If it’s true that it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all, Alfred Lord Tennyson would surely agree that to have loved and lost, then to love and lose all over again, must be best of all. At the start of the slight but charming romantic comedy/drama Meet Me In Montenegro, American filmmaker Anderson (co-writer/director/editor Alex Holdridge) is recalling the time he loved and lost Norwegian dancer Lina (co-writer/director/editor Linnea Saasen) while on an impromptu excursion to the Balkans three years earlier. Since then, he’s wondered what he did or said to make her leave without a proper goodbye—just a handwritten note about ending things “on a high note.” He gets the chance to find out when he unexpectedly bumps into her while in Berlin on business. He’s ostensibly there to meet an actor about his latest studio project, a generic-sounding science-fiction actioner called Supercollider, but it’s a far cry from the micro-budgeted features he started out making.
This is all vaguely autobiographical. An indie filmmaker once courted by Hollywood, Holdridge had three features to his name—the most prominent was 2007’s Independent Spirit Award-winning In Search Of A Midnight Kiss—when he met Saasen, a dancer and visual artist working out of Berlin. Instead of engaging in a passionate affair and breaking it off after just a few weeks, though, they spent the next few years writing, directing, and co-starring in a film conceived on their own jaunt around Europe. What had the potential to be agonizingly twee—or, worse yet, a glorified home movie—proves much more substantive thanks to Holdridge and Saasen’s smart script and Robert Murphy’s fly-on-the-wall approach to shooting it, which periodically blossoms into lyrical passages like the montage of Anderson and Lina exploring a run-down East German amusement park, or the brief glimpse of an older couple slow-dancing in a window.
As performers, Holdridge and Saasen have a natural rapport that makes it easy to root for Anderson and Lina when they reconnect, however tenuously, and he fights against his instinct for self-sabotage. (Witness his confidence-annihilating pitch to the actor interested in starring in Supercollider. Then again, it’s hard to get too invested in whether a character gets to make an impersonal film just to dig himself out of credit-card debt.) Less successful is the side plot about Anderson’s hosts, an unmarried couple of long standing beginning to realize they may want different things out of life.
The ex-proprietor of a failed café, British expat Stephen (Rupert Friend, late of Starred Up) casually suggests that the way to reignite their passion is to attend a couple’s night at a sex club and possibly have a foursome with total strangers. To his horror, though, his partner Friederike (Jennifer Ulrich) cheerfully calls his bluff, forcing him to drag Anderson out with him to shop for the “sexy attire required” to gain entrance to the club. (Happily, there’s no gay-panic component to the moments where Stephen holds up potential outfits and asks his preoccupied friend, “Would you fuck me in this?”)
Compressing the action into a three-day window—the period Anderson is supposed to be in Berlin, and how long Lina has before she’s due to leave for an artistic residency in Budapest, and how long Stephen and Friederike have to change their minds about going to the sex club—Holdridge and Saasen privilege Anderson’s perspective over Lina’s, since he’s the one who gets all the voiceovers. What this does, however, is allow them to freely dip into his memories of their first, abortive courtship, frequently returning to a key moment where Lina pushed him out of his comfort zone and into jumping off a cliff into the bay below, which he admits was “the last time I really felt alive.” Given that Anderson previously declared romance was dead, it’s significant that he’s the one who proposes throwing caution to the wind and returning to Montenegro to recapture what they lost there the first time. The derailing of this plan may be inevitable, but Holdridge and Saasen should get credit for making sure the obstacles to their happiness aren’t romance-movie contrivances, but rather the sorts of things that—to paraphrase another famous writer—happen to people while they’re busy making other plans.