'I AM a man of the sea," says filmmaker Alain Tanner with a smile. "Strangely enough, since I live in Switzerland!"
It's the kind of paradox Mr. Tanner relishes, in life as in the films he has directed. Considered by many to be the most important of all Swiss filmmakers, he has refused to embrace a consistent style based on Swiss characteristics - or on Hollywood characteristics, which have colonized Swiss cinema to an extent that makes Tanner very uncomfortable.
Instead, he has devised an ever-shifting style all his own, reflecting his self-chosen identity as a "border man" with no fixed nationality. His work has varied a great deal in its artistic and financial success, and at times he has dropped out of the mainstream altogether - as in the mid-1970s, when he made an avant-garde road movie with a Super-eight camera pointed out the window of his car.
Yet he has never lost his reputation as a major influence on, and provocateur of, European cinema. This reputation is now receiving a burst of new attention in the United States, where a Tanner retrospective - now at the Walter Reade Theater here - has begun an extensive tour as part of a multipart program highlighting the accomplishments of Swiss cinema.
It is ironic that Tanner should serve as a chief symbol of the Swiss film industry. The irony comes partly from his self-image as a man without a country, and partly from his conviction that there's no such thing as a Swiss film industry - just a modest amount of production dominated by the needs and demands of TV programming.
Remarking that American cinema has captured up to 80 percent of the theatrical market in Switzerland, as in most European countries, Tanner laments that there is "no room anymore" for locally made productions in movie houses. Swiss television still provides an outlet for Swiss films, he grants, but there are problems here, too.
"Demand is completely standardized," he says, "especially in the French-speaking market. Television finances about 60 percent of European cinema, and all it wants is 'prime-time films' with French stars - comedies, thrillers, that sort of thing. Nothing but commercial-style films."
To stay in business on his own terms, Tanner must put together coproductions with financing from more than one country and do much of his filming outside Switzerland itself; of his last eight pictures, only one was actually shot there. Funding for his most recent completed film was half Spanish, 20 percent French, and 30 percent Swiss.
Although he has enjoyed some success from such arrangements, Tanner considers hybrid productions to be potentially "very dangerous" because they have no personalities of their own. "They put together an Italian actor with a German actor and a French actress," he says, "who don't even speak the same language, and then everyone is dubbed into the language of the market country. Many of these end up being what we call 'Euro-pudding,' a thing that has lost all its flavor!"
Tanner's discontent with Swiss cinema has not prevented him from building an impressive body of work as a critic, documentary filmmaker, and director of 13 major features beginning with the respected "Charles Dead or Alive" in 1969. If there is a single dominating theme running through his work, it is sympathy with characters who live on the margins of society - a subject with clear connections to his own life.
"I feel like an outsider all the time," Tanner muses. "My family comes from Hungary, France, and Chicago, and I've never felt I belonged to the Swiss part of the world. That used to be a problem for me, but I've made peace with it. Switzerland is a political state, not a nation or a people.... It has a conservative spirit - socially, politically, and every way - and I've never been conservative.... All of this together has made me what I am."
To his credit, Tanner has turned his sense of rootlessness and restlessness into the backbone of a solid artistic career. "People reproach me for making the same film over and over," he says with his usual sense of irony. "But my answer is that I make variations of themes which are my own.... Contemporary life is what inspires me. I could not make a 'period film' in costumes, or a science-fiction film that takes place in the future - because to make a film I have to see things."
Beyond his sympathy with outsiders and his fascination with contemporary life, Tanner is reluctant to trace recurring ideas in his films. "It's really for other people to decide what I am talking about," he says. "I don't know, but I am probably always talking about the same things: women, an old man and a young man, the passage to a new generation, the desert, remote places, lost places, solitude, the beauty of the world - which I think is still very beautiful, in spite of all its problems - and clouds.
And about the sea."
Tanner's next film will be yet another new departure: a drama based on the diary of actress Myriam Mezieres, largely improvised and shot by a small crew with a deliberately low budget.
"I love to make a film like my last one, 'The Man Who Lost His Shadow,' but I know I can do that," Tanner says. "I want to be excited now. I want to have pleasure with a group of people creating an object with an experimental side to it. I'm going back to something the young generation should be doing. I'm going to make what we called, 25 years ago, 'young Swiss cinema!