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dans la ville blanche

Swiss director Alain Tanner's 'Dans la Ville Blanche' (1983) has a uniquely weightless atmosphere as it floats through Lisbon, the white city, in search of the limits of doing nothing, and "abolishing space and time".

The story is simple and has an improvised feel. A sailor, Paul, jumps ship in Lisbon and explores the city, recording street life on his 8mm camera and savoring his newfound liberty. He writes rambling letters to his girlfriend back home, and has an affair with a woman he meets, Rosa. The hotel where Paul stays, and where Rosa works, features a clock that runs backwards - an apt symbol for the warped and weightless atmosphere that Paul finds himself in.

In the vacuum of his life, Paul wanders around the foreign city whose language he doesn't speak, drinks in seedy bars, gets mugged and with obstinate aimlessness let's his life unravel around him. At one point Paul is compared to an axolotl, and the film quotes (or actually paraphrases) Argentine writer Julio Cortázar from his short story 'Axolotl' to explain this.

What fascinated me was their stillness the first time I saw the axolotl, and I soon thought I understood their secret will: To abolish space and time with an indifferent quietness. They seemed to be spying on something, some remote extinguished realm, a time of an aloof and absolute freedom when the world belonged to the axolotl.

It's this "indifferent quietness", this waiting to see what life has in store for him, even to the point where Paul's identity starts to dissipate in existential questions, that gives 'Dans la Ville Blanche' its unique atmosphere. And a very alien one from our own goal directed, efficiency obsessed age.

'Dans la Ville Blanche' shares many characteristics with that other famous film about Lisbon, Wim Wenders' 'Lisbon Story' (1994). In both films Lisbon is more than just a backdrop and becomes a character, an elusive mystery that the protagonists try to fathom. Both films are also about the attempt to capture that character on film, with lots of time capsule scenes with the camera just winding through its narrow cobbled streets and documenting life in the Alfama and other neighborhoods twenty, thirty years ago.

In 'Dans la Ville Blanche', as the 1983 NY Times review put it, "the city of the title is less a particular place than a series of states of mind". By now those states of mind seem almost as nostalgically lost as the picturesque 8mm city life the film portrays - but this just provides another reason to watch this somewhat forgotten film.

Recommended:

the book of disquiet

I'd like the reading of this book to leave you with the impression that you've traversed a sensual nightmare. One of the great masterpieces of modernist literature, Fernando Pessoa 's 'The Book of Disquiet' ('Livro do Desassossego') i… Read the full post »

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