After the fall of Allende in his native Chile, Râúl Ruiz relocated to France, where he has become so prolific a filmmaker it is as if he feels he is living on borrowed time that he must cram full with unceasing work. The name of the surrealist writer-director now appears in credits as “Raoul Ruiz.”
In the late 1970s he made what I consider his masterpiece: Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (L’hypothèse du tableau volé, 1978). Its bizarre “explanations” of tableaux vivants based on a bogus series of “discovered” paintings throw into question all such self-involved, convolutedly rational, dictatorially arbitrary exegesis. Soft, dim, in rarefied black and white (the cinematographer is Sacha Vierny), its bewitching visual aspect suggests the self-reflective interiority of Poe. The monumental wit of Ruiz’s Hypothesis scarcely dimples the smooth surface of this dream of a film, this film of dreams. Other brilliant, dreamlike works by Ruiz include the Dutch film On Top of the Whale (Het Dak van de Walvis, 1982), which takes aim at cultural imperialism and in which a character slides from one gender to another without anyone’s noting the change, the visually intricate and sublimely Pirandellian Three Lives and Only One Death (Trois vies & une seule mort, 1996), which took the top prize of the critics at São Paolo, and Time Regained (Le temps retrouvé, 1999), from Proust. “For his lifetime contribution to the art of cinema,” Ruiz was honored at Berlin in 1997.
Comedy of Innocence (Comédie de l’innocence) is based on an Italian novel, by Massimo Bontempelli, whose title translates as The Boy with Two Mothers. The screenplay is by Ruiz and François Dumas. Camille announces a change to his mother the day after his ninth birthday. Henceforth he will call her by her first name, Ariane, and he asks her to take him, by taxi, to the apartment of his real mother, a route that he directs. This other woman, Isabella, lives in a much more modest section of Paris. Both are artistic—Ariane, a painter; Isabella, a violinist. Isabella also had a son who would have been nine, who drowned two years ago. She is now claiming Camille as her own. She accepts Ariane’s invitation to move into her and her husband’s mansion until the dispute of who is Camille’s real mother is resolved.
The style of Ruiz’s use of the camera is fluent, soft and quiet, like a silken, inviting river. Everyone except Isabella seems in denial of the possibility of impending tragedy; Ariane’s whole life is one of smoothing things over. It never occurs to her, until it is almost too late, that the fact of her maternity is an open question, that parents do not own their children, that children have unruly emotions and imaginative lives of their own, that the status quo of established family relations can disappear—can drown—in a heartbeat. Here is a film to enlighten every parent and break every parent’s heart. In the course of Comedy of Innocence, Ariane rudely wakes from an unexplained nightmare. When all is said and shown, one wonders whether the film itself is Ariane’s nightmare.
To me, there is greater Ruiz and lesser Ruiz, and despite the film’s suggestive poetry I place Comedy of Innocence in the latter category. I find disagreeable two aspects of the film, and these set me to the bottom, rather than the top, of the whale. Taking our cue from Ariane and from long shots of him through windows, we come to believe that a companion of Camille’s is imaginary. When it turns out that the boy is real, I felt Sixth-Sensed—cheaply tricked. Then there is the whole faintly whispered subtext of incest, with Ariane’s brother, Serge, a doctor, living right above Ariane and her spouse, and the joke being made that, at birth (Serge performed the delivery), everyone agreed that Camille most resembled this uncle. Left as some sort of floating tease throughout the film (the displacement of the boy’s having two fathers to his having two mothers), this area of suggestion depresses me, no matter what it may do for anyone else. A sore point here is that Serge’s mistress is Ariane’s cook and Camille’s governess, that is to say, Ariane at a remove. Perhaps I could better navigate these waters if I were more naïve—deaf, that is, to the whispers and blind to the murkiness.
On the other hand, an aspect that I love is the hinted connection between the two mothers—their buried identity, if you will. The connection is introduced with bravura cinema. Ariana closes her eyes, adrift in reverie; undulating water fills the screen—the point, perhaps, where a child drowned; Isabella opens her eyes, completing the connection. Isabella represents all the parental suffering from which Ariane’s cocooned, upper middle-class existence has kept her aloof. More: Isabella represents a dimension of social and individual possibility from which Ariane’s cocooned, upper middle-class existence has kept her aloof. There but for the course of the script go I.
Isabelle Huppert plays Ariane, her composure a bourgeois mask. In the course of the film, the mask collapses; it dissolves into a suffering human face. This is a great performance.