Return from Africa
The long way home

by Bernard Weiner

from Jump Cut, no. 4, 1974, pp. 3-4
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1974, 2004

LE RETOUR D'AFRIQUE (RETURN FROM AFRICA) is Alain Tanner’s third film and serves as further confirmation that a brilliant film maker is emerging out of the Swiss experience, one who knows how to merge art and politics in important, powerful ways. Tanner is a spiritual descendant of Rohmer and early Truffaut and Godard. He is like Rohmer in being unafraid to have characters really talk to each other; Truffaut in his cinematic humor, and creative camera and editing techniques; Godard in his desire to use cinema for political ends, at least the Godard of the “bourgeois revolutionary” period.

Where Tanner goes Godard one better—and thus is better equipped to lure audiences to consider his political messages—is that he sticks closer to traditional narrative, concentrating on very real human personalities. We care about Tanner’s characters the way we almost never can about Godard’s political proxies.

In LA SALAMANDRE, Tanner’s second feature, made in 1971, he focuses on an alienated young worker named Rosemonde (played expertly by Bulle Ogier), who bounces all over the industrial landscape in her undirected rage. Working with Tanner on the script was John Berger, the English Marxist art critic and novelist. The film’s title refers to the lizard creature, the salamander; which according to myth can survive fire. Rosemonde—supremely individualistic, always in trouble—has been burned repeatedly by life’s experiences. And yet she goes gamely on, from job to job and from man to man, always searching for something she knows not what. She is relatively uneducated, unskilled, and naive in almost everything she does. She is also bored, and ferociously angry. “I feel like smashing something,” she says after another day in the factory. Later she says, “I like the sound of breaking windows.” How she manages to survive is a mystery, but she does survive and keeps on keeping on.

In LA SALAMANDRE, as with RETURN FROM AFRICA, the story unfolds in two or three directions at once. The ostensible main plot has to do with two writers who want to do a story on Rosemonde and whether she did or did not shoot her uncle. If one chooses, the film can be enjoyed purely on that level. Or, one can move beyond to the realization that her guilt or innocence doesn't really matter. Rather, on this level, the film is about the relationships established, and the truths learned, by the two writers, Paul and Pierre (Jacques Denis and Jean Luc Bideau), with Rosemonde serving as their catalyst and teacher.

On a more political level, LA SALAMANDRE is important because it deals not with the usual subject for Modern European Cineastes—a member of the upper middle class going through an angst O.D., or a hip-artist type bombarded with sensuality and guilt—but with a true representative of the the working class. As we meet Rosemonde, she is a sausage stuffer in a meat factory, surely not the most exciting work—unless one can get off on the sexual symbolism of her hand-labor. What we learn about Rosemonde and those she represents, and what Rosemonde begins to learn about herself and her real enemies, provides a valuable social lesson, subtly delivered.

Since I haven't seen Tanner’s first effort, the 1968 CHARLES: MORT OU VIE (CHARLES: DEAD OR ALIVE), I can but note that the social concern is the same, closer in theme perhaps to his latest film. How does, can, a sensitive person deal with the crushing weight of Swiss bourgeois society and values? Charles, a successful businessman in his 50s, suddenly drops out of his comfortable lifestyle to hippie it up with the budding counterculture. In the end, he is carted off to an asylum, his new happiness being an unacceptable form of expression for a straight (jacketed) society.

The protagonists of RETURN FROM AFRICA are a young married couple in their mid-20s, Vincent (François Marthouret) and Françoise(Josée Destoop), living a moderately comfortable but unexciting life in contemporary Geneva. He works as a landscape gardener, she in an art gallery. They are bothered by the future they see creeping up on them: a modern apartment, kids, auto trips into the country for weekend picnics, and so on, This vision of bourgeois Swiss life terrifies them, even though the circle in which they move is not particularly inclined in such directions. (At one point, a female friend of theirs takes a bath in front of them while Vincent and Françoise sit a few feet away in nonchalant discussion. A very comic scene, perfectly capturing the informality of their lifestyle.) Still, in a certain sense, their existence is dependent on the bourgeoisie, whose values are constantly thrust into their lives: Vincent tends the gardens of the rich, Françoise deals with wealthy art patrons.

They could break the monotonous pattern of their lives by having a child. But they see that prospect as part of the very social programming that haunts them—and Françoise is not at all eager to have a baby. Since Vincent is intellectually involved with Third World politics (he reads Frantz Fanon on his way to work, in the back of a bouncing pickup truck), they decide to go to Africa. They are encouraged in this plan by a friend who has been living in Algiers for five years. He says they can stay with him for awhile and he'll help Vincent find a job. To finance the trip, they sell their car and piano and all the furniture except a mattress for their last night’s sleep in Geneva. Shortly before a going away party, they receive a telegram from their friend in Algiers telling them not to leave immediately, that a letter of explanation will follow.

