On the 100th anniversary of the Dé family’s watch factory, the third generation owner and company president, Charles (François Simon), is awkwardly (and reluctantly) greeted with a venerated speech delivered by an obliging worker for the benefit of a rolling television camera. Overcome with a sudden bout of anxiety, Charles abruptly retreats for the nearest washroom in mid speech as his pragmatic and methodical son Pierre (André Schmidt) attempts to salvage the disrupted, self-serving photo opportunity by instructing the employees to continue with the ceremonial festivities as he follows his father into the washroom in order to castigate him for the ruining their chance for free publicity. Presented with another proposal for a more in-depth, televised dossier as part of a program series entitled Family Spirit of Enterprise on the evolution of the small, family owned business as well as a personal profile on the mild-mannered, middle-aged executive’s own successful ascendancy within the company, Charles decides to accept the offer after soliciting an opinion from his coddled daughter Marianne (Maya Simon), an armchair activist whose privileged upbringing affords her the convenience of remaining a perpetual university student and engaging in idealistic, rhetorical radicalism without personal hardship or consequence. Speaking candidly (even expurgatively) over his initial disinterest in the running of the factory that was inevitably overcome (or more appropriately, suppressed) by the assumed burden of familial responsibility, his pride in cultivating a sense of responsibility and ownership among the employees, and his lingering ambivalence over his son’s perceived business direction for the future of the company, the melancholic and pensive Charles soon finds himself at an existential crossroads. Disillusioned by the monotony of his vocation and estrangement from his self-consumed family, Charles, having earlier shed his eyeglasses (a vision-distorting accoutrement that, as he admits, only aided him in seeing things less clearly), now finds himself instinctively driving off to nowhere in particular, abandoning his business, and dropping out of sight, eventually finding his way into the home and company of an eccentric, but genial bohemian couple named Paul (Marcel Robert) and Adeline (Marie-Claire Dufour) on a trepidatious and misunderstood path of self-discovery.
Charles, Dead or Alive is a spare, remarkably lucid, and intelligently realized portrait of obsolescence, isolation, and existential angst. Parenthetically prefacing the film as a “petite fresque historique” (a small, historical fresco), Alain Tanner captures natural environment, interior spaces, and contemporary milieu through unstylized, black and white photography and direct, unobtrusive, cinéma vérité-like camerawork that encapsulate the film’s expository (and unsentimental) social realist tone. Recalling the complex interrelations and muted emotions of mature and successful, yet unfulfilled bourgeois protagonists in Claude Sautet’s cinema, Tanner further integrates astute observations of the dynamic sociopolitical landscape of late 1960s Europe (and in particular, Switzerland) that incisively chronicle the immutable progression of dramatic and irrevocable social change (underscored by the radio broadcast news of the nation’s passage of a women’s right to vote bill) towards modernization, post-colonial commercial exploitation, and economic globalization (note Jean-Luc Godard’s absurdist and incendiary treatment of similar preoccupations in the scathing satire, Weekend). By juxtaposing Charles’ figurative moment of mental clarity with his self-imposed exile from a life of privilege, Tanner illustrates the profound, disorienting alienation and crisis of identity that arise from such a broad-based, sweeping, cross-cultural social revolution that seeks to uproot entrenched customs and outmoded traditions. Creating a delicate balance of contemporary social document and timeless personal odyssey, the film evolves into a thoughtful and articulate elegy on rootlessness, displacement, and the elusiveness of true happiness.
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