News has just arrived of the death of Chilean-born Râúl Ruiz, one of the world’s most intriguing filmmakers. Below are my blog entries on some of his films, which I’ve arranged in the order in which the films were made. — Dennis
HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)
Perhaps the two most dazzling and brilliant works of Victorian literature are Thomas Carlyle’s Sartor Resartus (1834) and Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868-9). One is a convoluted piece of autobiographical prose; the other, a long, complex modernist poem about a Roman murder trial two hundred years earlier. As springboard, each work incorporates a synopsis of its remarkably similar genesis: the coming into the author’s hands of a book or facsimile—in Carlyle’s case, an esoteric unpublished manuscript by a German professor, Diogenes Teufelsdröckh; in Browning’s case, an account of the trial that has come to be known as the Old Yellow Book. In the latter case, Browning did purchase such a book at a Florentine flea market in 1860; but in Carlyle’s case, the discovery was an elaborate ruse that allowed him to stretch and snap the traditional style of narrative autobiography and to address all manner of social, political and religious subjects at stormy and frequently hilarious liberty.
L’hypothèse du tableau volé, by Râúl Ruiz (in France, Raoul Ruiz), a political self-exile from Chile, is a film that approaches the level of wit and invention of Carlyle’s first masterpiece.
Written by Ruiz and Pierre Klossowski, it’s presented with a poker face as the studious tour of a cache of discovered paintings. Their purported discoverer lectures us; if we don’t grasp that (in subsequent parlance) we’re being punk’d, we may be inclined to bend to his expertise. The film’s bizarre “explanations” of tableaux vivants based on the bogus series of “discovered” paintings, in fact, 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 Edgar Allan Poe.
(ON) TOP OF THE WHALE (1982)
By the late twentieth century, the United States and the U.S.S.R. have appropriated Europe—the Soviet Union, for instance, the Netherlands. This conceit imagines the transformation of familiar nations into states of exile. Chilean surrealist Râúl Ruiz’s own European exile was prompted by the military coup against Allende, whose cinema advisor he had been. Het Dak van de Walvis is one of his most delirious and ambitious hoax-like fictions.
A Dutch couple, anthropologists, visit the retreat of millionaire Communist Narcisso, presumably in the wilds of Patagonia. There, the woman, Eva, digs up tribal artifacts on the grounds with her bare hands and her husband painstakingly interviews Adam and Eden, two surviving members of the Yachanes Indians, whose language (concocted by Ruiz) he attempts to decipher and record. Meanwhile, five other languages are also spoken: Dutch, Spanish, French, German and English.
Linked to one in Eva’s dream, Narcisso’s remote house admits realistic interiors, although sparked by the magic of shadow-plays and mirrors, while the exterior, in long-shot, exists in the landscape of a dream. While her husband clings to his identity of scientific outsider, appropriating discoveries as his neocolonialist own, Eva chooses to remain behind when he leaves. In the course of the film her child’s gender slides from boydom into girldom; even more so than her mother, Anita fits in in her new surroundings.
This wonderful film is ill-served by critical attempts to seize upon a remark here or there for the comfort of a reductive meaning. Ruiz illuminates the distances that the familiar, outside world creates when it deludes itself into believing that it is closing these distances. Some feel that the film is esoteric; rather, it is gravely mysterious, gorgeously distilling the sadness, longings and emotional disarray of political exile.
THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (1983)
Les trois couronnes du matelot begins in some port town with a murder and a theft. The fair killer-student steals three Danish crowns. A dark, middle-aged sailor waylays the younger man and, over drinks at an opulent nightclub, like Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner unloads a tale of woe. Upshot: he needs three Danish crowns. (In one shot, the hoped-for coins have replaced eyes and mouth.) The sailor perpetually finds himself indebted.
Râúl Ruiz, an Allende supporter who fled his native Chile because of the 1973 military coup, based this long, serpentine French film on a Chilean legend. Ruiz Chinese-boxes his storytelling: inside his story to the student, the sailor recounts encounters of his where others told him their stories. At the last, however, comes a delightful shock: the outermost story is not whose we thought it was! On the other hand, the “ship of the dead” where we discover this suggests the depth to which Ruiz is haunted by his country’s recent political history.
