The recent Cambridge appearance of two plans by Alain Tanner, a young Swiss director, provides a suitable target for thought for those concerned with contemporary moral and artistic decay. The widescale ballyboo over these films seems to indicate the final jading of the already over cultized Cambridge film audience.
The theme of both La Salamandre and Charles Dead or Alive is the plight of "free spirits" in bourgeois Swiss society Charles is the third-generation head of a highly successful family watch-making firm the House of De. The symbolic keynote comes in the opening moments when, at a cocktail party given by the firm. Charles is interviewed by Swiss TV. He toys with the interviewer for most of the five minutes. But his enigmatic answer to the question "Are you a businessman or a watchmaker?" is the opening of a floodgate that ends in his being carried, two long hours later, to an insane asylum : "My grandfather was a watchmaker. Father was a mixture, and my son here is entirely a businessman...I'm just a chap who does his job and tries to make an honest living."
From this point we follow Charles on his odyssey through the cracks and chinks of Geneva existence when he joins the somewhat enervating life of a Bohemian couple who take him in: in contrast to his seedy surrounding Tanner wants us to feel that Charles's perception and moral purity increase with each passing day. The contradiction is heightened by Charles's capture and internment in a mental hospital: as he understands more and more his society can tolerate him less and less.
Making films about such refugees from rationalized society requires full characterization in order to draw us into the sadness of their fate. Here Tanner's films fail.
The father, while easily the most sympathetic character, comes off real only on TV. When we see him on TV. We feel the Swiss who watch this man could believe him and be moved by the pathos of his "wasted" life. But he is real only as a TV personality--and if you come from anywhere but California, the paradox should be obvious.
In a symbolic act before spilling his secrets, he takes off his glasses and crushes them, noting wryly top himself that he could always see perfectly well without them. When his son notices and asks why he wore them for all those years, he smiles softly and says "to see less clearly."
Does Tanner seriously expect us to feel compelled by characters who deliver such pithy nothings as if they were peace of wisdom? In his next film, we expect to see someone facing the camera head-on and solemnly intoning, "many people say many things," Give me Mr. Natural say day.
La Solamandre does have a chance to be something better, but ends up being worse. While the theme remains the doomed future of a "true individual" in monotonous and mediocre Switzerland, the plot is much more ingenious. Two out-of-work writers are commissioned to do an historical fiction for TV based upon the facts of a bizarre shooting of a retired army man. The army man claimed that his niece did it out of anger. She claimed he did it out of his gun. The writers investigate the story: both, in one way or another, fall in love with the girl and forget their work.
The story possibilities are quashed by an inane and deadening parade of spiritless symbols and visual shortcuts. Perhaps the film was meant to be funny. It could be an excellent parody of Eric Rohmer's more pointless works, La Collectionneuse and Claire's Knee.
We meet Pierre first -- out of a job, low on money, bored, restless, anomie personified. He calls on his friend Paul for help on this TV project. Just as Pierre is city-loving, and cynical. Paul is sweet, sincere, imaginative and rustic.
Paul's "sensitivity" is displayed in the pair's first writing session. Paul, the child-man who takes such pride in his "stylograph deluxe" and long underwear, spins out a story about the girl without knowing anything about her. Pierre rebuffs him for being fanciful. But soon after, the audience gasps and laughs with the typical existential "shock of recognition" when an interview with the uncle coincides in every way with Paul's fantasy.
When the work goes badly, Paul returns to his home outside Geneva. His common roots are revealed when he got a back to house-painting as if he'd never left. We see him there playing games with his young daughter--and later, both holding hands in mystical communion with each other and with nature. Ah, sweet mystery...
We never really learn too much about Pierre either. We do see the way Pierre Paul work together, laugh together, and play together -- like young colts frisking about. To raise their lowered spirits, they pull a stunt on the tram that is screamingly funny; but even there, something rings false. It is too collegey, too typical of the type of thing that populates Annette Funicello movies to tell us anything about what they feel for one another.
We see them gallivanting in the woods, shouting political and philosophical slogans to each other that clearly mean a lot to them, and by implication should mean a lot to us. We are expected to wink knowingly at this badinage and say to ourselves, "don't we, too, have such warm and intimate joking relationships with our friends. "But after the scene, we know nothing more about them than we did before.
Rosemonde, the girl, really falls flat. She is "la salamander." If she could have been genuinely conflicted, perhaps the film could have made it. But of all the characters, She is the least defensible. At least Charles has spent his whole life working -- unhappily, it is true, but he made a commitment to something and followed it through.