Alain Tanner’s 1976 film Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000 qualified as an instant classic among my cohorts-American leftists of the sixties generation. Ask a few if they saw the film years ago, and you’ll probably get reactions like the ones I recently got:
“Sure, I loved it!” (Marshall Berman)
“I sure have seen it. Three times.” (Jim Sleeper)
“Not only did I see it, maybe three times, but I adored it so much I wrote about it at length for Film Quarterly . . . ” (Todd Gitlin)
Jonah is a low-budget, French-language film, set in Geneva with a screenplay by Tanner, a Swiss director influenced by British and French avant-garde cinema, and British essayist-novelist John Berger. These are not exactly ingredients for a box-office bonanza in the United States, but Jonah got some play, garnered rave reviews from the New Yorker‘s Pauline Kael and other high-powered critics, and won the National Society of Film Critics award for best screenplay of 1976.
To someone hearing about the film for the first time, Jonah‘s subject might sound done-to-death: the sixties generation a decade later, trying to live decently and hold onto ideals. A dozen other U.S. and European films have done it. The best-known American versions-John Sayles’s Return of the Secaucus Seven (1980) and Lawrence Kasdan’s The Big Chill (1983)-use the most common format: a group of friends from college meets a decade or so later for a weekend reunion. The setting is the house of one of them, and the activity is soul-searching about career, love, sex, politics, and lapsed values. There’s a little bed-hopping, a lot of tears, and, finally, fond farewells. (Sayles once wryly pinpointed the main difference between his film and The Big Chill: Kasdan’s characters are more upwardly mobile.)
Jonah was-and still is-something else, an altogether different cinematic genre. It opens conventionally enough: Max, a main character, buys a pack of Gauloises in a tobacconist’s shop and comments on rising prices. Cut to a tracking shot of an imposing statue of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Geneva’s most famous citizen and Jonah‘s intellectual escort. As the camera moves past the statue, we hear an off-camera voice quoting Rousseau:
All our wisdom consists of servile prejudices; all our customs are nothing but enslavement, constraint, and coercion. Civilized man is born, lives, and dies in slavery; at birth he is sewn into swaddling clothes; at his death he is nailed into a coffin. As long as he retains human form, he is enchained by our institutions . . .
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