The flashbacking sailor recounts traveling from one port to another. Every curious bit includes a funny component and a sad one. Someone he meets has rented a mother because “everyone needs a mother.” No mere lark, this, given the political disappearances in Chile under Pinochet.
A woman promises to render the sailor’s desires “transcendent.” He wants to see her naked. Woman: “Tangible nudity is the skin that clothes the being.” Sailor: “I want to make love.” Woman: “Love cannot be made. It is.” She strips seemingly completely, but then takes off even more, leaving her mouth her one orifice. The sailor finds his memory of this creature reflected in shipboard comrades, his own image in the mirror, his dreams. “Transcendence,” it seems, requires the death that the sailor dreads.
Ruiz draws upon Orson Welles (especially The Trial, 1962, and The Immortal Story, 1968), and makes a recurrent feature of his mise-en-scène something huge at the forefront of a shot—for instance, someone’s head, hand or foot—in contrast to the seemingly small figures and things in the background. There is a lot of dream-stuff, like this, throughout the film, but it isn’t necessarily pleasant dream-stuff. Such optical distortions of the human body suggest torture—and therefore, again, Pinochet’s Chile.
THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH (1996)
Chilean emigré Râúl Ruiz had been living in Paris for about twenty years when he made his surreal, intricate Trois vies & une seule mort about split identity and various forms of separation. It consists of three episodes, in each of which a major character looks identical (Marcello Mastroianni, captivating) while living a different life; a fourth episode, or coda, with another such identical twin, suggests that all four men occupy a single body, each immersed in his own role and reality.
The film begins as a radio-broadcasted story that becomes what we see, which is structured as a story-within-the-story as told by Mateo to Andre, a stranger in a café. Mateo, the first husband of Andre’s wife, left María twenty years earlier to live in a nearby apartment, “the proportions” of which “were deceptive.” Resident Time-eating fairies trapped Mateo in an alternate reality of their own conjuring: a story-within-the-story-within-the-story. Mateo brings Andre to this apartment; failing to convince Andre to swap places with him so that he can reunite with María, Mateo plants an ax in Andre’s head, buries the body and heads home. The arrangement of mirrors gives us triplicate views of both man and former wife. María presumes that Andre has abandoned her and welcomes Mateo with open arms. Here using Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Wakefield” as a springboard, Ruiz and Pascal Bonitzer’s brilliant script starts spinning its delightful web.
In subsequent episodes Georges Vickers, seemingly on a whim, trades in his respected role as university professor to become a beggar and Butler, a butler, is actually the anonymous benefactor of the poor young couple he is slowly poisoning. In the coda, Luc Allamand is a banker and arms dealer exploiting and “poisoning” more than a couple of us.
TIME REGAINED (1999)
Chilean exile-in-France Râúl Ruiz’s Le temps retrouvé, d’après l’oeuvre de Marcel Proust adapts the last book of Proust’s autobiographical magnum opus, Á la recherché du temps perdu. Considerable irony is lost in the softened and objectified English translation of Proust’s title: Remembrance of Things Past. Those anticipating a film that silkenly weaves a tapestry of memories will be thrown for a loop; Ruiz’s film, rather, seems to capture past images and impressions in shards of broken glass.
Or of mirror. This film is launched by bedridden and dying Marcel Proust’s perusal of photographs of people from his past, ending with a childhood picture of himself; but each photograph is a kind of mirror, a flash of his connection to the pictured individual, as reflected in the different tone of voice with which he identifies each person aloud, to himself. Housekeeper Céleste has just left Marcel’s bedroom—a fractured scene of elongated leavetaking that imbues the moment with protracted loss and anticipates Marcel’s own loss of life: a “remembrance” of the future. Marcel asks Céleste to leave the room for a bit and we see her leave the frame; the camera pans and catches her image in a standing mirror as she continues leaving the room; but, outside the frame again, she is nonetheless still in the room, at the door, now (along with her shadow) actually departing. This should give some idea of Ruiz’s compression of feeling and the haunting quality he brings to his work here.
