La Salamandre (“The Salamander”, 1971)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Geneva at the dawn of the 1970s. Two friends, a skint bachelor journalist and his novelist comrade, take on a TV screenplay job. Their source material is the non-fatal domestic shooting their producer read about in the news.

The novelist approaches the story with his imagination; the journalist prefers to interview the participants in the affair, namely a beautiful, disaffected factory worker, Rosemonde, and the uncle she allegedly shot. Rosemonde, the titular “salamander”, becomes as much the subject of fascination for the two writers as she does for the audience.

Frankly, movies picking up where the French New Wave left off are a hard sell in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic. Here are a set of Swiss movies that deviate from conventional story. Their overbearing tone is the melancholy end of existential absurdity. Closure, character arcs and narrative drive are at best nice-to-haves, and more frequently picked up gingerly, derided, and discarded.

In dialogue the intellectual, banal and ridiculous bleed into each other. Take this scene, when the two writers visit the woods where Rosemonde grew up:

PIERRE  Before they die, capitalism, with its fundamental perversity, and bureaucracy, with its obtuse dogmatism, are going to keep pissing people off.
PAUL    (sings) Oh, happiness is so close! Oh, happiness is so far away!
PIERRE  Do you think we’re lost?
PAUL    No, we’ll get out if we go that way (points).

PIERRE  That way?
PAUL    Yes, that way. We’re heading towards the Promised Land.
PIERRE  Do you think? The exits seem blocked.
PAUL    We don’t have a choice. We’re either heading towards the Promised Land, or we’re heading towards barbarism, and the systematic manipulation planned for us by technocrats.
PIERRE  Supported by the silent majority.
PAUL    Exactly. (sings in bombastic military style) Oh, happiness is so close! Oh, happiness is so far away!

In Bulle Ogier’s Rosemonde, La Salamandre gives us an entry point into these rather challenging movies. She’s a working-class woman whose mental health is devastated by both lack of autonomy and ubiquitous sexism.

As a character study, this an excellent movie; the French actress Ogier shines. Her Rosemonde inhabits a different world from the cool Etruscan beauty of Jeanne Moreau in Jules et Jim. In close-ups her eyelids droop, she stares vacantly, what we’d now call clinically depressed. She chews her cross necklace like a kid. Her impulsiveness, and sexual directness, is sometimes seductive but often infantile. For most of the movie she wears one outfit – she’s obviously very poor, but it’s smart and sexy. She’s happiest floating in a swimming pool, having sex, or quitting a job.

Mostly, the dialogue given to Rosemonde doesn’t fall into the bourgeois-intellectual trap of making the working-class inadvertent poets; she’s cutting, impatient, sometimes simply dumb. She quit school, and quit every job, but can’t or won’t explain why, beyond “I didn’t like it, it pissed me off.”

So this is partly a film about dehumanizing menial labour and its consequences on the psyche; Tanner devotes much camera time to the mindless monotony of Rosemonde’s job in a sausage factory. It’s an anti-capitalist movie, co-penned by Marxist author and critic John Berger.

But more than anything, La Salamandre is about men controlling Rosemonde, especially her body. In her very first scene, her erstwhile boyfriend asks her if she’s still on the pill, and reminds her to keep taking it. Her first boss reminds her to wear a bonnet while packing sausages, the final straw; watching television, faced with a beauty cream advert, she yells at the screen and switches off.

The meta-story of the two men examining Rosemonde’s story is more of a drag. Paul and Pierre are irritating, sometimes simply sounding boards for Tanner and Berger’s views on society and the nature of art. But it’s still a conceptual masterstroke, since it allows the filmmakers to continually confront us with themes of the nature of identity and the interplay between fact and fiction.

Above all, Paul and Pierre are implicated in the pervasive stealing of Rosemonde’s proletarian female voice. They literally try to profit from stealing her story. And the conclusions drawn are deeply ambivalent. On the one hand, the more they investigate Rosemonde’s true character, the less their TV script can contain her. On the other hand, the film is spotted with voiceover narratives from Ogier, literary language far removed from Rosemonde. It’s hinted that they represents the novelist Paul’s version of the character.

For example, after the dialogue above culminates in Paul speaking of a “silent majority” leading us towards barbarism, we get Rosemonde’s voiceover:

A “silent majority” is made up of people like you and me, with arms and legs, but who now and again, in the anonymity of the voting booth, separated from the others like in a toilet, vote for prigs and scoundrels.

So even if that TV screenplay looks increasingly corrupted by the truth of Rosemonde’s being in the world, the movie still performs the appropriation of a female working-class voice by male bohemian intellectuals, both diegetically and non-diegetically.

Nevertheless, the content of this monologue is vitally important at this moment in Swiss history. Because La Salamandre was released only two years before women were granted the right to vote at national level. This decision, of course, took place via an exclusively male referendum .

So that’s La Salamandre. A very good film to think with, an excellent character piece, and for Helvetonauts an wonderful chance to soak in the post-’68 malaise in urban Romandie – but not always an easy watch.

Swissness Lab Notes

  • At the time of filming, forward-thinking Geneva boasted Switzerland’s first Swiss female mayor, Lise Girardin.
  • Tanner lets the Swiss tropes loose on the French New Wave stylistics as the film goes on. A highlight is the bureaucrat who arrives “as a representative of the spiritual defence” to check their military papers. This character type returns speaking Swiss German seven years later in Die Schweizermacher.
  • I loved the descent into the frozen wasteland that was Rosemonde’s home town, somewhere in the Jura mountains. Some of the most urban-seeming people I’ve met in Swiss cities turn out to be fast-adapting migrants from “the provinces”.
  • I always forget Jean-Luc Godard, one of the Big Names of French New Wave, is Swiss, since his stuff is so very French (none his most famous movies qualified for the Tagesanzeiger’s “100 Best Swiss Films” in 2016). But here I was frequently reminded of Godard, especially the jump cuts and absurd “épater le bourgeois” provocations like the tram scene. I wonder how Tanner and the rest of his clique got on with Godard?
  • I’m now a subscriber to Swiss streaming site Cinefile, which offers considerable additional links to go with its Swiss movies. Here’s a snippet from Village Voice, in which this advert, and a positive left-wing review of the movie, nestle between ads for screenings of Deliverance and A Clockwork Orange in the hip New York cinemas!
(found via Cinefile.ch)

Swissness Difficulty Level: Matterhorn (advanced).
Language: French.
Availability: Free on PlaySuisse.

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