Charles, mort ou vif (1969)

Genres - Comedy Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Comedy of Manners, Satire  |   Run Time - 94 min.  |   Countries - Switzerland   |   MPAA Rating - NR
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The first feature by Alain Tanner to gain international attention, Charles Mort ou Vif was also one of the first Swiss films of any sort to get international critical acclaim. Beyond its historical significance, however, it's a fine, if stark, exploration into the cracks spreading in the Western social order in the late '60s. It's different from most such films of the time, too, in that its protagonist is not a young or young-ish sort who suddenly questions social values and quits the rat race, but a weary, middle-aged businessman whose sharp turnabout is far more of a surprise. As Charles, François Simon deserves a lot of credit for making his transition seem inevitable rather than inexplicable, as if the burden of living his whole life as a conformist lie has finally eroded his will to play along with the rules. And Tanner does not exploit Simon's change of heart as either a tragedy or a sentimental rebirth. It's depicted in a naturalistic way that doesn't shy away from some minor problems in his hibernation with the freewheeling, antiestablishment couple who adopt him into their household, though Simon clearly seems better off here than lording over his factory. Tanner shoots Geneva and its environs in a particularly gloomy winter light that adds to the film's deliberate avoidance of romanticism, though there are moments of light humor too, particularly in his playful interactions with his new family and the scene in which Simon's car is disposed of, which becomes an occasion of liberation rather than sadness. The ending, too, is no clichéd happy resolution, raising questions as to whether the lunatics or the operators of the asylum are crazier, though again in a way that steers clear of pat, smug judgments.