Big Screen Berkeley: The films of Alain Tanner

Olimpia Carlisi in The Middle of the World

I don’t mean to sound boastful — Lord knows, it’s probably nothing to be proud of — but in my nearly 56 years on the planet I’ve seen at least 10,000 feature films. When you consider I didn’t really start caring about cinema until I was in my early teens, it’s a pretty remarkable accomplishment – even for someone such as myself who’s stricken (or blessed!) with obsessive-compulsive disorder.

In all that time, though, I’d never seen a single film by Swiss auteur Alain Tanner. Oh, sure, I’d heard of his feature Jonah, Who Will be 25 In the Year 2000, the title of which conjured up visions of a science-fiction epic akin to 2001: A Space Odyssey (at least it did for me, when I was a lot younger than I am now), but that was about it.

Tanner’s films have remained elusive at best on home video, are never shown on television (not even on Turner Classic Movies), and have basically been out of circulation for at least 20 years, which makes Pacific Film Archive’s upcoming series ‘Subtle Subversion: The Films of Alain Tanner’ all the more welcome. The series commences on July 26 and continues through Aug. 19.

Screening on July 26 at 7 p.m., the director’s 1971 feature La Salamandre was the film that first won him international acclaim. Sadly, a subtitled copy of this feature was unavailable for pre-screening, but the film’s black-and-white cinematography, its otherworldly Patrick Moraz score, and the morose visage of star Jean-Luc Bideau — who resembles the love child of Serge Gainsbourg and Bert Jansch — suggest it’s well worth investigating.


Moraz returned to score 1974’s Le Milieu du Monde (The Middle of the World, screening at 7 p.m. on Sunday July 29), a drama about a married businessman (Philippe Léotard) who risks all by engaging in an affair with a beautiful and decidedly liberated Italian barmaid (Olimpia Carlisi) while running for office in stodgy and notoriously conservative Switzerland. The bounteously “bouffanted” Moraz would go on to join Yes and the Moody Blues, but don’t hold that against him: his score is excellent, and the perfect accompaniment to Tanner’s nuanced, thoughtful screenplay – co-written with John Berger, whose book on art criticism, Ways of Seeing, has long been a standard college text.

The aforementioned Jonas qui aura 25 ans en l’an 2000 screens at 7 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 3, and having now seen it I can confirm it features no spaceships, aliens, or anal probes. This would have been a tremendous disappointment to teenage me, but as a relatively mature adult the film can be appreciated on other levels.

Produced in the wake of the unrest of May 1968, the film examines the lives of a dozen people as they sift through the post-revolutionary rubble and adjust their lives to suit the new normal that looks a lot like the old normal. There are ruminations on organic farming, sausage and wormholes, while the titular Jonah doesn’t actually put in an appearance until the film’s final moments.

Both films are excellent, but for my money Middle of the World is the better of the two: combining a brilliant screenplay with outstanding performances from Carlili and Léotard, it’s not as grounded in the post-’68 milieu – and consequently less dated than Jonah.