La Salamandre (1971)

“I’m not quite normal.”

There are numerous myths surrounding the Salamander–one of the legends states that Salamanders are so inherently cold, they have the ability to extinguish fire, they can pass through fire undamaged, and fire actually renews their skin. Keep this legend in mind when watching the French film, La Salamandre.

Pierre (Jean-Luc Bideau) receives an assignment to write a script based on an unusual unresolved case that occurred the year before. In the headline-grabbing story, a man accused his niece, a young woman named Rosemonde (Bulle Ogier) of shooting him with his own rifle. Rosemonde claimed to be in another room at the time of the shooting, and says her uncle shot himself. The police investigated the case, but when the uncle dropped all charges the case was never solved.

Pierre is given three months to write his script. Under pressure from other projects, he asks fellow writer, Paul (Jacques Denis) to assist him. The two men are complete opposites–Pierre is practical and takes an organised approach to writing the script. The more idealistic Paul is immediately captivated with the idea of Rosemonde. While he declines to meet her, he begins spinning a fanciful background to her life–buried causes that he believes led to the crime.

Rosemonde is a strange creature–on the surface she just seems like a rather typical rootless young woman who doesn’t know what to do with her life. The reality is that Rosemonde is a complete cipher–with the lifestyle of a nomad and an employment history that rings some serious alarm bells.

While La Salamandre sounds intriguing, it isn’t–it’s too weighed down by French New Wave Dogma. Pierre and Paul’s philosophically driven approach to their subject gives the viewer food for thought–how much can one human being ever understand another, for example. The film fails, however, in its execution of those ideas. It’s too cold, too detached from its subject, and that’s conveyed–ultimately–as a sort of indifference. In one scene, Paul delivers some news that should cause the recipient to bring the walls down–or at least do some serious structural damage. The recipient’s reaction might be appropriate if Paul were commenting on the weather, but it’s just too ho-hum-ish, and consequently denotes emotional detachment. This flattening of emotion can be leveled at all the characters in the film, and if the characters on the screen aren’t getting upset about events–this can so easily be transmitted to the viewer who becomes bored in the process. As it is, La Salamandre is a philosophical exercise in Existentialism conducted by some dull characters, and the result is a lifeless product. This is one French film that would make an excellent remake. In French with English subtitles and directed by Alain Tanner.

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