Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Swiss Master

The Films of Alain Tanner

April 15-22, 2010
Anthology Film Archives, 32 Second Avenue
The films of Switzerland's second-greatest living director (after the even more woefully underrated—and little-seen—Claude Goretta) are difficult to see, even in New York, the supposed film capital of the world. The last time we saw films by Alain Tanner was during the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Swiss film retrospective in 2003. So it's long overdue that we have a Tanner retrospective, even if it's far from complete.

Tanner (who turned 80 in December) became a cinematic force with his festival favorites The Salamander (1971) and Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 (1976), both of which heralded a subtle artist whose social commentary includes a healthy skepticism about his liberalism. Although some later films were released here, Tanner never regained his standing among arthouse cognoscenti, and after his lovely 1983 paean to Lisbon, In the White City, he for all intents and purposes disappeared.

Except he didn’t—just here. Tanner has continued to make films into the new century: his most recent, Paul s'en va, came out in 2004. But in New York, we haven’t seen them. Since every film Tanner has made is nearly impossible to find—none of his films is available on DVD in the U.S., and only a handful in Europe is out with English subtitles—anyone interested in this accomplished filmmaker's work should head to Anthology to catch at least one of his films, starting with his far from auspicious debut, Charles, Dead or Alive (1969). Shot in black and white, Charles is the kind of bumpy road we'd expect from a young, unheralded director.

His most celebrated film, The Salamander, came next, showcasing the young Bulle Ogier in her best performance to date. With The Salamander, Tanner became a critics’ and film festivals’ darling, following up with one of his strongest and most overtly political films, In the Middle of the World (1974). Then came Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, a prescient study of what happened to the protesters of the 60s generation—too bad that its sort-of sequel, Jonas and Lila, til Tomorrow (1999), is not part of this retrospective.

The Salamander

Following Jonah, Tanner made films that explored the lives of outsiders and misfits, from the self-destructive young women of Messidor (1979) to the loner (played by Bruno Ganz) wandering Lisbon in In the White City (1983) to the sexually and emotionally unfulfilled heroine played with naked abandon by co-writer Myriam Mézières in A Flame in My Heart (1987). Mézières and Tanner collaborated again on two more films, The Journal of Lady M. (1993)—which is even more carnally intimate than Flame—and what is, so far, Tanner’s penultimate film, Flowers in Blood (2002). That neither of these films is included here is a pity because, as far as I know, neither has yet been screened in New York.

The most recent Tanner films showing at Anthology are his 1995 documentary chronicle, Men of the Port, about dock workers in Genoa—where Tanner worked 40 years earlier—and Requiem, a mysterious, beautiful dream of a film, set again in Lisbon, and based on an acclaimed novel by Antonio Tabucchi. Also scheduled is a 2007 documentary about the director, Alain Tanner, Pas Comme Si, Comme Sa.

With the near-impossibility of seeing any of his films on DVD, catching Tanner’s work onscreen in 35mm is a no-brainer—now, if only someone would program a Claude Goretta retrospective….please!

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