Life is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz (Part 1)
December 2-22 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center
It’s impossible to follow many of Raúl Ruiz’s films, and foolhardy even to try. One would do better instead to flow with them, based as they are on mood and tone rather than on three-act structures. While the films in fact hold lots of plots, their storylines move not through binaries of conflict and resolution, but instead overlap with and recede from one another like calm, assured ocean waves. To watch and enjoy a Ruiz film involves feeling the pleasure of one’s own skull opening, treasure chest-like, for the imagination to spring outwards and feed upon its surroundings. In a 2005 talk, Ruiz stated his view of cinema as an ever-expanding, supernaturally guided universe in simple fashion: “Yes, dear friends, the cinema is another life.”
Raúl Ernesto Ruiz Pino was born in the south of Chile in 1941 and buried in his home country in 2011. He spent much of his life in between in France—where he lived as a resident and exile under the name of “Raoul”—and in myriad other countries, during which time he learned multiple living and dead languages. A number of the locales and tongues that Ruiz knew appeared in the more than one hundred films he completed, which also varied widely across their production scales, featured international stars and unknown actors alike, and ranged in length from a few minutes to more than five hours. Ruiz considered his best films to be his freest ones, the ones most loaded with possibilities.
The films include adventure stories, revenge dramas, and historical epics, among other genres, all of which are criss-crossed with childlike glee and laden with fantasies. Sixteen of the features that Ruiz directed will screen this month, in honor of the late filmmaker’s 75th birthday, during the first part of what the Film Society of Lincoln Center has announced as an ongoing retrospective. (The second and not necessarily final part is currently scheduled for late 2017.) This mounting follows the Cinémathèque Française’s 75-film Ruiz retrospective earlier this year. It also offers recent Cinémathèque restorations of the director’s rare adaptation of Racine’s Rome-set 1670 tragedy, Bérénice (1983), and of Ruiz’s first film shot after Chile’s 1973 coup d’état compelled his move to France, Dialogues of the Exiles (1975), a dryly comic, Brecht-inspired multilingual gathering of fellow emigrants discussing whether and how they can maintain their old political beliefs in their new country.
The Film Society’s series (named after a Calderón de la Barca play that Ruiz directed in Avignon, then brought to cinema) gives a swift historical sampling of Ruiz’s work. It ranges from his Golden Leopard-winning debut feature—the rough-hewn Santiago-set street drama Three Sad Tigers (1968), which follows the impulsive, frustrated movements of two modern-day lower-middle-class adult siblings and the people surrounding them—up through his long-in-the-making dream project, an enormous set of interlocking narratives called Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) that uses Portuguese author Camilo Castelo Branco’s 1854 eponymous novel as a point of departure for 19th-century aristocratic characters to shift identities while the Kingdom of Portugal prepares to depart from Brazil.
The Film Society’s series additionally offers two of Ruiz’s favorite films by other directors (Edgar G. Ulmer’s 1934 Poe take-off The Black Cat and Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 forcefully anti-colonial debut feature Black Girl, both of which feature travel narratives that open space for popular mythologies and the supernatural); Wim Wenders’s moody rendering of a stalled film production, The State of Things (1982), which has been said to cannibalize Ruiz’s creepily inexorable camping-gone-wrong horror film The Territory (1981) by poaching much of its cast and crew; and Lines of Wellington (2012), a large 19th-century-set ensemble drama about the reverberations within Europe caused by the Napoleonic Wars, which Ruiz was preparing at the time of his death. Wellington was ultimately directed by Ruiz’s widow and frequent editor, Valeria Sarmiento, a still-active auteur with a sharp observational eye and ability to create empathy for many different characters who will present screenings and participate in a Q-and-A during the series’s opening weekend.
