Switzerland, France, 1971
Directed by Alain Tanner
With Bulle Ogier (Rosemonde), Jean-Luc Bideau (Pierre), Jacques Denis (Pierre)
The film begins and ends with the same, quirky cinematography: very grainy images, very slow motion, and extreme closeups, a sense of confusion even as the scene is centered on an element shot in a striking and obsessive manner, a gun at the start, the face of a young woman wandering in the streets at the end. Her face had briefly appeared at the end of the initial sequence, after the gun was shot and the old man tinkering with it collapsed; in the final sequence, this face catches the attention of many, looking more radiant and mischievous than ever.
Between these two moments, the film, through a far more ordinary, smoother, and crisper cinematography, “colored in black and white”, according to the funny titles, has told the story of this young woman. Actually, it relates the failure to build a narrative around her: it proves hard to nail Rosemonde’s story down, words struggling to conquer the best vantage point to capture her personality, turning always out to just in part correct, then wrong, in fact incomplete and overwhelmed by her very existence.
The horrible incident of the beginning was a real fact, and a tragedy that hit the headlines in the corner of the French-speaking Switzerland where the film takes place: an old man is badly, though not lethally, hurt by the gun that many years spent in the army bequeathed him. But was it an accident, or did his niece pull the trigger, as he claims while she strongly denies? The court dropped the case, for lack of witnesses and evidence. But now a television network wants to make a fiction out of the old case. To write a screenplay, a journalist always looking for a job is contacted: Pierre does need money, once again, but is already busy writing articles on the Brazilian economy. So he asks an old pal, Paul, to give him a helping hand. The writer, who is making the ends meet by working as a painter on construction sites, accepts, and right away starts to imagine what Rosemonde’s life has been – obviously, he is very gifted at conjuring a whole, realistic, and coherent world, but Pierre rather prefers to rely on truthful and concrete elements to write the screenplay. They make a deal: Paul keeps imagining while Pierre investigates – after all, he is a journalist.
Pierre eventually meets folks who have been acquainted with the young woman, Rosemonde, and her uncle who is still angry. A first surprise, as he uncovers hard facts, is that Paul has not been so off the mark when depicting the possible social and familial background of Rosemonde, minus a detail or two – so art can rival reality. But reality soon turns out to be far more attractive and disturbing, as Pierre finds out what a wild and baffling character Rosemonde is. And when she steps in his house one afternoon, because she did not know where to go after walking out of her factory job, and decides to sleep there, and with him – but the film would never say what truly happen to them during that most unexpected night – her reality definitely intrudes on the lives and the work of Pierre and Paul. Paul argues that it is not a good thing for them and that is changing the game. But Rosemonde would not disappear: in fact, she and the two friends get along well, and the men end up tagging along her, crucially crossing a line.
To go her way does not bring more clarification to their investigation: remembering things is not a task that motivates much Rosemonde, and she gets easily bored with questions. When the would-be screenwriters insist to start all over again, because so much time has passed off without any result and money is lacking, she mischievously aborts the interview. Anyway, her talking does not only unveil not just confusion but a real disregard for what happens to her and what society has done to her. Rosemonde is off-handed and disrespectful, rather rude in fact, passing abrupt judgments, unconcerned with the consequences of her actions, even if she suffers from them, and unable to keep a position, but then, not terribly interested in having a position in the first place. She likes to have fun, however, and appeals to the two friends who stray far away from their work and their habits, including a satisfactory married life in the case of Paul.
What the exercise reveals is that she does not really know how to narrate herself, but does not bother to, nor does she need to. Yet in a dialogue she has near the end with Paul, who ventured the right guess in the gun story (and when he claims her guilty, she just smilingly acknowledges it), she gets fascinated by the fact he has imagined her from scratch and questions him endlessly, an amusing and touching exchange between a man who can shape a narrative and a woman who should have been a narrative and wonders what to do with her life. If Paul talks at this point, it is also to inject confidence in her and to please her, as he is trying to bring her back to the shop where she has been working, after she decided to quit once again. She accepts to give it one more try, but the rest of the film shows comically how she strikes such a silly and scandalous attitude that her boss is compelled to fire her, which leads to the aforementioned final shots: Rosemonde’s story remains unpredictable, impossible to grasp firmly and to understand fully. The two men have indeed given up any hope of writing the screenplay and are trying to adjust back to their lives, Paul resuming his day job of painting houses while the indebted Pierre reckons to move out of Switzerland.
However, if a narrative cannot be formed, and “La salamandre” in a way does not even attempt to play the game of shooting a plot, being instead a desultory walk around the characters, a chronicle full of digressions told in part by a voice-over, enough images and shreds of truth about Rosemonde allow it to make a portrait and to capture a lively and vibrant personality that cannot be pigeonholed and does not accept to fit in a mold. Rosemonde is above all a stubborn character willingly getting adrift, eager for independence. She stands apart, a natural force eager to get unleashed and unconcerned by the consequences she could suffer – and her behaviors, gestures, reactions perfectly convey this, like her mad jerking and twisting of her head as she listens to a rock song, usually after turning up the volume, a convulsive physical exertion that stuns Pierre in a first case and irks her roommate, who fears the wrath of their neighbors in another case. But each time the shot ends with Rosemonde brightly smiling: she had her thrill, after all.
Her wild streak and funny ways fit nicely with the rebellious streak of the 1960s and are an offense to the staid and conservative lifestyle of Switzerland: the film, one anecdote after another, eagerly pokes fun at the director’s native country. If Paul and Pierre get so charmed by Rosemonde, it is also because they are awkward citizens in their own ways, Paul living at the society’s fringe, trying to write his own stuff, in the company of a woman publishing poetry, tinkering with a menial job to get a little money, living in a small house lost in the countryside because it is inexpensive, while Pierre turns out to be indifferent to many rules, even unaware he is late in paying the rent. Both make statements that emphasize their disdain for capitalism and nationalism: they are a world away from the arch-conservative and proud Swiss citizen Rosemonde’s uncle is. But their intellectual outlook rather lack in vitality and boldness when compared with Rosemonde’s breezy and brazen attitudes concealed behind her sullen and stubborn face. She is a genuine disruptive force and a powerful magnet, played with a dazzling vigor and exuberance by a great Bulle Ogier.