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Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Express at Berlinale 2020 – Day 1: My Salinger Year is turgid and inert

Margaret Qualley, criminally, comes off flat. Sigourney Weaver is better, just a shade, just by the fact that she’s done this for so long. How can a movie about wonderful writing, and writers, be written with so little flair?

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Berlin | Updated: February 23, 2020 11:50:43 am
My Salinger Year My Salinger Year opened the 70th edition of the Berlin Film Festival.

Usually film festival jury press conferences are your standard-issue staged events, with unremarkable q and a sessions, and photo ops for the assembled press. But at the 70th edition of the Berlin Film Festival, jury president Jeremy Irons made a tonal shift by prefacing his opening remarks with a call for basic human rights. I support wholeheartedly, he said, the worldwide women’s rights movement, the right to same-sex marriage, and the right to abortion.

His comments were more in the nature of contravening previous ill-advised remarks he had made on these issues, but the fact of having them said out loud, with force and clarity, set the tone for the presser. As well as for the Berlinale, which prides itself on being one of the world’s most political film festivals, where the on-going issues of rising right-wing nationalism, the refugee crisis, the violence against minorities, has found a voice in the choice of films.

There is something to be said about watching contemporary cutting-edge cinema just a few minutes’ walk away from a somber memorial dedicated to those who perished in the Holocaust. The main festival venue at the Potsdamer Platz is surrounded by signs of a city that was reconstructed post 1945, and those signs, which include remnants of the Berlin Wall (and the Nazi-uniformed burlesqueries acted out as a major tourist attraction, at the nearby historic Checkpoint Charlie), are assiduously maintained. The movies help with the healing.

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If you, like me, have been a life-long fan of J D Salinger, you will have read everything by and on the famously reclusive author. I brought my battered, well-thumbed copy of Franny And Zooey along for the plane ride from Delhi to Berlin, just as a refresher for the opening film, My Salinger Year. Not that I had forgotten any of it, and though I love Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters as much, and Catcher In The Rye just a little less, I have always come back to the crackling prose and the intriguing doings of the two youngest Carpenter siblings.

Those words leap off the page still. The film, I am heartbroken to report, is, for the most part, turgid and inert. Based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoirs of her year at one of New York’s most famous publishing houses, where the author, a wide-eyed ingenue, walks in to find dark-panelled walls, antediluvian typewriters, and respectful mentions of someone called ‘Jerry’. Rakoff’s part is played by the lovely Margaret Qualley, (last seen in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood), and her boss, a formidable grande dame who hates computers and anything modern, is played by Sigourney Weaver.

Rakoff’s book is full of the sights and sounds of a 1995 New York. Manhattan, actually, where the publishing house is situated, not very far from the venerable The New Yorker, and is home to all kinds of itinerants from all over the United States, especially those, like Rakoff, who want to write themselves.

The finding-your-voice-and-yourself genre is well-established, and the film, directed by Phillipe Falardeu, lays out all of its conventions on the table in a row: the hopeful young woman, in her Peter Pan collars and messy just-woken up hair, who begins tentatively but gains confidence as she goes along, the older woman who wants everything her own way and will brook no interference (shades of The Devil Wears Prada), the heavy-handed boyfriend who only cares for himself, and writes very purple prose, to boot. But there’s no sparkle here.

Which, I have to say, is very disappointing. Qualley, criminally, comes off flat. Weaver is better, just a shade, just by the fact that she’s done this for so long. How can a movie about wonderful writing, and writers, be written with so little flair?

Rakoff’s character discovers the joys of reading him, and is visited by several imaginary Salinger fans (her primary job is to read the mountains of fan mail he gets, and keeping it away from him): one of them could have been Catcher’s remarkable young Holden Caulfied, who so hated ‘phonies’. One of the most alive parts of the movie has Qualley dance about a room full of light, chatting about a letter Franny writes.

That tone, joyous, curious, suffusing the whole film, would have been an apt love letter to Salinger.

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