SO MANY PEOPLE have said so many nice things about La Salamandre, one more word of praise will doubtless pass unnoticed. Be that as it may--Alain Tanner's La Salamandre is as pleasant and an intelligent a film as any to appear this year. A Swiss product made with a French sensibility it beats anything Truffaut has done in years and at its best out Rohmers Rohmer.
No one expected this from the second feature of a forty-year-old Swiss film critic and surprise may explain the enthusiasm which has greeted it. Already it has been adopted by that cultural elite which descends on one or two films a year and turns them from quiet critical successes into noisy exercises in film going chic. Most of the people who saw and admired My Night at Maud's several years back will probably see and admire La Salamandre. This is all very well, both films should be seen, but overpraise can be as fatal as underattendance. For as fully realized and as refreshing as is La Salamandre, it is not the original and important work advance notice would have us believe. It breaks no new stylistic ground, it raises no new thematic questions, it solves no old ones. All the best things in it have been seen elsewhere. La Salamandre's success is one of consolidation: it incorporates most of the virtues of French cinema over the past fifteen years with a minimum of its vices.
THE FRENCH NEW WAVE lost its steam in the mid-sixties, when the experiments of the early part of the decade began to turn into repetition on the one hand and polemic on the other. Chabrol churned out Chabrols and Truffaut, Truffauts. Daniel Cohn-Bendit gave Godard politics. No one gave Resnais money. This same vacuum which so facilitated the ascension of Eric Rohmer seems likely to do similarly for Alain Tanner. But like Rohmer. Tanner at his moment of success is no fresh young talent. He is a middle-aged Swiss with a varied career behind him that includes apprenticeship with the BBC, a stint in the Swiss navy and, most recently, time spent as a film critic.
It is the critic that shows through most plainly. Tanner has watched Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer closely, and he has learned his lessons well. His story, realistic enough in substance, has that fringe of the unlikely which made the best of the New Wave so eminently palatable. Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau), a struggling young writer, is commissioned to produce a television script to be based on a recent incident in the news: a young girl called Rosemonde was accused by her uncle of attempted murder with his old army rifle. The girl, for her part, claimed the gun went off while the uncle was cleaning it. No other witnesses were present, and with both principals sticking resolutely to their stories, the case was dismissed unsettled.
Unable to complete the script himself, Pierre calls in a writer-housepainter friend Paul (Jacques Denis) to collaborate. But the two disagree on an approach to the subject. Where Pierre decides that the proper method of attack is an exhaustive study of the factual background, Paul insists on the primacy of the imagination. As compromise, they divide the work, the one conducting interviews and research, the other writing his version solely from imaginative inspiration.
AT THIS POINT, the film threatens to descend into a quaint metaphysical consideration of the relations between art and life, imagination and reality, and so on. But when Rosemonde herself (Bulle Ogier) enters the scene, the drift of the story changes completely. She turns out to be an absolutely intriguing girl with whom Pierre, after his first interview, finds clinical detachment quite impossible. The two soon begin an affair, and Paul--who had determined not to set eyes on Rosemonde in order to preserve the integrity of his imaginary creation--accidentally meets her at Pierre's home and immediately finds further work impossible.
The progressive entanglement of the three figures--they become inseparable friends a la Jules et Jim--makes the original writing project more and more problematic until it is abandoned altogether. At this point, the focus shifts entirely to the characters themselves. But here, as always. Tanner's method depends on calculated understatement, and the complex triangle of interrelationships is always submerged, never obtrusive.
This is the core of Tanner's method, to tease up a raft of dramatic possibilities and leave them suggestively unresolved. Events are never permitted to reach any sort of well-defined conclusion, and by the end of the film, the initial themes and dramatic situations have all been discarded What remains is the figure of Rosemonde herself. A poor working girl of rural origin she has little formal education and no political consciousness. She likes rock music and sex and has a poster on the Beatles on her wall. What she has most importantly, though are all those characteristics the New Wave has always held most dear--a quick-tempered volatility, an instinctual anti-authoritarianism a face infinitely enigmatic, and a sure talent for the outrageous. Toward the end of the film Rosemonde decides to leave, in grand style, her job as saleswoman in a shoe store. She begins indiscriminately fondling the legs of say prospective customer, much to the discomfort of her once attentive employer and his unamused mother.
THIS KIND OF CULT of the character has always lurked in the background of the New Wave. In its least excusable forms, in something like Truffaut's Bed and Board, the idiosyncratic appeal of a central character is used to cover weaknesses in argument or narrative structure. But Tanner is thoroughly conscious of the distracting quality of his Rosemonde, and in fact it is this that forms the underlying thematic concern of the film. La Salamandre is ultimately about this process of the single character preempting all argument. Rosemonde listens tolerantly to the quasi-Marxist arguments of her two lovers, but she is no more able to submit herself to political discipline than she can to the alienating tedium of factory work. Pierre and Paul are no more successful at providing her with a larger coherent vision of experience than they are at incorporating her into their aborted narrative. The event herself triumphs over the interpretation.
La Salamandre nibbles at the edges of the great questions, but it returns always to the irreducible reality of Rosemonde. Tanner's last scene is an extended sequence of the girl walking toward his camera, her head bobbing in the crowd. The shot goes on far longer than one would expect until Tanner's point is made absolutely clear, and Rosemonde is seen as just that indecipherable presence on screen, with any critical judgment rendered superfluous.
This is the New Wave's political vision carried to its limits: the individual rebels in the face of alienating social institutions--not in terms of concrete political action but in a spontaneous affirmation of individuality. What passed for leftism in those early sixties was really more an anarchic individualism that interested itself not so much in collective opposition to oppressive institutions but in a private self-realization--life conceived as an aesthetic of personal liberation. Tanner accepts this premise and works it through to its conclusion. In its way, La Salamandre is the consummate New Wave film, and certainly, after fifteen years, the New Wave deserves a little consummation.
AS SOON AS the success of La Salamandre became obvious. New York Films rushed into circulation Tanner's first Texture Charles--Dead or Alive, completed in 1969. It is in no sense as mature or finished a product as La Salamandre. It has nothing of the complexity, the subtlety or the wit of that second film. But its New England release concurrent with La Salamandre provides an interesting opportunity to observe Tanner's development.
The thematic similarities are striking. Charles, the elderly owner of a consistently expanding watchmaking firm, finds himself suddenly filled with revulsion at his lifelong impulse to prosperity and bourgeois respectability. Much to the dismay of his still business-minded son, he disappears from home and takes up secluded residence with a bohemian artist, the artists wife and Charles's own daughter. Father and daughter take up the political education of their hosts, until Son finally catches up with Father, and Charles is taken off to a mental hospital.
The social critique here is far more explicit than in the later film, and the screenplay is full of quotations from classic radical thinkers. But the most significant difference between the two films is in the conception of the central characters. Charles is a tried, contemplative figure whose personal protest is tainted with a bittersweet futility. By the time of La Salamandre, a more optimistic Tanner sees hope residing in the largely unconscious vitality of Rosemonde.