‘Fail better,” wrote Samuel Beckett in Worstward Ho, a quotable quote if ever there was one. (It’s even tattooed on tennis star Stanislas Wawrinka’s forearm.) Taken out of context, the line has an easy, life-affirming ring to it. But Beckett’s works don’t exactly belong alongside “Hang in there” cat posters: Ceaseless failure was central to the Nobel Prize-winner’s endeavour to extend the limits of language and communication.
Director Rudy Barichello attempts a similar boundary-pushing project in Meetings With a Young Poet, an interpretive biopic based on Beckett’s life and works. But he doesn’t quite live up to the task. Try as Barichello might to break with convention, the film feels more like a television production than experimental art.
Meetings begins with a flurry of ink, pen and paper, representing the epistolary correspondence between Beckett (uncannily portrayed by Stephen McHattie, who sports an impressive head of vertically groomed grey hair) and a little-known poet, Paul Susser (Vincent Hoss-Desmarais). Suddenly shifting to a scene in which Beckett is recalling a “stark revelation” about the world, at the end of a jetty at night, this two-part intro marks the first of many missteps Meetings takes: If the contrived visuals weren’t enough, the heavy string music tips this opening into the realm of cliché.
The movie then reboots, this time with an actress named Carole (Pulp Fiction alum Maria de Medeiros) performing onstage in 1992, three years after Beckett’s death. Here, Meetings falters again, as the imagery resembles a cable-TV recording of a play, with a two-camera setup and minimal editing. After the curtain falls, Carole confesses to her co-star that she has a secret plan for something she’ll only call “the impossible.” (Should there be any confusion regarding how Carole feels about this venture, she then serenely swirls in slow motion while clutching a rose.)
Putting her mysterious project in motion, Carole seeks out Susser, the keeper of Beckett’s estate and an unintentionally comic writerly figure – one who drinks at his desk and wears sunglasses indoors. It turns out Carole wants to stage Krapp’s Last Tape, Beckett’s 1958 one-man play. Susser guards his late friend’s works closely, and is suspicious of Carole’s ability to properly interpret Beckett. Slowly, she begins to convince him over café conversations, which, as shown in flashbacks, echo those that Susser and Beckett had during the 1960s and seventies.
Meetings finds something of a rhythm in these exchanges, relying on the strength of the cast to bring the dialogues to life. McHattie lives up to his Beckettian looks, capturing the poet’s airs; and once the sunglasses come off, Hoss-Desmarais carries the film by conveying the emotional turbulence that comes with befriending a genius.
But it’s de Medeiros who really stands out. In one scene, the Portuguese actress performs Beckett’s Breath, gasping in a mouthful of air and holding it for 25 seconds. It’s a simple sequence, but resonates all the more for it. With other scenes marked by a heightened theatricality, the simplicity of the moment allows Beckett’s work to speak for itself, rather than be encumbered by Barichello’s belaboured interpretations.
In not taking a traditional “life and times of” approach, Barichello’s film jives with Beckett’s own experimental style. But the mélange of mediums never fully gels. This choppy creation is further hindered by a TV-like quality, with overlit scenes, bad wigs and locales that lack atmosphere – Parisian cafés have never looked so sterile. When Meetings finally winds down, ending back on the stage with Carole in performance, its failings are what resonate.