Fabrizio del Wrongo writes:
This oddball meditation on transience is like one of Eric Rohmer’s “season” movies filtered through “Sans Soleil.” The title refers to Lisbon, the Portuguese capital. An alluring hodgepodge of a port city, Lisbon admits to a long history of occupiers — everyone from the Celts to the Moors. All of them contributed to the city’s character: even the look of the place seems achieved through accretion. Writer-director Alain Tanner is attracted to these very qualities. Swiss by birth, Tanner has a good understanding of the places where cultures overlap and blur, and his outsider’s view informs the movie. I’d compare it to a travelogue if its effects weren’t so dependent on an air of aimlessness.
The plot, such as it is, concerns Bruno Ganz’s Paul. He’s a sailor, equal parts rube and satyr, who washes up in Lisbon a tourist, then morphs into a castaway, roaming the cobblestone streets seemingly without purpose. The conflict emerges when Paul becomes attached to a chambermaid named Rosa. Played by Teresa Madruga, Rosa exhibits a combination of guilelessness and reserve that may be unique to Portuguese women; she guards her soft parts like a she-wolf does her litter. It’s her self-assuredness — her weight — that Paul is attracted to, probably because it makes him feel less indeterminate. Yet he can’t bring himself to allow a deeper connection (perhaps he lacks the capability). Clumsily, he compares himself to an axolotl, a Mexican salamander that never develops past the larval state, forever remaining part fish, part amphibian. Rosa reacts as you’d expect: by distancing herself.
When he’s with Rosa Paul is like a character in a more conventional movie, but when he’s alone the film is all mixed up with his subjective experience. Here Tanner gives us long sections of Paul’s home movies, which are dropped into the picture like the scene-setting montages familiar from products of Hollywood. Some of these Paul sends to a former lover in Switzerland, along with letters filled with ruminations on emptiness and alienation. In a way these women complete Paul by providing him with an object on which he can train his consciousness. Without them he’s like an unmoored intelligence, a wayward ship forever seeking harbor. At the end of the movie Paul is on a train (moving again), and he fixes his gaze on a new woman — a new Rosa. Tanner skips to the grainy film stock of Paul’s home movies. She’s already an image from memory.
It’s a highly impressionistic movie, one so light that it just about slips out of consciousness once it’s over. What remains are its subtly lapping rhythms, its melancholy. I wish Tanner had found a less obtrusive way to sever the connection between Paul and Rosa; it’s about the only thing that feels mechanical. Also, a clock that runs backwards is too cute by half. Yet these flaws don’t spoil the overall effect of the picture. I can think of few movies that so potently evoke the peculiar out-of-timeness of tourism, or that so shrewdly liken it to our contemporary malaise — a condition that has proliferated in the absence of root, of place, of tradition.
- The whole of “In the White City,” with English subtitles, is available on YouTube here.
- The movie may have inspired the more recent “In the City of Sylvia.”
- Bruno Ganz has enjoyed a long and fairly distinguished career in movies, but today he’s best known for being the guy in all those Hitler parodies on YouTube.
- “You have to understand I put everything into that performance, so it’s not easy for me to accept it.”
- Lisbon on Flickr.