As in The Fly-Truffler (2000), Sobin follows a character striving obsessively—against time and age—to find or capture some essence in his life before it’s too late. This time around, though, contrivance outweighs the compelling.
Philip Nilson is a scriptwriter who, when diagnosed with bone cancer and given three months to live, chooses to immerse himself in one last screenplay—a task that will presumably provide him with some kind of answer about his own life. And so he sets out on the unlikely project of writing about Garbo—to find out what it was that really happened, in 1924, that brought about the actress’s as-if-overnight flowering into the extraordinary beauty who was to capture the world. Delving into research, Nilson believes the answer lies in a late 1924 trip Garbo took to Istanbul (then Constantinople) with Mauritz Stiller, her director and the man who discovered, molded, and created her. Stiller (it’s now 1998) is long-dead, but Nilson follows a lead to Switzerland, where he meets with the sole witness of the Istanbul filming, a lighting man now in his 90s—and what this man lets Nilson know, reluctantly at first, explains much indeed. But the result, however interesting, doesn’t do much to lift the drama. Trying for a kind of Death in Venice quality of breathlessness fraught with significance, Sobin turns up the heat by creating parallels between Nilson’s early sexual life and Mauritz Stiller’s (both, it turns out, have this mother thing). And, unfortunately, the precious trumps the passionate as Nilson, staying in a classy Swiss hotel to finish his script, fills himself with morphine to stay his cancer pain (a decaying bone in his hand even breaks, from the pressure of the pen) but has appetite aplenty to enjoy his elegant dining each evening.
Idolaters will enjoy glimpses of the star and Sobin’s suitable lushness of word and image, while others may wish for a breath of fresh air.