The debut feature film of Geneva-born director Alain Tanner, Charles, Dead or Alive (1969) sees a third-generation watch-factory owner calmly spill his ineffectual guts on a talk show, hole up in a grubby pension, then crash with a bohemian couple living near a giant gravel pile. “There’s no flag in the garden,” Charles muses of the house he has left behind, referring to Switzerland’s omnipresent red-and-white standard. “But it’s as if there’s one.”
Tanner was 40 when he made Charles, which kicks off Anthology’s weeklong tribute. Its themes—dropout ambivalence and the maddening stability of a centuries-old democracy—are touchstones of the filmmaker’s oft-wearying cinema of systemic hangover. He was also a nomad: Tanner knocked about with the merchant navy in the early 1950s, then worked at the British Film Institute, where, inspired by the Free Cinema movement, he co-directed a short on Piccadilly Circus crowds. Through filmmaker (and Sequence critic) Lindsay Anderson’s introduction, Tanner met the novelist John Berger, who would help out on Charles and co-write three of Tanner’s films, including his next, 1971’s Salamander.
Bulle Ogier stars as Rosemonde, a mesmerizing moppet who quits her job at a sausage plant to touch feet inappropriately at a shoe store. A novelist (Jacques Denis, the teacher in Tanner’s group-hug classic Jonah Who Will be 25 in the Year 2000) and a journalist vie to tell Her Spaciness’s story, but like many Tanner women, Rosemonde twists away. Personal paths colliding with looming forces would be a refrain in Tanner’s movies, leading to either poignancy (In the Middle of the World, a local pol-in-the-making falls in love with an Italian waitress) or loss (as for the mismatched teens on the run in Messidor’s nightmare-pretty Switzerland).
Tanner kept going, marooning countryman Bruno Ganz as a sailor with a Super 8 who jumps ship in Lisbon in 1983′ s In the White City, but of his later films, his 1995 doc Men of the Port shows the ever-comforting grip of the past on the director: a return to the Genoa he visited in his 20s, for a utopian sketch of the dockworkers union.