The Middle of the World
The long road to liberation

by Ying Ying Wu

from Jump Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 7-8
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

In recent years there have been few major film roles for women and few serious films dealing with women coping with the pressures of modern life. Complaints from feminists have inspired several films which have attempted to fill this gap. Despite the current influence of women’s liberation, many producers, writers and directors still seem unable to visualize their heroines as more than unhappy women victimized by their families and acquaintances, their economic situations, and most important, their own sense of inadequacy. Ending a film by implying that a woman’s only option is to live happily or unhappily ever after with the man of her choice merely propagates a defeatist attitude.

Swiss director Alain Tanner is one of the few who prefer to offer audiences the possibility of an independent heroine capable of fighting to establish her identity. In 1971 he founded his international reputation with THE SALAMANDER, the portrait of Rosemonde, a young working class woman who drifts from job to job with charming nonchalance. Tanner not only draws us into the story of two writers’ hilarious research for a TV script into Rosemonde’s alleged attempt to shoot her uncle and the writers’ inadvertent sexual involvement with her, but he also explores the gum-chewing factory worker’s rebellion against her oppressive life.

On a political level, Tanner shows Rosemonde educating the middle class writers, Paul and Pierre (played by Tanner regulars Jacques Denis and Jean-Luc Bideau) about proletarian life by contradicting all their assumptions about her. Unconsciously, yet naturally, her revolt extends to society’s limited concept of her as a female. Rosemonde (portrayed by a spunky Bulle Ogier) resists boredom—whether from her jobs or from her men—in a series of random, humorous incidents. Tanner’s genius lies in his protest of her dual, inseparable oppression as a sex object and as a victim of dehumanized, industrial society by elevating it to high farce. Stuffing sausages into casings at the factory takes on sexual innuendoes, as does her disconcerting habit of caressing customers’ feet in a short-lived stint as a shoe clerk. Her pranks against complacent employers and her cool indifference to lovers are a reaction against being desensitized by society.

This non-conformism usually gets her into trouble, yet Rosemonde always emerges with her individuality intact. From this we derive the meaning of the film’s title, describing a mythical lizard-like creature which can endure fire without harm. Rosemonde’s instinct for survival allows her to walk away from her daily skirmishes unscathed. We remain confident that these skirmishes, defined by her depressing working class milieu, are shaping Rosemonde into a stronger, wiser woman, even if she’s headed toward an uncertain future.

Tanner’s other efforts deal with similar rebellions against modern industrialized society by a successful Swiss businessman/ watchmaker (CHARLES DEAD OR ALIVE, 1969) and a young middle class couple in Geneva who long to join the Third World in preparing for the revolution (RETURN FROM AFRICA, 1973). But his latest film, and his first in color, THE MIDDLE OF THE WORLD (l974), again examining a working class woman’s life, firmly establishes him as a leading male commentator of this decade on women’s liberation by capturing the essence of the struggle between the sexes in terms previously unexplored on film.

One of the secondary themes of RETURN FROM AFRICA explores Françoise’s contact with working-class women through her job at the post office. Now that she and her husband have decided to remain in Switzerland and to fight for social changes at home, she gradually realizes her role in improving her co-workers’ lives and its effect on her own existence, Like Rosemonde, Françoise’s revolt appears instinctive and undirected at first, but Tanner reveals that it is in fact directed against certain oppressive elements in society. Thus while exploring his characters’ relations with each other, he makes sure to place these into a political context. Never allowing his audience to lose sight of the characters’ socioeconomic backgrounds, he reveals how these color their behavior. Françoise, and especially Rosemonde, blaze the trail for Adriana, a woman who “doesn't know what she wants, but does know what she doesn't want.”

The point of departure of THE MIDDLE OF THE WORLD is a potentially banal love story between Paul, a married Swiss engineer, and Adriana, an Italian emigrant waitress. As in Truffaut’s THE SOFT SKIN, mutual attraction develops into a destructive, lopsided passion which ruins Paul’s chances of being elected to political office. Co-scripted with English art critic and novelist John Berger, who collaborated on THE SALAMANDER and RETURN FROM AFRICA, this film employs their now familiar reflective tone and carefully modulated mood shifts to examine characters caught within social forces which they refuse to accept. Though he also diverts our preoccupation with the plot to his affection and concern for Paul and Adriana, Tanner’s use of incisive details and characterization goes one step beyond Truffaut’s. The former’s involvement with the problems of illicit lovers is interlocked with his class-conscious view of them.

At the beginning, the narrator informs us that the film demonstrates the concept of “normalization” in which relations between the economic classes, different countries or the sexes are acceptable “as long as nothing changes.”

At the film’s end, Adriana leaves Paul, her job and her friends. What the film examines are the options she has abandoned and the reasons for her conscious choice to refuse them. Tanner’s concept of a heroine who is capable of making these choices is refreshing.

Philippe Leotard skillfully and subtly presents Paul as an attractive and basically sympathetic lover. A self-made man with wife and child, Paul is the very personification of bourgeois values demanded by the backers of his political party. His embarking on a political career signifies the level of success he has achieved. Yet we observe him nervously approaching Adriana and wooing her with a deference which indicates that he is also a novice at adultery.

In the initial stages of their affair, he, a native of the region, explains local customs to Adriana during their strolls around the countryside. Born on a farm, Paul never denies his peasant roots and retains his closeness to the land and to his farmer father.

Tanner’s indictment of Paul unfolds slowly. As his relationship with Adriana becomes more intense, through several meetings which convey an urgent, tender eroticism not often seen in films, he begins to envisage their future together.

