Much has been written about the films that seemed to anticipate the events of May 1968 (Jean-Luc Godard’s La Chinoise is often mentioned), but rather less on those that undertook to sort out the consequences. Godard’s fellow Swiss, Alain Tanner, is an exemplary figure in this regard, having directed a score of features focusing on what critic Dave Kehr has aptly described as “the dilemma of the revolutionary in non-revolutionary times.”
Tanner is the subject of a Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive series beginning July 26 and running through August 19, his first retrospective there in more than 20 years, during which time his freewheeling dramas have largely fallen out of circulation. Tanner came to filmmaking from sociology, and it shows in the analytical bent of his movies, which collide multiple points of view to unpack the cultural conditioning of character.
This inquisitive approach is especially evident in three early features co-authored with the art critic John Berger: La salamandre (1971), The Middle of the World (1974), and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976). Berger, whose sensitive essays on art and politics often do the work of sociology by other means, died last year.
The two men met in the 1950s, when Tanner was studying at the British Film Institute. Berger’s radical humanism proved a lasting match for Tanner’s narrative sensibility: alternately tender and dire, open-minded and argumentative. For devotees of Berger’s essays, it’s fascinating to see some of the writer’s key ideas take dramatic shape: both La salamandre and The Middle of the World, for instance, can be seen as testing many of the same propositions found in Berger's critique of the role of women in art found in his groundbreaking 1972 television series and book, Ways of Seeing.
La salamandre does indeed function as a kind of intellectual exercise in the politics of representation, but one held together by an altogether electrifying performance by Bulle Ogier. She plays Rosemonde, a disillusioned young woman accused of wounding her uncle with his own military rifle. Two writers, Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau, a recurring presence in Tanner’s films reminiscent of Elliot Gould) and Paul (Jacques Denis), take a cash advance to pen a television script based on her story, with Pierre pursuing a decidedly hands-on documentary approach and Paul opting for an imaginative treatment.
Openly disdainful of any such frame, Rosemonde is several years ahead of schedule for punk. Not for nothing is she fired from a later job at a shoe store for “taking liberties” with customers. La salamandre is the rare movie that leads its audience to understand that the so-called happy ending may well be at the cost of freedom.
The Middle of the World is even more unsparing in its narrative logic. It’s the story of a love affair between Paul, an engineer campaigning for political office, and Adriana, an Italian working in a provincial café. Their bond is playful and humane—Paul turns somersaults in the snow at the thought of it—and yet cannot survive the dead weight of social convention. They meet in a Swiss town that’s picturesque but small-minded, especially whenever it comes to a group of men gathering around a table.
The lovers seem to speak their own private language, and the genuinely liberating quality of their erotic connection makes it all the more depressing when Paul begins pressuring Adriana to quit her job (Berger and Tanner’s screenplay wittily links this romantic trajectory to economic normalization). In most movies her character’s resistance would be the opening salvo of a seduction—as with the femme fatale, that locus of the male gaze—but here it’s given the last word. Both Adriana and Rosemonde would simply prefer not to, thus upending the traditional role of the actress, no matter the part.
Where The Middle of the World ends up with nowhere to go, Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 seems an open map. Primarily composed of long dialogues, the film involves a loose-knit social circle: four men and four women, all carrying forward the ideals of the 1960s to varying degrees. The lineup includes a pair of organic farmers, a journalist who still agitates in spite of his world-weary cynicism, a history teacher incorporating social critique into his curriculum, a supermarket clerk who doesn’t charge pensioners for groceries, and a subversive office worker who practices tantric meditation in her spare time.
Many of their scenes together are droll and sometimes satiric, but Tanner and Berger’s overarching analysis of the everyday integration of radical politics withholds judgment and accordingly does not suggest that there is any one right way of living one’s ideals. The film offers perhaps the clearest expression of the tough-minded hope humming throughout Tanner and Berger’s films together—a hope precisely understood as being in spite of everything.
Jonah, the newborn of the former characters, would be well past 25 now, and history, deemed to be at its end during his adolescence, shows no sign of letting up. He might well find solace in these earlier movies, for reasons well elaborated by Berger in his 1990 essay “Ev’ry Time We Say Goodbye”: “What is saved in the cinema when it achieves art is a spontaneous continuity with all of mankind. It is not an art of the princes or of the bourgeoisie. It is popular and vagrant. In the sky of the cinema people learn what they might have been and discover what belongs to them apart from their lives.”
'Subtle Subversion: The Films of Alain Tanner' plays at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive July 26–August 19, 2018. Details here.