The flashbacks seem scattershot; Ruiz, bless him, does only a little to help us get our bearings. The cut from his childhood photograph to a young man suggests that the latter is also himself; this turns out not to be the case, though: Marcel appears later in the scene, at the same age, and wearing the same clothes, as in the photograph. One must come equipped with Keatsian negative capability to view this film, which teases us into evaluating whether images bespeak practical realism or dreamy surrealism—for instance, the floor of a vast room that is populated by top hats, open ends up, with white gloves like rabbits peeping out.
One man, about fifty years old, is dying; and in his collage of memories we catch glimmers of Parisian society’s passage into a new formulation in the early part of the twentieth century.
COMEDY OF INNOCENCE (2000)
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.
THAT DAY (2003)
“Something’s just not right here.” — understatement uttered upon finding a dinner table populated by ten or so freshly murdered familiar souls
Alternately frightening and hilarious, writer-director Râúl Ruiz’s Ce jour-là revolves around the attempt—by her family, the police and the government—to eliminate heiress Livia and appropriate her upcoming fortune, property and power in “Switzerland, in the near future,” a once-neutral nation through which tanks are now rolling, evoking images of the military takeover of Ruiz’s native Chile in 1973, precipitating his flight to Europe. Due to the ability of a work of art to function on different, seemingly—literally, actually—incompatible levels, the decimation, one by one, of Livia’s family—the hit person recruited from the local insane asylum to kill her chooses instead to protect her by killing those who seek to be rid of her—provides an index of the pain that Ruiz’s self-exile originally imposed. To say the least, Ce jour-là’s autobiographical elements are imaginatively conjured and included along Surreal, metaphorical and sometimes elusive, enigmatic lines.
Livia and mental patient Pointpoirot develop such an odd, close relationship that one might be forgiven for entertaining the notion that Pointpoirot doesn’t really exist except as Livia’s extension or projection, her means of coping with two things: her family’s desire to kill her; for the sake of survival, her need to kill them first. Yet Ruiz has also given Pointpoirot highly specific traits that argue for his reality, such as his diabetes, which he is constantly monitoring digitally. Cumulatively, the corpses Pointpoirot creates seem to stabilize his blood glucose level!
Ruiz’s visuals are offbeat—a static camera here, an off-kilter composition there, a long-shot somewhere else with foliage teasingly half-hiding Pointpoirot’s latest homicide. This is not one of Ruiz’s most intriguing works, however.
Chilean-born Râúl Ruiz’s Klimt is—imaginatively, not literally—about Austrian painter Gustav Klimt, who died of syphilis in 1918. Since the producers have cut a half hour from it, I cannot say whether this action hurt or helped Ruiz’s vision; but, for me, the truncated version is brilliant, even essential for grasping the complex possibilities of the twentieth century that a host of tyrants and bullies, among them Hitler and Reagan, trounced. This is an unbelievably rich and resonant film.
John Malkovich gives a finer, more delicate performance here, as Klimt, than I ever would have imagined him capable of. We first find Klimt at hospital, dying; feverishly, his mind, swimming in and out of reverie and fantasy, dances back to the 1889 Paris World Exposition, where he meets filmmaking magician Georges Méliès, and fin-de-siècle Vienna. If nothing else, with the stunning assistance of Argentinean-born Ricardo Aronovich’s color cinematography, Ruiz has wrought a glowing and gorgeous film, with silken snow outdoors and (at one point) in-.
All this befits the surreal, visionary nature of a film in which characters have their doubles and triples, with Klimt (along with us) never the wiser as to which, if any, is the “real” apparition (this last word is not a slip)—in part, as an exploration of subject and object in the sexual activities that dispose Klimt to his eventual end. But more than this is going on—for instance, with the dreamy mirror through which, on its see-through side, Klimt is observed seducing or succumbing to this woman or that (or this woman and that): an objectification of Klimt as he objectifies yet another conquest. In the street Klimt himself accosts his double, who turns out to be him when he is rescued by his artworld nemesis.
B(U)Y THE BOOK
MY BOOK, A Short Chronology of World Cinema, IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE FROM THE SANDS FILMS CINEMA CLUB IN LONDON. USING EITHER OF THE LINKS BELOW, ACCESS THE ADVERTISEMENT FOR THIS BOOK, FROM WHICH YOU CAN ORDER ONE OR MORE COPIES OF IT. THANKS.