Swiss writer-director Alain Tanner’s direction of La salamandre begins with something of a visual cheat. A man is cleaning his 30 years’ companion, his military rifle; suddenly there’s a gunshot and he is writhing in pain on the floor; an ambiguous reaction shot of a much younger woman is inserted. What happened? The man will say that the woman, his niece, shot him in the shoulder, perhaps with the intent of shooting him fatally; the niece, Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier, marvelous), will say that her uncle accidentally shot himself while cleaning the gun. The police, incapable of concluding anything, drop the matter. Tanner’s closeups and employment of sound are ambiguous. We also are incapable of concluding anything.
But Tanner, who wrote his excellent script with John Berger, is not cheating. Rather, by flaunting what happens before our eyes, and yet keeping it inconclusive, he is underscoring the ambiguity of what in fact happened behind closed doors; and he is also reminding us how vulnerable we are to claims of truth—those made by others, including authors and filmmakers. A few years later, Rosemonde, who works repetitively with a machine in a sausage factory, becomes the love-interest for two men who, unbeknownst to her, are collaborating on a journalistic piece aimed at reopening the incident. Pierre relies on facts; “hairy” (that is, Michel Simon-ish) Paul prefers fancy, intuition, imagination. (Paul earns a living as a plasterer—someone who covers up things and seizes upon opportunities to set the mind free.) Together, will these romantic competitors be able to come up with the truth?
We are warned not to trust appearances; moreover, La salamandre is identified as “a color film in monochrome.” Rosemonde thinks she knows the truth about society, which thinks it knows the truth about her.
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