The newly-minted Platform Prize winner out of TIFF (which comes with a cool $20,000 payday) is Pietro Marcello’s stylish adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel Martin Eden, a work that has fallen into relative obscurity in North America but continues to be taught and read in Europe. For those unfamiliar with the book, it is a semi-autobiographical künstlerroman (or artist’s coming-of-age novel) that serves as an important precursor to the genre’s apex, James Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Instead of the spiritual extremis suffered by Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus, however, London’s protagonist buckles under the weight of his political ideals, namely a reactionary brand of individualism that rejects the more traditionally communal socialism being championed by the proletarian class of the time. Eden’s roots as a sailor are as proletarian as they come, but he is motivated to rise above his low status through a voracious regimen of self-education and creative writing, his eyes fixed on winning the hand of a bourgeois heiress he falls in love with. With his taste in Spencerian philosophy firmly set, though, his autodidacticism becomes the very thing that finally undoes him, for the genteel and shallow refinement of the bourgeoisie no longer interests him, while the working class he was once apart of holds political views he cannot ascribe to. It is as much a tale about a man’s unmooring from the people and values he once believed in as it is about his struggle to be recognized as an author worth publishing to the masses.
What Marcello does with this century-old material is rather astonishing. To emphasize the tale’s universality, he transplants the characters from California to Naples without issue, while he foreshadows Eden’s societal unmooring by removing any specific markers of the film’s historical chronology. The characters wear period costuming, for instance, but also use modern electric lights and flush toilets; some of the musical cues, meanwhile, are culled from the Italo disco scene of the 1980s. Much like Christian Petzold’s Transit, Marcello’s decision to maintain a temporal ambiguity releases the story from its novel’s period confines and gives it space to manifest itself in dialogic relation to the current moment, where self-radicalization and the cynical mistrust of the way axes of inequity are dealt with have become all too prevalent. But even more impressive is the way Marcello continues parsing through the archival record (something he does heavily in his earlier works) in order to preserve history’s spectre. He wants to keep it sitting on the edge of his project despite removing the story’s temporal markers, and so he manipulates clips from historical and filmic sources and intersperses them throughout Eden’s narrative like symbolic pebbles charting the path to his fall. It is a way of binding London’s fictive universe with the one we recognize as our own. The real and unreal oscillating against each other to produce a friction that essentializes the revolutionary possibilities of cinematic expression, ensuring it remains a productively active form.
Marcello cannot entirely reformulate the material, which spans several years of Martin’s life. A time jump ushered in by archival footage of a ship sinking works better in theory than in execution, for the radical changes in Martin’s physique and behaviour that come with it are too sudden to fully digest in the moment. In fact, so little time is spent with Martin’s misanthropic fury in his established societal state that the power that should come from his tragic transformation (and end) is more subdued than it should be. But while a weaker finish can scupper some films, the breadth of Marcello’s vision is enough to compensate for this momentary unevenness. There is too much here to admire and celebrate, not least of which is the assuredness of Marcello’s vision and his boldness in trying to keep the potentialities of cinema thriving.
Martin Eden received its North American premiere at TIFF in the Platform programme on September 11, 2019.