“Your ship doesn’t work?”
“My ship can work without me.”
Dans la Ville Blance (In the White City, 1983) by Swiss director Alain Tanner spins the tale of a sailor who abandons his oil tanker as it docks in Portugal. The sailor, Paul (played masterfully by Bruno Ganz), needs a break from the hell of the engine room where he works eight hours per day only to go back to the loneliness of a tiny cabin. So when beautiful Lisbon appears at the horizon, washed by the summer sun, Paul doesn’t hesitate. He grabs his bag, his radio, his Super-8 camera, and gets off the ship without looking back.
Paul spends the first hours on firm land walking around the old city, exploring its steep, labyrinthine alleys, and riding Lisbon’s famous tramways – all the while capturing what he sees with his camera. He enters a random bar, downs a cold Sagres beer, chats with a cute Portuguese waitress. He asks her if there are any available rooms upstairs. Paul has no plan at all, but he knows one thing: he is not going back to his ship.
We soon learn that Paul doesn’t need a break from the sailor’s life – he needs a break from life in general. He merely wants to exist, to float, like in a dream. It’s a feeling that almost everyone will be able to relate with. Suddenly there are no more responsibilities for Paul, nothing immediate to attend to. The city – a new, unexplored territory – seems to welcome him with open arms: its history-soaked streets, its food, its women. Can this dreamlike state last? Of course it can’t.
Something in Paul’s face, his expressions, his body language, warns us that he is a tormented man. He seeks solace – that’s what breaks are for. That’s what dreams are for. But eventually, reality comes knocking again.
In the White City is a wonderful film. It is slow and introspective, to be sure, but director Alain Tanner has a firm grasp of the story’s pulse, its rhythm, and lets the images flow accordingly. Just as Paul loses himself in the city of Lisbon, Tanner allows his audience to get lost in the movie. The dialogues are sparse and the plot is almost absent, and many scenes were the fruit of improvisation: Paul’s character and the setting – Lisbon – take center stage.
Throughout the movie, Paul’s Super-8 footage of the city and its people is intercut into the main narrative, accompanied by Jean-Luc Barbier’s haunting score. These parts alone make the film worth watching – preferably on a screen bigger than a computer.
But ultimately it is Paul’s flawed, wounded humanity that wins us over; it is laid bare in front of us, with no apologies or excuses. It is a testament that some things are rooted in our nature, and while sometimes we can allow ourselves to dream a little longer, reality will always be there when we wake up.