Novelist turned filmmaker Paul Auster has indulged in a grand act of authorial wish fulfillment for his second solo feature, The Inner Life of Martin Frost. In the movie, Auster's title character, Martin Frost (David Thewlis), is a writer who goes to bed one night only to wake up in the morning next to Irene Jacob, the beautiful star of Kieslowski's Red. If I were suddenly given leave to make a movie about how I wanted my life to be, I think I'd pair myself with Irene Jacob, as well. Though, I'd go the whole nine yards and cast myself in the movie and dispense with any other actors.
Auster is a creative mind that is drawn to formalistic explorations. His early sashays into cinema, Smoke and Blue in the Face, were playful combinations of literary conceits and motion picture tools. His work has always easily molded itself into other formats, perhaps best exemplified by the amazing graphic novel adaptation of City of Glass by Paul Karasik and David Mazzuchelli. The comic book creators understood how to take Auster's words and transform them into images that were abstract as often as they were concrete, and seeing some of the style choices Auster makes in Martin Frost, that comic immediately sprang to mind. It's just when it's all said and done, I'm not sure that Auster doesn't need a collaborator to temper his impulses, much like Wayne Wang must have done for him in those earlier films.
Jacob plays Claire, a philosophy student who claims to be the niece of the woman whose house Martin is staying in. He has come there to recuperate from the post-partum depression that has set in after the completion of his fourth novel. Claire is also looking to hide away so that she can finish her thesis. She is currently reading George Berkeley's theories about how everything is nothing, and vice versa.
It doesn't take much to debunk Claire's story, and though for a while she convinces Martin to not ask questions, to go with the love affair they have started and to continue with the short story he has been toying with, the collision of their two fictions has a greater impact than Martin expected.
The Inner Life of Martin Frost is really a literary pondering on the nature of creation and inspiration, and Claire is a very real muse. Auster introduces some fascinating concepts about where she comes from and what it means to push men to do greater work than they are thought capable of. Martin Frost has succumbed to the chill of his own name, and Claire's mission is to warm him up. The DVD box carries an endorsement from Wim Wenders, which is a bit of a blessing and a curse, because it makes comparisons to Wenders' superior Wings of Desire unavoidable. In that film, an angel falls in love with a human, and he ends up breaking heavenly boundaries to comfort her. Martin and Claire have very much the same relationship.
Some of Auster's metafictional flights of fancy are quite fun. He often cuts away from the action to show us isolated images of a typewriter or animated graphs of the track of Martin's story. The voiceover narration, spoken by Auster himself, even appears on the page Martin is typing, and it suggests some of what Auster wants to get at in the movie. Surprisingly, the narration also rings false a lot of the time, sounding more like the prose of a screenwriter trying to pretend to write about a novelist, despite that being very much not the case. Perhaps it's that the voiceover actually keeps us on the outside of Martin's world, rather than really taking us into his inner life. Or perhaps it's that it tips Auster's hand a little too early--as does, even, his title--and there is little surprise to be had in Claire's revelations. You don't have to be a know-it-all lit student to spot her true role.
The writer/director saves a few tricks for the second half of the movie, introducing a local man who aspires to be a writer (Michael Imperioli) whose impassioned approach to life speaks to the spark Martin may have lost. Yet, The Inner Life of Martin Frost is a movie in want of an ending. Auster seems at a loss to do anything with these final act concepts, and so the movie merely gets in the car and drives away, both literally and figuratively. Everyone leaves the house where the magic happened, intent on seeing how that magic can transition into the real world, but it feels more like the arbitrary arrival at the obligatory running time than it does a conclusion.
Literary types will enjoy some of the ponderous aspects of Paul Auster's script, and cinema buffs might get a kick out of the plays on convention, but for the most part, The Inner Life of Martin Frost is no more than a neat curiosity.
The 16:9 transfer is adequate, I suppose. For the most part, it's just fine, but like the movie itself, it feels like it's lacking. The colors are okay without being particularly vibrant, and it's not dirty or scratched up; the image quality just lacks any sharpness. Some fuzzy edges are readily evident, and it overall has a look that comes of as if the studio was content at stopping at "good enough."
The original English soundtrack is mixed in 5.1 Dolby. I didn't notice any remarkable atmosphere, not much interplay with my speakers, but the audio was clear and didn't have any distortion.
There is also a 2.0 English mix.
In addition to the obligatory theatrical trailer, there is also an extensive making-of documentary, running 43 minutes. It reveals the origins of the story as a script for a short film that was then folded into one of the author's prose novels, and then once more taken to cinematic form and expanded to a full feature. It covers how the actors became involved, and then the endeavor to make the final product, which was shot in Portugal.
Rent It. Though full of neat metafictional germs, The Inner Life of Martin Frost never really comes together. The story of an author (David Thewlis) and his very real muse (Irene Jacob), writer/director Paul Auster uses his movie to playfully explore the notions of inspiration and the lengths of creation. The problem is that the ideas never really go beyond the "hey, wouldn't it be cool" stage, and so the narrative eventually runs out of steam.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.