In 2009, Quebec director Philippe Falardeau (Monsieur Lazhar, The Good Lie) won a coveted Bear at Generation, the Berlinale section for young audiences, with It’s Not Me, I Swear! Eleven years and an Oscar nomination later, he is opening the 70th Berlin International Film Festival with the world premiere of his coming-of-age film My Salinger Year — “based on a true story,” a recurring disclaimer on Berlinale screens. American author Joanna Rakoff wrote the eponymous bestseller, musing about her post-college move to 1990s New York City, where she became an assistant to the literary agent of renowned reclusive writer J.D. Salinger.
In the press conference, the actor playing Rakoff, Margaret Qualley, linked her own experience of coming to New York City from North Carolina to study dance to getting into character for the film. One critic gushed how real 1990s New York City feels in My Salinger Year. That’s where Falardeau laughingly stopped her (and our sense of “vérité”): The film was entirely shot in his hometown, Montreal.
A decade ago, Rakoff had created a BBC radio documentary about her real “Salinger year” — reluctantly answering the author’s copious fan mail with generic rejection letters. She expanded the story into her popular 2014 memoir My Salinger Year, which served as the source material for writer-director Falardeau. In the film, Sigourney Weaver’s seasoned businesswoman, Margaret, hires Joanna, beautifully portrayed by Qualley (Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). The film is largely a female two-hander and first film with a female lead. “Philippe doesn’t direct a moment. Whatever you see in the film between Joanna and me happened without us talking too much about it,” says Weaver about the experience.
The Canadian-Irish co-production starts with several minutes of full frontal close-ups on Qualley’s face as she tries to feel her way through multiple job interviews. Qualley, with big wondrous eyes and gangly arms, continues to float through the film and her fictional life until she gradually transforms into a more mature, self-determined young writer. Along the way she learns a few things about aspirations, forks in the road, and finding her own voice instead of adopting those of her boyfriend or boss. Weaver is the foil for other life choices, her character adding a sly, been-around-the-block humour: “People ask to be put in touch with Salinger, even with me!”
Falardeau has assembled a solid creative team including Canadian-American cinematographer Sara Mishara who translates the script into angular images. She sought out their first collaboration and Falardeau raves: “Her work is luminous. You can nearly grab the light in the film. Keep her name in mind.” The Yann Tiersen-esque piano score by Falardeau’s go-to composer Martin Léon is eclectically livened up with everything from mambo to singer songwriter pieces. Art in all its forms —how to create it, how to build a life around it, how to value it as a sanctuary— infuses My Salinger Year, an apt opening meta-theme for a festival facing renewal.
First-time Berlinale director Carlo Chatrian, formerly of Locarno, where he has previously presented Falardeau, didn’t promise too much when he selected a fresh but not naïve cinematic perspective in his opening film choice. It is one of the better Berlinale openers, certainly compared to last year’s laboured The Kindness of Strangers, although an ever gracious Falardeau gave admiring nods to the Coens, Wes Anderson, and Isabel Coixet, who took this spot before him.
Falardeau appreciates the Berlinale: “The festival opened my eyes to another dimension of our profession,” he explained. “The (2009 Generation) presentation in Berlin forced me to question the notion of the audience for which a film is intended. I realized that we could reach all audiences, not just the one we think of. This was the most beautiful realization of my life. I went back the following year, as a member of the jury for this section. The Berlin festival is dear to my heart.”
Falardeau makes some creative formal choices, for example when he channels Salinger’s teen angst protagonist Holden Caulfield and his famous first-person stream of consciousness. We find that tone reflected in Joanna’s meandering voice-over and her close-up camera addresses. Falardeau goes as far as inserting a Holden-like figure into the film, a young man (Quebec’s next star Théodore Pellerin) whose letters to Mr. Salinger capture Joanna’s imagination. My Salinger Year is like a Russian doll: image-in-image (photos of Salinger everywhere), story-in-story (Salinger’s stories in our memoir), and the relay from letter writers to aspiring writer to star writer.
Rakoff added a real-life dimension in the press conference to the layering and mirroring. Asked why she went with Falardeau to turn her book into a film she replied because he trekked out to see her in person. It’s just like the one lucky small-time publisher in the film, who received a rare audience with Jerry, as Salinger is affectionately known at the agency. Ironically, Falardeau also admits to not having read Salinger before taking on the project, just like Joanna as she starts her new job. “Then I read him at 49 after the script’s first draft and had an epiphany, perhaps enjoying him more than I would have earlier,” says Falardeau.
Impeccably set in the mid-90s, with head-to-toe jeans outfits and all, we find ourselves in an analogue near-past of dictaphones, typewriters, and phone calls. There is actually another temporal level, embodied by Weaver, who inhabits an earthy-toned Luddite Mad Man universe of big wooden desks and cigarettes. Keeping the plot (if one can speak of one) in the 90s “brought us discipline; there’s no cell phones, words mattered more,” and “the changes are still happening,” commented Falardeau on the timeframe.
Things are fun when Falardeau starts to play. Fantastical elements enliven the linear and not very dramatic unfolding of what today would be a millennial tale of professional woes. Joanna “shreds” a letter and scene, stopping a Salinger fan “talking” mid-sentence on screen as she pauses shredding their letter half-way through. Spoiler alert: Joanna starts answering select letters honestly, as if suffering from Stockholm Syndrome on the job, putting herself in the position of Agony Aunt to comic and melancholic effect. The glorified secretary learns that the road to hell is paved with good intentions and is briefly reprimanded for “crossing the line,” while a few more lines could have been crossed in My Salinger Year.
Fun aside, there are moments where the film gets too cutesy and overexerts itself: standing around a new office computer a bit too long; making fun of new-fangled “weblogs” that will surely go away soon; overdoing the Russian landlady’s Slavic soul. Falardeau mostly catches himself before venturing too far into kitschy terrain, and we can thank him for not being able to resist Qualley’s first career as a ballerina in a whimsical ballroom scene of couples twirling through the Waldorf Hotel lobby.
Some loose threads in the film include meaningless office encounters over slush piles; Colm Feore’s underused/oddly inserted character Daniel and not enough of the stand-in Holden to create a strong connection. But we forgive Falardeau as he circles around the women and enwraps us in his warm humour, like Jerry endearingly and unchallenged calling Joanna “Suzanna” until the end.
My Salinger Year is not a raucous, fast-paced comedy like The Devil Wears Prada, but a “quiet emotional” Bildungsroman with Falardeau turning the “quite emotional” typo in one of the film’s fan letters into his motto. With less depth and staying power than Falardeau’s French-language Oscar nomination Monsieur Lazhar (and certainly than the lingering Catcher in the Rye), My Salinger Year is nevertheless smart enough to engage and entertain in the moment, especially if your tastes run towards Little Women or Amélie. The audience can get on board when the hermit genius Jerry Salinger finally shows up and says to Joanna “So good to finally meet you” in the closing scene.
My Salinger Year opens in 2020 from Mongrel Media.