvedt), are away in Calcutta, leaving Frost to settle in uninterrupted at their lovely book-lined cottage. (Just to further confuse things, when Frost pulls one of his own novels from the shelf we see that the photo of the author “Martin Frost” on the back cover is actually Paul Auster.)
Overcome with the need to write a new story, Frost sets to work. His routine is shattered when, upon waking up the next morning, he discovers a woman in the house (the perfectly cast Irène Jacob) claiming to be the niece of the owners. Her name, we are instructively told, is Claire Martin (or, clear/visible Martin).
From this little, convenient, misunderstanding, the film follows the two as they fall into a rhythm of philosophical discussion, sex, and creativity. Of course, this is the work of Auster, so the story Frost is writing is not merely a “story”; rather, we begin to realize that it is her, and she is it. As he nears its completion, she falls ill, and drifts ever closer to her own end.
From here, the story spins into a new, odd territory, as a local plumber (who also happens to be a writer with his own muse played by the gorgeous Sophie Auster, daughter of the director) shows up on the scene. Michael Imperioli (Christopher on The Sopranos) brings charm and awkward comedy to his role as the plumber-cum-author, infusing the second half of the film with a warmth and humour that the tragic first act only hinted towards. I won’t tell more, for from here the film steps out of any predictable narrative line. Suffice it to say that Auster’s flirtation with Bergman in the first half of the film slips into a playful bow to Jean Cocteau’s Orpheus.
A dark, slippery love story, a meditation on the risks of embracing one’s muse, a study of the author and his/her “creation”, a quiet reflection on the nature of “human understanding”, this film is many things at once. It is extraordinarily successful in both its suggestiveness and its execution. Indeed, Auster has proven himself to be an accomplished manager of actors and a careful, methodical director. I loved this film, and imagine it will haunt my thoughts for many weeks to come. Indeed, this is one of my favourite films of the year. DVD extras (including a 60-minute making-of documentary) are a lot of fun, and, in their way, illuminating.