Believing that they no doubt will receive the letter the following day and then depart, they go ahead with their going away party and sleep off their glorious hangovers in excited anticipation of their voyage. But the letter does not arrive that day, or the next, or the next, or the next. Somewhat embarrassed by the circumstances of their non-departure and their friends’ going away party, they simply lie low in their empty apartment, eating catered food and doing a lot of screwing. On occasion, they skulk out for cigarettes and newspapers, but most of their days and nights are spent only with each other, and with the realization that they are in Limbo. They are neither in Geneva, since they've long since departed emotionally from that deadening place, nor in Algiers, since they're not physically there yet.

It’s a situation ripe for comedy. This modern young couple is virtually reduced to hiding out like criminals in an apartment stripped of all furnishings but their mattress and packed suitcases, afraid to go out for fear of embarrassment. But Tanner ventures far beyond the obvious comedy into scenes of real marital depth. The film’s pace slows as we, the audience, like Vincent and Françoise, are forced to deal with the painful/joyful aspects of themselves and of their marriage. Their marital tide ebbs and flows as they make their way through the days and nights waiting for the all-important letter: making love, arguing, figuring out what the trip to Africa really means to their lives, why they just didn't leave on the day they were supposed to, and so on. As we watch this claustrophobic interaction, we learn more about each in ways that make us care very deeply about their fate. The letter finally arrives explaining that the friend is returning to Switzerland and that they should wait for him so that he can give them tips about their new homeland. But we know, as they slowly come to realize, that their “return from Africa” is permanent.

The film could end there, but Tanner has involved us too much in the lives of his compelling couple. We next see Vincent and Françoise nine months later. They live in a modern high rise apartment complex on the outskirts of Geneva, and their suburban domesticity tells us that the future they feared is coming all-too-true for them. The film also could end here, tying up the narrative neatly with its ironic epilogue. But Tanner continues the story, fleshing out in a flawed but brilliant coda his social message and his characters’ politics and personalities, which by now have become inseparable.

Let’s go back a bit in following out the plot’s political development. Throughout the early part of the film, Vincent’s predilection for Third World politics is dealt with in a variety of telling ways. Emilio, an illegal Spanish immigrant who works with Vincent, says that he can't get involved in questions of international politics anymore. Emilio’s not worried about being thrown out of Switzerland, but he says this because he feels the revolution has to revolve around local issues of class struggle, where people really live, physically and psychologically. Vincent hears Emilio but still is fascinated with the downtrodden of Africa and how, once he gets there, he'll be able to further the revolutionary forces.

However, a friend’s comment at the going away party throws further cold water on Vincent’s intellectual grasp of Third World politics. Even though you're going to Africa with little money and will have to find a job there to survive, his friend tells him, you'll always be regarded somewhat as a representative of the exploiters. You will be a white in a dark society, which condition represents wealth and power. Even though you don't want to think of yourself in those terms, the friend tells Vincent, that will always be a fact of life.

Still later, Vincent’s principles are further jolted when Emilio tells him what it’s like to be an alien in a foreign land—never quite accepted as a member of the native society, never totally devoid of feelings of homesickness. (Emilio is later deported from Switzerland and sent back to Spain. He is accompanied to the train station by a Swiss policeman, the same fellow whom we've seen occupying the parking place that Vincent and Françoise regard as their own outside their apartment.)

All of these observations and remarks prepare us for the finality of Vincent’s and Françoise’s “return from Africa.” Tanner doesn't have to show us how they arrived at a decision not to head for Algiers. We understand why, and simply move on to their lives nine months later, plopped in the middle of the suburban housing complex next to the airport, their new life at the heart (as it were) of modern, industrial Swiss society punctuated by the incessant, mind-bending sounds of jets streaking overhead. (At one point, Françoise can't take it any more. In the middle of one of these low-flying cacophonies, she simply shrieks in existential pain. It is a powerful moment.)

We feel sad and let down by their predicament. But things have changed for Françoise and Vincent; it has been a pregnant nine months. Vincent, now working in a nursery, has become more bitter. Françoise has changed the most; she is now out of the house, away from the world of the ritzy art gallery, and works for the P.T.T.. At the post office, her colleagues are true proletarian women, and they spend much time discussing, in their own way, the politics of male and class oppression. Françoise comes not only to appreciate their arguments but also to appreciate them, as people, these common worker types with whom she has had very little contact in the past. (One of her colleagues we recognize is Anne Wiazemsky.)

