Friday, February 7, 2014

Alain Tanner's La Salamandre: The most welcome movie reference of the week

Posted By on 02.07.14 at 10:54 AM

Jean-Luc Bideau and Bulle Ogier in La Salamandre
  • Jean-Luc Bideau and Bulle Ogier in La Salamandre
Of the numerous films referenced in Sébastien Betbeder's 2 Autumns, 3 Winters (which I discussed a few days ago), La Salamandre (1971) might be the least familiar to contemporary U.S. audiences. Yet Alain Tanner, who wrote and directed it, was a prolific figure from the late 1960s to the early 2000s—and until the mid '80s, his work frequently played in the U.S. Alas, his last dozen or so films are virtually impossible to see in this country, and even his 70s titles rarely get discussed here anymore. In the unlikely event that 2 Autumns becomes a sleeper hit in U.S. art houses, perhaps it will lead to a renewed American interest in the Swiss filmmaker's work. Until that happens, you can find five of his movies on VHS at Facets Multimedia (Odd Obsession Movies has four of them, and the Chicago Public Library has three).

It's likely no coincidence that Tanner marginalization in U.S. film culture began at the height of the Reagan era. All four films of his I've seen display the influence of radical politics, centering on characters who seek alternatives to capitalist society. Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), one of his most popular films, follows a group of leftists in their attempt at communal living. (Reviewing the movie for the Reader in 1977, Dave Kehr wrote, "Tanner has brought a sense of adventure and enthusiasm back to the political cinema. By bringing thinking and caring together again, Tanner is doing more than offering a Mary Poppins spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down; he is making a fundamental structural change, creating a new dialectic of emotion and intellect.") Messidor (1979) and In the White City (1983) begin with their main characters abandoning their regular routines to go drifting in the world. In none of these films, however, do the subjects register as mere allegorical figures. Tanner gives his characters the room to define themselves as three-dimensional people.

Like most real people, Tanner's characters (in the films I've seen, anyway) possess contradictory impulses and sometimes act against their own interests without realizing it. The filmmaker recognizes that human beings are too complicated to conform to a strict political order—which is one reason why they're so wonderful. This insight forms the foundation of La Salamandre. In this film, a couple of intellectual writers befriend a young working-class woman (Bulle Ogier) suspected of shooting her uncle. They hope to write a screenplay about her life, but the more they get to know her, the more she resists characterization. The project ends up a bust, but all three principal characters emerge from it changed. For a period of time, they've enjoyed a friendship that flaunts traditional divisions of class and educational background—the world has looked a little different for them.

Tanner frequently bends narrative structure to accommodate the whims of his characters. His movies have an unrushed, ingratiating quality that allows them to savor the poetry of everyday life. In its best moments, 2 Autumns achieves a similar quality.

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