[Originally published in Movietone News 44, September 1975]
A thin mist covers an eerily silent, seemingly uninhabited countryside; a car carrying two men seeps into view and, without warning, tumbles off the road and into a field. We suddenly realize that we have viewed what is perhaps death (we never do find out what happens to the men) with what amounts to a stylistic shrug of the shoulders. We hear one or two muffled bumps, the car finally comes to rest, and that’s it: no preparation, no comment, just the bare incident itself seen as though dissociated from any point of view that seems reasonably human. I’m not sure I can say just why I find that scene—which happens about three-quarters of the way through Alain Tanner’s fourth feature film—so effectively chilling. Whatever it is about it seems to spring from unanalyzable sources concealed beneath some mysterious veil of tonal incongruity, and yet the intimations of detachment one receives may find support in a more solid stylistic articulation that serves to integrate Tanner’s themes of communication and perception with a soft-spoken visual approach that is deceptively arbitrary and surprisingly precise.
In the opening scenes of The Middle of the World, what we see of the two main characters—Paul, an engineer entering a political campaign for mayor in a small Swiss town, and Adriana, the waitress he meets in a local café and has an affair with—seems to be a random sampling of moments of no great importance or perceptual consistency. Shots of Paul walking across a parking lot weigh equally with an intimate view of Adriana asleep on a bed in the half-light of her rented room. Frequent gazes at characterless scenes of frozen fields, lines of bare trees in a cold winter haze—and then the same scenes in a suddenly fecund burst of color, light, flowers, and waving grass—are interspersed throughout the narrative in a similarly patternless arrangement juxtaposing winter scenes and spring scenes with no discernible logic. While the method seems vaguely impressionistic, Tanner is nonetheless concerned with a formal control over the way he arranges things, adhering, for instance, to a rhythmical beat of intercutting between Paul and Adriana, or striving to achieve some kind of narrative symmetry through repeated images and scenes: Adriana asleep on her bed, riding trains into and out of Paul’s life, working in a factory back in Italy which is almost identical to the one Paul supervises. We begin to feel that in the seeming randomness there is something as impersonally exact and tightly regulated as a planned economy, and that maybe there is a layer of stylistic significance somewhere beneath the pointedly arbitrary jigsaw pattern of temporal progression which may have more to do with the varying attitudes of the camera towards the two characters than with our first-glance impression of its selfconscious indifference.
Even while Tanner’s camera has a tendency to intrude on Adriana’s intimacy, it is nonetheless she who is most conscious and protective of her privacy; and, significantly, while Adriana’s own subjective viewpoint is never given an explicit visual representation, she does time and again (initially, in the Café au Gare where she works) slip inside the perimeter of Paul’s point of view, thus establishing a vantage essentially looking at Adriana while at the same time bending our sympathies in the direction of her more vulnerable sensibilities. Ironically, Paul buys her a movie camera at one point, as though loaning her a voyeuristic tool she might use to mitigate the burden of her introspective privacy. She gets angry and asks what she’s supposed to photograph with it: her landlord? a dog taking a piss? the trivial events of everyday life? her room?—which she now implies has become a depressing place to live, while earlier she was happy with the privacy it afforded and the sense of autonomy it represented.
While perception has been a problem in earlier Tanner films—recall the two writers in Le Salamandre who wrote themselves so deeply into the life of their subject, a working-class girl, that they never really found their way out—in The Middle of the World distancing becomes an even more acute problem tied to the necessity and failure of compromise. Paul never sees Adriana as she really is, or as she says she really is. His perception of her is never dissociated from the context of familiar points of reference that help define his own life: his house, his career, his father, the childhood past which is so close he can point to it over there on the next hillside. Paul only sees her in the blur of a Doppler-like distortion (earlier, he had explained to Adriana how the pitch of a train whistle varies as it approaches and recedes into the distance) arising from their different orientations, their different means of defining their separate lives; and while Adriana at one point tries to pull back into herself by climbing aboard a train, as though testing or renewing the strength and validity of her own perspective, there yet remains a basic, unresolved dilemma wherein Tanner’s continued insistence on the validity of and need for some sort of emotional privacy is just the condition for the unknowableness of other people which seems to be what keeps his characters apart.
MIDDLE OF THE WORLD (Le Milieu du monde)
Direction: Alain Tanner. Screenplay: Tanner, John Berger. Cinematography: Renato Berta. Editing: Brigitte Sousselier. Music: Patrick Moray. Production: Yves Gasser, Yves Peyrot.
The players: Olimpia Carlisi, Philippe Léotard, Juliet Berto, Denise Perron, Jaques Denis.
Copyright © 1975 Rick Hermann