One day, Vincent strides into the spotless, modern kitchen (the contrast between their lifestyle now and that of nine months previous is exemplified in these shots of their boring new apartment, as we remember their funky, bohemian loft) with a letter from the owner of the apartment complex. As Vincent reads the notice—telling them that they can purchase their apartment, probably with a 20 or 30 year mortgage, and that if they don't want to buy, they will be evicted within 30 days—we inwardly groan. The long mortgage would cap their sad state, turning them into average, heavily mortgaged bourgeoisie, thus sealing their fate, their possibilities of freedom. But Vincent and Françoise reject the idea of owning property and, angered by this insulting, exploitative measure by the capitalist owner of the apartment complex, decide to organize the tenants in protest. We see Françoise and Vincent meeting with another young couple, discussing the possibilities of a rent strike, an occupation, legal action—and apparently their organizing efforts are proving quite successful. The comment by Emilio at the film’s beginning—about organizing for revolutionary aims at the local level, around real class issues—comes back to us as we realize the significance of the film’s title. One can read “Return from Africa” as a simple descriptive statement, or as a plea. For what Tanner seems to be saying to his young, white, semi-hip bourgeois audiences is this: While one can learn from and contribute to the Revolution by immersion in Third World politics, the real fight is where you are and who you are. Start where you can be most effective. From there, the revolutionary ripples will eventually merge into larger and larger breakers until, someday, they may become a tidal wave as they join with the energy and strength of Third World revolts.

And, surely by now, one would have thought that white radicals of the bourgeois West would have learned that lesson. The French left Algeria not only because of the Algerian resistance movement (the F.L. N. portrayed so powerfully by Pontecorvo in THE BATTLE OF ALGIERS), but because within France there were forces operating against further colonialism that eventually caught the French power structure in a vise of opposition too powerful to ignore. The same was true earlier vis-à-vis the French and the Vietnamese. A similar revolutionary pincer-movement forced the U.S. out of direct involvement in Indochina, as things got too hot for the U.S. power center not only in Vietnam, but in the United States as well—and, most significantly, within the U.S. military establishment. The same pattern holds true for Portugal and its colonies. On domestic issues, the same forces are at work: By organizing around real problems that affect the working and lower and middle classes where they live—with inflation issues, consumerism, etc. radicals have been making much headway lately. The old tactics of rousing the rabble with pure socialist rhetoric simply turns people off, and is often counterproductive. (And leads to such infantilism as the Symbionese Liberation Army’s dreams of the imminent revolution.)

Revolution is hard, constant, back breaking and often boring work. In the complacent middle-class societies of the capitalist West, it may never come about in one fell swoop, but rather in slow, effective, radical readjustments until one day we'll all be surprised to see the revolutionary structures just around the corner. The fight won't be easy, and it may even turn violent at times (power usually isn't yielded without some bloodshed). But the point is—and Tanner makes it beautifully in LE RETOUR D'AFRIQUE—that the fight begins where you are, and where you have the most leverage.

Toward the end of the film, Vincent and Françoise, excited by their radical tenant organizing and the realization that they have now finally “returned from Africa” and are in Switzerland to stay, decide—almost defiantly—to have a child. Since the revolutionary transformation of Swiss society is not going to happen overnight, and probably not in their lifetime, they decide, with deliciously wicked smiles, to breed “enemies of the state.” Their children, they agree, will be “gentle but evil,” raised in a loving, radical household.

Which brings us to the film’s final moments. After the baby is weaned, Françoise asks, who will take care of the child at home? Vincent looks puzzled. Naturally you will, he tells Françoise. I'm certainly not equipped to do so, and besides I'd feel silly wheeling a pram down the street, sitting with all the young mothers at the park while the baby plays in the sandbox. But Françoise, newly reinforced by the education provided by her P.T.T. colleagues, is adamant and won't budge. They argue the issue for hours without solving the problem. Finally, Vincent suggests flipping a coin. Whoever loses will take care of the child during the day. Françoise agrees to this strange arrangement; at least she’s brought Vincent around this far. Vincent flips the coin, it lands, they both peer over to see how it fell—and Tanner freezes the frame and ends the movie.

