Close Reading: Martin Eden
The Critics Academy, a program of Film at Lincoln Center and a venture of Film Comment, is a workshop for aspiring film writers, providing a valuable platform to launch their careers. Throughout the 57th New York Film Festival, Film Comment will be publishing work from young critics taking part in the program.
Images from Martin Eden (Pietro Marcello, 2019)
After saving Elena Orsini’s (Jessica Cressy) brother from a beating, Martin Eden (Luca Marinelli) is invited for lunch at the siblings’ posh family estate. That’s where he makes his first mistake. Though the fact that Martin is unafraid to throw a punch is appreciated, his brawny physicality becomes a liability with a bowl of pasta in front of him; elbows on the table, a nervous smile on his face, he eats with an animation that Elena’s mother notes with alarm. “Education is important, is it not?” she asks him pointedly. To which Martin responds, grabbing a piece of bread and sopping up the tomato sauce on his plate, “If education is the bread, then the sauce is poverty.” Both Elena’s mother and Elena register the out-sized vulgarity of Martin’s performance, though it scandalizes the former and thrills the later. Martin’s faux pas of sopping up the sauce unwittingly makes himself the case-in-point of his own pronouncement on the importance of good form.
This scene ends up being paradigmatic for Pietro Marcello’s adaptation of Jack London’s 1909 novel. “You are lacking in general culture,” Elena says early on, pointing Martin to a book on Italian grammar and Baudelaire. He does his dutiful best, but the tragic bind he is caught in is that conscious striving is itself the biggest social blunder he could commit. Culture is the most essential concept that the film adapts and simplifies from the novel—culture as the state in which one is always in the know without ever having learned. In relation to culture as such, Martin can only ever play catch-up; the very act of striving pushes it beyond his limits.
For London, Martin Eden is part autobiography, part character study of a writer whose intellectual development—and his investment in 19th century thinker Herbert Spencer’s dogmatic, anti-communitarian philosophy—takes him down a desultory path of struggle, self-questioning, brief literary success, and suicide. Marcello takes London’s sprawling text as a launching-off point, moving the world of the film from turn-of-the-century Oakland to a self-conscious blend of various decades in 20th century Naples. The film also presents a simplified and more immediately legible moral arc to Martin Eden’s life: the film opens with a fresh-faced Martin, interested in reaching a high point of culture through becoming a man of letters, and then a Martin Eden whose bad education in vulgar individualism leaves him morally and physically despondent, dissolute.
The film depicts Martin and Elena’s epistolary relationship in an illuminating way. We get close-ups of Martin in the process of writing a letter to Elena, as well as inserts of the letters themselves—here are Martin’s thoughts that must be translated into words, and words onto paper, which will travel through space. Martin’s thoughts feel weighed down by the materiality of words. For Elena, something quite different happens: Elena’s letters are presented in direct address, the character gazing straight at the camera as she says aloud what are ostensibly lines from her letters, but feel spontaneous to the moment. Elena’s relationship to language is spoken, natural, unmediated, while Martin’s feels secondhand, belated, belabored.
Martin’s investment in Spencer can also be understood in relation to, and then as a repudiation of, striving. Martin becomes at first an avid reader of Spencer, whose reductive, masculine brand of individuality gives Martin license to imagine transcendence of his own social class, or the notion of class itself. At one point, he admonishes a group of laborers that to think in terms of groups is a weakness in itself, and only the strong individual survives.
The cruel irony is that Martin’s strident brand of individualism only holds sway for someone eager to renounce her social class, which Elena is not. For example: Martin’s second dinner table blunder occurs when he is mistaken for being a socialist by Elena’s family and friends and flies into violent hysterics, accusing everyone of not being as committed a Spencerian individualist as he is. In this decisive moment, Martin’s commitment to individualism finds a new purpose—not in participating in culture, but in decrying its fall.
Peter Kim George is a New York—based film critic and playwright.