The series’ discursive approach suits both Ruiz’s taste and his style, which stayed consistent across a variety of eras, settings, and themes. A Ruiz film inevitably announces itself within a few shots. There are the unnervingly smooth tracking movements across cluttered interiors filled with lingering lines of light, led by great cinematographers that include Henri Alekan, Acácio de Almeida, Sacha Vierny, and, for the absurdist nightmare vision of New York’s Village in The Golden Boat (1990), American independent cinema’s own Maryse Alberti. There is the ominously swelling soundtrack music (often composed by fellow Chilean transplant Jorge Arriagada) that rises in counterpoint to seemingly innocuous scenes. There is the naïf protagonist in the center of the frame who is being approached by a lascivious, more knowing interlocutor while an animal or small statue looms diagonally in a corner and impassively regards what’s to come. There are the sudden, arbitrary-yet-inevitable spurts of violence, the guttural spurts of bizarre speech, and the seeming sundering-apart of being; and then, there are the smooth cuts taking us to other times and places, and a gentle, relaxing narrator’s voice telling us how we reached them before dropping out.
In Ruiz’s films, the actors seem not to walk so much as glide, with guidance from the phantoms of fanciful short stories that he wrote and gave to them in lieu of Method character explanations. The performers speak with calm assurance and steady gazes that show their confidence with inhabiting several worlds at once. A prevailing firm belief in the value of storytelling is conveyed throughout Ruiz’s films, with wonderful performances emerging from actors that play both storytellers and listeners. Belgica Castro and Ignacio Agüero form a moving duo as a dogged elderly Chilean countrywoman and her faithful simpleton of an adult son discovering limitless local myths of devils and angels come to life as they roam rural areas in search of a Christian musician’s skeleton in La Recta Provincia (2007, aka The Square Province). The stars in the Proust adaptation Time Regained (1999)—including Emmanuelle Béart, Catherine Deneuve, John Malkovich, Vincent Perez, frequent Ruiz collaborator Melvil Popaud, and others—subtly convey different sets of memories that collectively suggest the expanse of the author’s seven-volume work. The performers of the nine breathlessly interlocking fables in Love Torn in a Dream (2001) inhabit their roles as lovers, thieves, theologians, courtesans, and swordsmen with such shared intensity that the film’s narrative becomes one of energy passing between them.
Ruiz’s France-filmed adaptations of Pierre Klossowski novels, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and The Suspended Vocation (both 1978), use an incomplete set of artworks and a gathering of footage from two fictionalized incomplete film shoots, respectively, to encourage the viewer to imagine what’s been left out. Yet, although Vocation’s study of divisions among Dominican monks and nuns indeed uses unfinished stories to offer metaphors for Christian mysteries, the faith in storytelling that Ruiz’s films offer is by no means denominational. It draws on traditions from throughout many cultures and centuries to become life-affirming in a more general sense, particularly before the constant presence of death. Marcello Mastroianni’s penultimate film, the comic Three Lives and Only One Death (1996), gives the actor the pleasure of appearing in overlapping stories as four men, all of who live well and die satisfied (along with a fifth boyish self) at exactly the same moment. The title character of the overflowingly rich Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) is a grizzled raconteur (played by Jean-Bernard Guillard) who tells tales until late into the night about his vividly glimpsed travels across several continents and oceans, including adventures had on a ship full of ghosts that need the company of living beings to affirm their existence and with whom, by film’s end, the sailor has invited us to identify.
Ruiz’s adventures stretched far beyond filmmaking—for instance, he frequently taught, worked with theater, and wrote book-length works of fiction as well as of theory (with the two volumes of his Poetics of Cinema providing special insight into his conception of films as landscapes filled with incident). Even within cinema, though, there is still much ground to cover for people discovering his work. Future installments of the Film Society’s series might present Ruiz’s other Allende-era films, including the Kafka adaptation The Penal Colony (1970); his several elliptical shorts that treat on the eternal surprise of mortality, such as Dog’s Dialogue (1977), Ombres chinoises (1982), The Film to Come (1997), and Ballet aquatique (2011); and the astonishing number of feature-length masterworks that he made in the 1980s, among the greatest decades ever had by a filmmaker. The Film Society presents some of these films, such as Three Crowns of the Sailor and City of Pirates (1983)—a horror film in which a young island-bound sleepwalker (Anne Alvaro) confronts her subconscious demons in the form of a murderous child and repressed love—while leaving room for at least five others. Also to come, perhaps, is the work that Ruiz intended as his last film, Night Across the Street (2012), a film about greeting death that he left to this world as a gift.