Inevitably Paul considers plans to divorce his wife, take Adriana on trips, and rent an apartment so they can live together. In short, to build a life for himself which will only be a replica of the old. And in doing so, to rescue Adriana from what he refers to as her “shitty job” and modest rented room, ideas which provoke her angry retort, “And what will I do all day long? He assures her, “You'll be free to do anything you want—with me.”

A friend described Paul as “unconvincing” because he was so willing to risk both family and career for Adriana’s sake. It is unsettling, I admit, to observe for once a man who is so completely overwhelmed by his passions that he sacrifices everything he has built up during his life for love. That’s a film role usually reserved for women.

There is also a curious contradiction about a man who is so ready to take these risks and yet who is so securely anchored to his bourgeois values that he can only try to impose these same values on Adriana. On the one hand, he takes more risks than are believable to reject these values. Yet he is trying to bring Adriana into a lifestyle defined by the very stifling values he has rejected. Even at the end, Paul doesn't realize that his selfish, paradoxical behavior has destroyed their affair.

Adriana, on the other hand, is a revelation. As characterized by Olimpia Carlisi, she is a combination of quiet dignity and determination. She also reacts to predictable situations in unexpected ways. Arguments about labor unions sum up her family life in Italy and attest to her working-class roots, yet she doesn't seem gratified by Paul’s generous offers to free her from them. When they go to spend the night in a posh hotel where he reveals (not without a trace of pride in his voice) that, as a struggling student, he couldn't afford the price of a lemonade, she demands to go home to sleep in her own bed. Presenting her with a costly movie camera, he is disappointed that Adriana has no interest in making films about her monotonous life, or as she puts it, “dogs taking a piss.” Paul finally takes her to his own home and proudly lists its modern conveniences: washing machine, freezer, electric mixer, etc. This prompts Adriana to get right back into his car and refuse to enter the house.

The disintegration of their relationship is clear to her. Adriana realizes that they can only really communicate on a physical level. She draws Paul’s attention to this and to his unwitting treatment of her as a sexual object in a sad bedroom scene. Undressing only below the waist, she mechanically beckons Paul to bed, evoking his confused reply, “That’s the way the whores do it.”

His ignorance of Adriana’s needs extends to his doomed political campaign. By now, Paul’s affair has jeopardized not only his marriage but his political future. The snickering, envious references to Adriana as a “hot lay” by everyone around him—from garage mechanics (including an ebullient Jacques Denis who kids him knowingly) to his alarmed colleagues—crassly echo this truth. Paul remains stubbornly oblivious and maintains to his backers that his private life is nobody’s business but his own. Yet his scandalous behavior provides juicy gossip for the local populace who correctly predict that it will cause him to lose the election.

They are especially intolerant of his making a fool of himself over an emigrant worker. The film’s title, THE MIDDLE OF THE WORLD, refers to the geographical and psychological division in Switzerland between northern and southern Europe. And although Paul recognizes no problems arising from their different nationalities, his neighbors refer to Adriana contemptuously as “that Italian,” as they do of Italian laborers in general.

Adriana’s friend and coworker Juliette, although incapable of understanding Adriana’s involvement with Paul, is nonetheless sympathetic. Juliet Berto enlivens this supporting role with a marvelous mixture of humor and cynicism. As both victim and victor of the sexual revolution, she reflects her own lifestyle. Although Juliette professes to enjoy the freedom of going out with different men and dreads marriage as only another form of enslavement, a husband would provide an escape from her dreary job. She observes resignedly, “You can't party forever.” At the film’s end, Adriana is leaving for Zurich and the pair are waiting at the train station. With disarming innocence, Juliette questions her friend’s reasons for leaving. Was it to save Paul’s career? Was she paid to leave? Was Paul lousy in bed? Did Paul want to have “abnormal sex”? Was it because Paul wasn't Italian? Adriana shakes her head and smiles no.

Rather, Tanner suggests that Adriana’s departure is motivated by her realization that Paul’s desires cannot change. Nor can she change as he wants her to. In effect, they have become “normalized.”

Tanner’s unromantic style of depicting random moments during their 112 days together emphasizes the ordinary quality of their affair and the inevitability of its breakdown. From the beginning, Adriana possesses an instinctive sense of what her life will be like and is preoccupied with making her own choices about its direction. Becoming a middle class housewife is not part of her plan. Paul’s persistent blindness to her real desires has hastened the failure of their relationship. When he offers to have a facial scar removed which Adriana received in a fire, his motives seem entirely unselfish. What he overlooks is that Adriana cherishes this scar as a reminder of her realization that her primary responsibility in life is to herself, a credo she has tried to live up to since then.

At the end, when we leave Adriana working in a Zurich factory, an ironic glimpse of a supervisor who is almost Paul’s double suggests that she could just as well have been involved with this fellow. But we are now sure that she will not capitulate to the dehumanization of her new job. We also feel certain that what she has learned about her limitations in her relationship with Paul has brought her further along the road to self-knowledge. Tanner clearly implies throughout the film that these limitations are imposed as much by society’s definition of her as by the boundaries of her emotions toward Paul.

Tanner’s films demand to be seen again and again. Because his characters interact with each other on several levels, you continue to think about them long after you've seen the film. He is concerned with opening his audiences’ eyes and eliciting a kind of enlightenment—both social and political—necessary for changing our conception of the female experience. This demands we actively evaluate his characters. Thus Tanner is to be praised for refusing to impose on his films clear, emotionally satisfying endings. Like Rosemonde and Françoise, he leaves Adriana’s future open and ambiguous. Only what we have individually learned about her provides a clue to what she will do.