Alain Tanner – Jonas et Lila, à demain (1999)
Jonas et Lila: A Demain
by Paul Kalina March 2000 Senses of Cinema
So far at least, new millennium events appear to have produced little of lasting value, apart from early retirement packages for those well placed in the IT sector.
But there has been one legacy cinephiles are likely to relish. With great foresight, Swiss director Alain Tanner commemorated the new millennium and the 25th birthday of his fictional character Jonas, born of course during Tanner’s 1976 film Jonas qui aura 25 en l’an 2000 (Jonas Who Will Be 25 In The Year 2000), with a follow-up film, Jonas et Lila: A Demain (1999).
The film made a quiet debut at European film festivals late last year and has had low-key theatrical outings in Switzerland and Paris, where it opened in the first week of 2000. It was at a screening in Paris that this viewer had an opportunity to watch the film – and, he must caution, relying solely on his limited French and without the benefit of subtitles.
In the original film (coincidentally, the most watched Swiss film ever made), Tanner and his co-writer John Berger reflected on the utopian ideals of May 1968 via a group of eight characters living in and around Geneva in the mid 1970s. In the introduction to the screenplay (North Atlantic Books, 1983), Tanner calls his characters “the little prophets, first because their prophecies are little, and second because they themselves are not conscious of being prophets in the traditional sense of the term”.
In that film, circumstance brings eight diverse characters together when a property developer attempts to purchase the farmland owned by one of the couples on the outskirts of Geneva. At the film’s outset the “prophets” share nothing, apart from the fact that all their names start with M (an affectionate touch that is never explained) and generational aspirations. But by the film’s end, they will realise the extent to which those dreams are bound by the social, ideological and political forces that largely determine their lives.
Jonas is born during the film, the fourth child of Mathieu (an unemployed typographer who finds work on the farm) and Mathilde. The original film’s signature image is its last frame, when the child Jonas, several years later, is scribbling on a wall on which a mural of the eight prophets was painted during the course of the film.
It could be misleading to call Jonas et Lila a sequel. Realising, perhaps, that the new film would be seen by an audience unfamiliar with the original (the French-Swiss co-production was primarily financed by television), Tanner, working here with co-writer Bernard Comment, makes no direct reference to the earlier film, to its characters or the cataclysmic events of May ’68 that are so central to their lives.
Jonas (Jérôme Robart) is now 25, and lives in Geneva with his girlfriend Lila (Aïssa Maïga), who is originally from Senegal but long settled in Switzerland. Jonas and Lila are childhood sweethearts and are still smitten with each other. Jonas is a cameraman and occasional documentary filmmaker.
Restless and disaffected, Jonas makes regular pilgrimages to Marseilles, where a now-retired, elderly filmmaker named Anziano (Heinz Bennent) tutors him in the meaning of images and storytelling.
Back in Geneva, Jonas and Lila manage as best they can. Lila loses her job, is racially taunted by the neighbourhood kids and hankers to meet her grandmother in Senegal. Jonas’ camera is stolen, he suspects by a young Russian woman Irina (Natalia Dontcheva) who it turns out is on the run from Russian mobsters for whom she made a pornographic video.
Jonas and Lila take Irina under their wing. Anziano dies and Jonas loses his mentor. They travel to Senegal, where they are immediately confronted by the gaps that separate First World nations from the rest. The dilemmas with which they had previously wrestled appear to be momentarily overshadowed by their new horizons.
Jonas et Lila is set in the first half of the year 2000, and is told simply enough in the present tense. Unlike the original, it eschews intricate narrative games and refuses to turn its characters into mouthpieces for political or ideological positions. In this new film, Tanner’s leftist politics may be evident but they are never stated.
Jonas and Lila’s revolt is diffuse and oblique. On a tram, Jonas, Lila and their friends provoke a minor maelstrom among the city’s burghers by lighting up cigars and ignoring the demonstrative fingers pointing to the Smoking Forbidden signs. Tanner certainly honours the integrity of his characters, who are essentially apolitical in their everyday lives, by rendering them as blunt political ciphers. But he also signals the vast differences that separate the two generations of 20-somethings: the earlier generation was politicised and had a raft of answers and explanations at the ready. This generation, it seems, doesn’t.
Yet Tanner doesn’t hang any value-judgements on this aspect of the characters, their lives and the predicaments in which they find themselves. Jonas et Lila delights in its depictions of sensuality (the lovemaking scenes between Jonas and Lila have a rarely seen immediacy and truthfulness), intimacy and the bonds of trust and dependability the characters develop.
At the same time it’s impossible to not hear the chimes between the two films. In the original, Marie (Miou-Miou), a supermarket cashier, selectively undercharges her elderly customers whom she knows cannot afford to buy all they need. Here, Lila advises the customers in the music shop where she works against their purchases. Both films locate their community inside kitchens where the ‘family’ exchanges thoughts, argue and joke while each member contributes to the preparation of the meal that sustains them. In both films, garbage is the ultimate symbol of the capitalist economy. In the original, the cow shit that the property developer is invited to shovel is also the guarantee of good crops. Here, Jonas with his camera in hand journeys on a barge that will dump tons of garbage into some less-needed waterway. Both films also feature a menage-à-trois!
Through the character Anziano, Jonas et Lila throws up questions about cinema itself, its legacy and its future. One is of course tempted to see in Anziano the figure of Tanner himself. In which case, Tanner is to be congratulated too for making Anziano a blessedly benevolent, wise and refreshingly unorthodox father figure to Jonas and the film, and for having avoided the ponderous self-importance such a device might engender. Frying an egg, he tells Jonas that the process that allows an egg to change colour, texture and flavour also applies to images in the cinema. He gives Jonas a state-of-the-art Digicam when Jonas’ Betacam is stolen, but cautions him that the opportunity to film everything can be a trap. “Shoot where there’s resistance, where something has to be conquered”, he counsels.
In the final scenes of the first film, Jonas’ father is cycling to work. Addressing Jonas in voiceover, he tells him: “Jonas, the game’s not up . no-one’s going to make decisions for us anymore. The first time maybe nothing will happen, the tenth there’ll be a committee, the hundredth time a strike and the hundred and first time, another reading lesson for you Jonas”.
What ultimately links these two films is the characters’ self-determinism, their bonds and affections, their open-ended search for personal and social truths, and the commitment to cinema as a means of forging those journeys. In this respect, the new film pays its predecessor the ultimate homage of respect. And for Jonas, the game is certainly not up and let’s not forget that he’s only just turned 25.