Berlinale 2020 opening film My Salinger Year, based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, fails to rise above its subject matter

Prathap Nair

Feb 25, 2020 15:56:35 IST

Berlinale 2020 will run from 20 February, 2020 – 1 March, 2020. My Salinger Year was the opening film. 

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As of every year, Europe’s biggest public festival Berlinale launched with a breezy opener to slide its audience comfortably into the assuredly heavyweight and experimental arthouse fare it’s known to roll out during its weeklong celebration of films (and its creators) from across the world.

The festival opened this year with My Salinger Year, directed by the French-Canadian filmmaker Philippe Falardeau whose earlier films include The Good Lie (2014) and Chuck (2016).

Adapted from Johanna Rakoff’s 2014 literary memoir about her brief stint as an intern at a literary agency handling J D Salinger in 90s New York, My Salinger Year earnestly seeks to interpret the book-to-screen enterprise with somewhat limited success.

Margaret Qualley plays Johanna Rakoff, an ambitious youngster, who drops out of Berkeley and breaks up with her boyfriend (Hamza Haq, whose limited screen presence lights up the movie) and moves to New York to pursue her literary ambitions. The city is on the cusp of an internet revolution – "my colleagues email me to ask for lunch," Rakoff’s friend and flat mate tells her amusingly – that may topple the way business and daily affairs are conducted by the publishing industry.

 Berlinale 2020 opening film My Salinger Year, based on Joanna Rakoff’s memoir, fails to rise above its subject matter

A still from My Salinger Year.

Rakoff’s jobs involve typing out standard response templates to Salinger’s fan mails and answering calls. The templates - that announce to the fans that Salinger doesn’t respond to fan mails - haven’t changed since 1963. Intrigued by some dedicated fan mails that seek life advice and share rants with the author, Rakoff tries to engage with them on her own and gets reprimanded by her boss Sigourney Weaver. The film follows Rakoff’s time at the literary agency that represented Salinger before she decided to quit and started a literary career of her own.

It’s easy to see how My Salinger Year works beautifully as a literary memoir – the excitement of a young girl in a big new city, her literary ambitions, the quandary of getting sucked into a literary agent’s quotidian affairs albeit working for some big names like Salinger and Judy Bloom. Though, of all these qualities that make for a good read, only some get retained in the movie leaving the narrative somewhat meandering, hence unexciting.

Salinger, the purported titular literary hero of the movie, appears only fleetingly, obscured to the camera – as the recluse he has been in real life – and has no bearing over the movie’s flow even as Rakoff seems to develop a minor friendship with the man who encourages her to follow her literary ambitions.

Qualley’s Rakoff admits to not having read Salinger, as has the film’s director Philippe Falardeu in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, though it would’ve made little difference because the movie’s major selling point is neither the author’s works nor his personality. Even as it appears the film could benefit from the mystery surrounding Salinger’s reclusiveness seen through the eyes of a literary intern, it never capitalises on it to provide the screenplay some momentum. Same with the scenes that involve Judy Bloom whose appearance doesn’t seem to benefit the movie’s flow.

Qualley carries the weight of the movie in her slender shoulders and brightens up the screen with her broad almond eyes and well-meaning naivete. Sigourney Weaver, who plays Margaret the literary agent, comes across as a formidable character. Montreal plays substitute for New York, a decision that doesn’t affect the narrative, yet robs the movie of New York’s atmospheric sense of place. It makes little difference of course, if you didn’t know New York from Montreal.

My Salinger Year is a tastefully done tribute to Rakoff’s years at Salinger’s literary agency but at the lack of narrative tension or real friction, it feels flat like a bottle of champagne left out too long, hence lost its fizz.

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Updated Date: Feb 25, 2020 15:56:35 IST