“In the White City”

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.


About Fabrizio del Wrongo

Recovering liberal arts major. Unrepentant movie nut. Aspiring boozehound.
This entry was posted in Movies, Performers, Travel and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to “In the White City”

  1. Sasha says:

    Never seen it. I don’t know Lisbon (or Rohmer, for that matter) at all, even though my dad was born there.

    Another to add to the endless list. Just finished season 3 of “Boardwalk Empire” so some spots in my couch-potato schedule have opened up.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      Would be interested in hearing what you think of it. Probably the kind of movie you need to be in the right mood for.


      • Sasha says:

        There are so many great film and director oeuvres I will never get around to. Doesn’t help that I’m more of a TV junkie than a film buff these days. Most of the interesting storytelling is taking place on TV, I find.


  2. It’s such an easy film to forget that I’d forgotten about it until your review here. Yet I liked it, I now recall. Tanner was sometimes really good, if in a hushed, hyper-lowkey, scrambled-modernist sort of way. Is he still around? And do contempo filmbuffs make much of him? I haven’t heard anyone talk about Tanner in years, but I don’t hang out in filmbuff circles the way I once did.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      As far as I can tell virtually no one talks about Tanner these days. “Jonah” sometimes gets mentioned as an important arthouse movie of the ’70s, but that’s about it. Out in bittorrent land it seems some folks have caught on that he was an interesting, but they’re usually five years ahead of everyone else. Doesn’t help that there’s not much Tanner on DVD.

      He was still making movies as of a few years ago. I haven’t seen any, though. I’ve seem four or five of the ’70s/’80s ones, and I’ve liked all of them.


  3. Philippe Léotard … He was in “Middle of the World’ and was as big as Bruno Ganz for a few years. Preceded Bruno, if I remember right. Had a great boyish-yet-world-weary-and-weatherbeaten face.


  4. I was a HUGE fan of “Jonah.” Funny how the movies these days that try to operate on a similar human scale and with that kind of unforced tone are so damn drab: mumblecore, Baumbach, etc. Has something changed in the world? Or has it always been surprisingly hard to capture some real human reality (and even playfulness and eroticism) on film? “Jonah” was a teeny-tiny movie, but (like Zanussi’s movies) there was nothing anorectic about it.


    • Fabrizio del Wrongo says:

      I was going to get into that in my review but then decided not to. The movie that I suggest was inspired by “In the White City,” “In the City of Sylvia,” is cold and negligible when it comes to its performances. It’s an interesting bauble but there’s not much life in it. It certainly doesn’t have Tanner’s feel for the nutty unexpectedness of people. And the new Baumbach is a pleasant little daub of a thing, but you can sense that he’s going for off-the-cuff poetry and shaggy humanness, and floundering. All he comes up with are some awkward kids playing at being grown-ups (in a touching way, but still). I suspect it IS pretty hard to get humanness into movies. Even Jonathan Demme seemed to lose the knack as he got older. Maybe it’s harder now because we’re all so atomized, autotuned, and uptight. I can’t think of much in the culture that I would describe as shaggy or loose-limbed.


  5. Pingback: “The Middle of the World” | Uncouth Reflections

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