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Out on the Fringe

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 Directed by Alain Tanner At the Orson Welles

By Gay Seidman

IN THE LAST few years, popular culture has discovered a new theme. From looking again and again at the individual's struggle to destroy the establishment in books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and movies like Wild in the Streets, writers and movie-makers have turned to looking at what happened to the idealists who thought in the '60s that there was really going to be a revolution in our lifetime. Books like Ann Beattie's Chilly Scenes of Winter or Medved and Wallechinsky's What Really Happened to the Class of '65 detail the survivor's attempts to find a niche in a world they have rejected, a way to go on living now that the rebellion has failed to initiate substantial social change.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 is part of this new genre. Eight leftovers from the '60s, each holding fast to a different--but always unorthodox--ideology, come into contact through an organic farm on the outskirts of Geneva, where for a little while they seem to have found a viable alternative to the bourgeois life they disdain. Each character is as individual as the ideology he or she has adopted, ranging from Max, a former revolutionary whose total cynicism masks his despair, to Marcel, an artist who finds animals more interesting than people and who is preoccupied with the fate of the whale, to Madeleine, an efficient secretary who espouses tantrism and returns constantly to the value of holding back one's semen so the lotus will explode in one's head. But they are all borderline cases, and they know it. Despite their ideological differences, they learn in the course of the movie to accept each others' eccentricities--none of them is any better adjusted to the world in which they find themselves than the next.

The characters are not presented as uniformly sympathetic, though the actors are all superb. Marguerite, who runs the organic farm, is dressed always in black, witch-like, and her care for the farm is stronger than her love for the others Mathilde, an earthmother figure, is a little shallow she massages away others' worries but never quite interacts with them. But for the most part, they are wonderfully human, and their idiosyncrasies become strangely endearing. Perhaps the nicest character is that of Marie, a tousled blonde supermarket checker who blithely undercharges anyone she feels has been cheated by the system but there is also Marco, a pudgy history teacher philosopher with bizarre theories of time and history; or Mathieu, a devout Marxist, who identified himself only as "Labour", trapped in the machinations of capital, a former union organizer who goes out to work on the farm having despaired of revolution.

At times the interaction of the characters in Jonah becomes a little tedious, as their exchange of philosophies and dreams forms much of the film's movement, and film is probably not the best medium for philosophical debates. But you have to hear them out in spite of that--writer-director Alain Tanner presents each of the characters as a kind of minor prophet, and you have to respect their ideas. Like his characters, Tanner seems to have rejected the bourgeois world--the eight of them are brought together as they fight against a bank's corrupt land-speculations. Like the characters, the audience must decide which of their dreams will best protect the dreamer from the onslaught of the real world.

And at times their fumbling efforts to find an alternate way of life are humane and joyous, as the characters slowly discover they can integrate their efforts and find some hope for the future. Mathieu, the Marxist, turns to teaching the children on the farm how to listen to whale songs in a greenhouse turned-schoolroom; Marguerite, the farmer, joins with the tantrist secretary Madeleine in putting out a newsletter detailing the chemical additives in commercially-grown vegetables. Even Max, the diehard cynic, finally joins the others in their vegetable farm retreat with warm enthusiasm and comraderie.

The group's newly-discovered hope reaches a high point in a beautiful, colorful scene in the kitchen, where Mathilde announces she is pregnant. Laughing, teasing each other about their eccentricities, they sing together of the future, when the 20th century will disgorge the unborn Jonah into a future remodelled for his benefit. Here on the farm they have found a retreat from the capitalist world in the communal spirit that has given them hope again.

But they are still living in this century, and the bourgeois world is still in control. Marie, whose innocent, wide-eyed smile has led one to believe she will never be brought under the rule of the establishment, is imprisoned for petty theft, and loses her child-like carelessness. Marco loses his job for teaching his unorthodox theories. And finally the pressures of the outside world break apart even the bonds between members of the group: Marguerite, the farmer, refuses to finance Mathieu's teaching efforts, and he is forced to return to a factory job he hates.

The group's failure is probably predictable from the opening shots of the film, when the camera pans a statue of Rousseau--himself a utopian dreamer and a resident of Geneva--and an omniscient voice quotes him to the effect that man is always enchained in his social institutions. And at the end, as Mathieu returns to his factory, the camera returns to the philosopher's statue, suggesting that little has changed, that these idealists will never put their dreams into effect. Only their hope for a future world will sustain them. And a shot of Jonah in 1980, a small boy scribbling on a now-faded mural of the lunatic group, confirms that hope--he turns an impish smile to the camera, his rosy cheeks promising that somehow the future may be different.

Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 is not a movie for either cynics or idealists. It reaffirms the faith that the outbursts of the '60s did in fact change something, that the demonstrators did not go back to the traditional values of bourgeois society; but it offers no hope for an immediate revolution. The characters are touched with a delightful madness, but their lunacy is about as helpless in the face of the establishment as it is hopeful. Their illusions are all these refugees have to sustain them; but only the distant future offers a way out of the twisted present.

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