Dream Weaver

Tony Pipolo on “Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz”

Raúl Ruiz, Three Crowns of the Sailor, 1983, 35 mm, black-and-white, sound, 117 minutes.

PERHAPS THE MOST PROLIFIC FILMMAKER of the past half century, Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz made more than seventy features and twenty-five shorts between 1963 and his death in 2011. He discontinued his university studies in theology and law—although both subjects surface in his films—to write plays, study filmmaking, and work in television. Though less overtly political than his peers, Ruiz left Chile when Pinochet came to power, and moved to Paris with his wife, Valeria Sarmiento, with whom, along with cinematographer Sacha Vierny and producer Paolo Branco, he collaborated over many decades. When Ruiz became ill, Sarmiento completed his penultimate film, the Napoleonic epic Lines of Wellington (2012), which is included in “Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz,” a retrospective organized by Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan for the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Ruiz, whose passion for and knowledge of international literature were almost certainly unmatched by his contemporaries, made films often willfully perverse in their impish manipulation of narrative logic. Earnest adaptations of ambitious novels—for example, Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), based on Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1854 Portuguese epic, and all seven volumes of Proust’s masterwork collapsed into Marcel Proust’s Time Regained (1999)—are offset by ingenious exercises in deconstruction such as Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and City of Pirates (1983). But to insist that he prioritized upending conventions in the modernist spirit is to overlook his gifts as a fabulist and his relish for storytelling.

The combo was already discernible in Three Sad Tigers (1968), which he called “a film [in which] all the elements of a story are there but . . . are used like a landscape.” Even his attraction to Castelo Branco and Proust is telling, teeming as they are with incident and dramatis personae not incompatible with Ruiz’s tempering of narrative drive and penchant for the episodic. In volume one of his Poetics of Cinema (1995), he cites Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat (1934) as a Hollywood predecessor, a film “made up of a series of situations, each with a life of its own . . . independent of the storyline . . . [,] none [of which] ends in the fictional space of the film.” Understandably, the Ulmer too is included in the retrospective.

In contrast to filmmakers bent on creating structures to parallel literary form, Ruiz opined (in Poetics of Cinema 2 [2007]) that “a film is not made up or composed of a number of shots, rather it is decomposed by the shots; when we see a film of five hundred shots, we also see five hundred films.” Ruiz exploited the possibilities of the unruly phenomenon that a single image can conjure. And even in his lavish appropriations of literary works, he seems to hold back, as if surrendering too easily to the naturalistic priorities of conventional cinema were a cardinal sin against the medium’s uniqueness. This is beyond Brechtian estrangement, which barely accounts for the boundless wit and sheer invention that suffuse his work. For Ruiz, the best art, if not the art of living itself, is marked by a balance between fascinated involvement and detachment.

Ruiz’s omnivorous appetite for tales from every source resembles his propensity for weaving cultural references throughout his essays in a dizzying display of interconnections that continually broach the integral aim of a single focus. One wonders if his call for aesthetic balance was not an effort to keep his protean sensibility in check. Ironically, one of the frustrations of watching Time Regained is realizing that its intelligence, its tone, its mise-en-scene, and its performances all suggest that had Ruiz set out to painstakingly film every page of Proust’s masterwork and allow viewers to luxuriate in its narrative density and temporal resonances, he would have created something less teasingly fragmented and more open to the pleasures that not even Proust denies us. That said, Time Regained is the best attempt to tackle this literary mastodon, not only for its impeccable attention to period, but also for several star turns—notably John Malkovich’s Baron de Charlus, an affecting concoction of decadence and fragility. Like Mysteries of Lisbon, the film refutes the argument that Ruiz had little interest in or talent for working successfully with actors.

Raúl Ruiz, Time Regained, 1999, 35 mm, color, sound, 170 minutes.

Mysteries, even in its abridged theatrical form (its original television incarnation runs ninety minutes longer), may be the better film, perhaps the best among Ruiz’s fictional endeavors. As he does with his Proust adaptation, he reflects on the logistics of point of view, especially that of the first person, creating a nuanced stories-within-stories structure that consistently places filmic point of view in question. Beyond shifting voices and surprise appearances by characters thought to be elsewhere, sudden changes of camera angles and movements from outside a given situation suggest alternative or complementary perspectives that frustrate passive identification with a particular character and hint at the filmmaker’s own ambivalent embrace of the fabricated world he has constructed. Here, the balance between detachment and involvement permits an indulgence in an engrossing fiction that resists sentimental, ideological, and religious pieties.

Not everything Ruiz touched turned to gold. The Territory (1981), a clumsy Hobbesian allegory about human barbarity and perhaps the end of civilization, makes Treasure Island (1983), his homage to Robert Louis Stevenson, seem better than it is. Both films use a child’s perspective to assess the reason and morality of adult behavior—an oft-overlooked aspect of Ruiz’s work which features most profoundly in Mysteries of Lisbon. The real adventure in Treasure Island, implicit in Stevenson, is the young protagonist’s endless search for a trustworthy father—no easy task in a film that wittily presents us with a plethora of father figures who vie for the role, including Martin Landau, Jean-Pierre Léaud, and Lou Castel.

Among the lesser-known gems in the retrospective is The Suspended Vocation (1978), Ruiz’s sober adaptation of Pierre Klossowski’s 1950 novel of the same name. The story focuses on a Dominican order of priests and concerns the quarrels among different factions within Catholicism, which Ruiz believed also characterized the Left in Latin America, itself composed of disillusioned ex-Catholics. The theological split is suggested by having two different actors play the same character. Klossowski’s disturbing fusion of perversion and theology struck more than one filmmaker: Robert Bresson cast him as the greedy corn merchant in Au hasard Balthazar (1966), while Ruiz saw the writer’s unsettling notions as relevant to the inner workings of powerful institutions like the Church.

Equally rare and not to be missed is the charming and hilarious Love Torn in a Dream (2000), something of a compendium of Ruiz’s work, but more a larger-than-life analogue of his teeming brain. A preface informs us that nine tales will unfold—set in the Portugal of prior centuries and the present, and all richly and colorfully mounted. Each tale has a letter (A, B, C, etc.), as if they formed a roadmap to help us negotiate the labyrinth that follows: A theology student doubts the evidence of his senses after reading too much Descartes; a thief discovers a mirror that robs everything reflected in it; a painting believed to cure rheumatism, acne, and stomach pain also spreads concupiscence; the possessor of a set of twenty-two rings and a Maltese cross can live in various worlds at the same time; and two pirate ghosts are frustrated in their search for a treasure they themselves buried two centuries earlier. In true Ruiz fashion, the tales literally run into one another in a skewed version of The Arabian Nights.

Any film critic determined to impose a singular interpretation on Ruiz’s varied enigmatic forays should look closely at The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), the artist’s good-natured jab at such efforts. The film is a subtly mischievous meditation—in the spirit of Klossowski—on a series of canvases by nineteenth-century painter Frédéric Tonnerre, whose owner (played by narrator Jean Rougeul) guides us through tableaux vivants in search of the missing link in the series, the so-called stolen painting, which will presumably clarify the meaning of the entire group. Apocryphal stories, social manners, cultish intrigue, and tantalizing erotic readings—both homosexual and heterosexual—abound, the seductive disclosures of which are far too delicious to spoil here.

Part one “Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz” runs December 2 through 22 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.