The film is essentially divided into three parts—their Geneva life prior to “leaving,” their stay in the apartment, their new life. Each part exhibits a cinematic rhythm consonant with what’s going on in the lives of Vincent and Françoise. The black-and-white film opens languidly, panning Geneva, people going to work, the factories, a man entering a phone booth, a couple sleeping. Slowly Tanner settles in on the couple. (It is reminiscent of Ermanno Olmi’s brilliantly riffed opening for THE FIANCÉS. Such openings suggest that the filmmaker could create his film around any of these people, but for some reason decides to focus on this couple and not that.) The phone rings. Vincent crawls out of bed and, so as not to wake Françoise, takes the phone over to a corner and talks while sitting on the bare floor of what we recognize as a loft apartment. It is Emilio calling—his bicycle tire has been punctured by a nail (a bad omen for this illegal immigrant), and Vincent will have to pick him up on his way to work. With remarkable cinematic economy, Tanner has told us much about Vincent, his sensitivity to Françoise, their slightly bohemian lifestyle, the drabness of Geneva, and a hint of what faces Emilio.

In this first section, Tanner is faced with a monumental task: to convey the boredom affecting Vincent and Françoise in the stultifying atmosphere of Swiss society without boring us, the viewers, in the process. Vincent talks much about the excitement of the movies and of socialism. There are overheard shots of streets with cars dutifully following big arrows (Tati used similar shots in MON ONCLE, for the same purpose). One hardly ever sees a customer in the silent art gallery where Françoise works, Vincent recites out loud and with increasing rage the litany of street names on his way to and from work. Slowly but surely, Tanner has constructed a deadening rhythm, preparing us for some major move on the part of his characters. The film gains speed as they move closer and closer to their departure for Africa.

The next section is perhaps the most daring, as Vincent and Françoise hide out in their empty apartment, waiting for the letter that will finally allow them to join their minds in Algeria. Tanner slows his cinematic rhythm to a crawl and forces us a us to experience the enervating ennui that envelopes his characters, then the tension between them as the daily torture of waiting takes it toll, and finally their growth and reconciliation as they determine not to leave for Africa after all. Their dilemma is almost excruciating to watch, but as they grow, we grow with them, until finally we are permitted to leave that seriocomic limbo.

The final third of the film, their life in the housing complex, is rendered in a jagged and nervous rhythm, consonant with what Vincent and Françoise are going through as they come to terms with their inability to make the grand leap to Africa. Their conversations are constantly interrupted by the roar of passing jets, there are cars everywhere heading to and from the central city, they are more and more at the mercy of machines. But, once they make their mental decision to stay, to fight, and to breed “enemies of the state,” their smiles return. The love that we know runs deep between them comes even more to the fore, and we are infused with a feeling of revolutionary optimism. The ambiguity of the final freeze frame is merely Tanner’s way of saying that the question of who cares for the baby at home is really not that important. This couple is going to make it, without losing their ideals, and the revolutionary potential has thus been strengthened.

The acting by François Marthouret and Josée Destoop as Vincent and Françoise is superb, especially that of Destoop, who goes from being a fairly compliant appendage to her husband to become a woman of strength and personal identity. The black-and-white cinematography, excellently muted and lighted, is the work of Renato Berta and Carlo Varini, who also worked on Tanner’s two earlier films. The tight script is by Tanner, and his love-hate relationship with his native Switzerland is powerfully rendered. (There is one devastating piece of editing in the film; a character talks of the pain caused by Swiss capitalism; the next shot is of a Swissair jet, its tail sticking up into the frame, sliding across the screen, as if a sharp knife slicing at the vitals.)

It is by no means a perfect film. Its running time is 108 minutes, and it could easily be cut by ten or fifteen minutes. At times the pacing is off. And Tanner is all too prone to imitative experiments (he grossly overuses a slow horizontal pan, à la Godard, in the post office sequence), or over-heavy symbolism (his metaphor of a tree being cut down in the poor housing project was hackneyed decades ago in A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN). But the power and importance of what he has to say, and the beautifully eccentric way in which he says it, more than make up for these occasional lapses.

Tanner is not a part of the “youth explosion” , of film makers. He’s 45 and paid his dues in England nearly two decades ago (working in the Free Cinema movement, and later as an editor at the BBC), and then for many years as a director of documentaries for Swiss television. His films exhibit a great deal of care and preplanning, spaced out as they are about every two or three years, and apparently he is able to produce these gems on very low budgets. He shot LA SALAMANDRE on l6mm (blown up to 35mm), with a small crew and in only a few shooting days, at a total cost of about $80,000.

Tanner’s got something, that creative spark of the genuine artist, and a deeply committed one at that. One looks forward with anticipation to his future efforts.