THIS IS A film of words," warns the narrator who begins Le Retour d'Afrique. "Words can be an act themselves, or they can substitute for action." When the words act well, Alain Tanner's new film sparkles with the same warm humor that he demonstrated in his last film, La Salamandre, a masterpiece. But this is occasional, and for the most part words are only surrogates for a new vision that Tanner fails to conjure up.
Retour and Salamandretreat the same theme--most broadly, the struggles of socialist humanists attempting to deal with a post-industrialist world. The setting (Geneva), and the sometimes simplistic philosophy of class conflict are the same. But Tanner has now brought his ideology, his words, into the forefront, replacing the action provided by Salamandre's fascinating heroine, Rosemonde.
Instead of Rosemonde, he provides us with Francis and Vincent Silverware, by comparison uninteresting principals. Salamandre is about Rosemonde, who refuses to be pinned down to any describable ideology. But in Retour,Tanner has turned the scheme upside down. Retour is not about the Silvestres, but, as he warns, it is about their words.
Rather than dealing with them as characters, Tanner places academic puzzles as traps for the Silvestres. Working with words and not with persons, he forces himself to discipline the winning sense of humor that Salamandre benefits by. His touches of characterization are more habit than feature. He has not lost sympathy with his characters as much as he has refused to air it.
THE SILVESTRES--played well by Josee Destroop and Francois Marthouret--are working class radicals with intellectual friends. He is a gardener and she an employee of an art gallery. They lead a life which they perceive as intellectual and ideological stagnation. Vincent reads like The Looting of the Third World as he escorts a tree to a rich man's villa outside the city. Driving through Geneva, he counts his progress through the day by narrating his journey to himself, announcing street intersections and gear changes, in a sort of personal litany. Absorbed in himself, unattached to his job, he is an academic without a campus to reinforce him, and the songs he sings to himself("politicians and merchants, lined up like accomplices behind big money")have the same naive and sometimes self-serving idealism as the folksingers' ballads at an early '60s civil rights rally. (By contrast, Paul, the housepainter-poet of Salamandre. also sings habitually, but he prefers the lyrics of bawdy songs to socialist dogma.)
To break his ennui, Vincent resolves to go to Africa, to post-revolutionary Algeria. A leave of absence, perhaps permanent, from his academic existence. It is certainly a bad decision, and his friends try to dissuade him. He is merely running away, they say, things will be no different. Or: in Algeria, his white skin will be enough to brand him as a symbol of the very thing which he is running away from. He finds himself unable to answer their objections, but nevertheless, he goes ahead and writes a friend already in Algeria, who promises to put Vincent and Francoise up for a while, and get them started in jobs. With a sudden vehement appreciation, they begin to read political books about Algeria, and listen to Arab music. Selling all their possessions to finance their journey, they prepare to depart.
On the eve of their departure, a telegram arrives from their friend, announcing that difficulties have arisen, and they must wait for a following letter. They camp out in their now empty apartment, waiting eight days for the letter, and by the time it comes, they have lost the will to travel. Now rooted in Geneva, we are to assume for good, they move to a new apartment, buy some new furniture, and seemingly begin new lives. In place of songs, there is tenant organizing in their new apartment building. They decide to have a baby and end the film by flipping a coin to decide who will stay home with the child.
Taken by itself, Retour is not a bad movie, but for Tanner it represents a regression. Without engaging personalities, without a saving sense of humor, it is too long and often boring. Tanner's basic problem is his approach: the question that he treats is a vital one--for radical workers, and radical students. But forging a program for constructive radical action is not a simple task. By refusing to examine his characters in depth, Tanner refuses to put their ideology to the critical test of compatibility with their lives. He provides instead a vision of two children stumbling through a situation they perceive only dimly. Instead of dropping out of school, they are only changing majors. Filming words is the easy way out. The real story is elsewhere.