Captain Fantastic: Sail With Raúl Ruiz in Search of Lost Stories


In the second volume of his treatise Poetics of Cinema (2007), Raúl Ruiz wrote, “In today’s cinema (and in today’s world) there is too much light. It is time to return to the shadows.” The tremendously prolific filmmaker, who had directed more than 100 films (both features and shorts) by the time of his death at age 70 in 2011, specialized in labyrinthine mysteries; in dense yet playful disquisitions on art, religion, and philosophy; in stories nested within stories; in narratives that follow the most tenuous of oneiric logic. Currently under way, the first part of the Film Society’s Ruiz series, a retrospective that will continue next year and possibly beyond, offers an immersion into evocative, deeply pleasurable enigmas.

Born in 1941 in southern Chile, Ruiz made his first feature in 1968, the Santiago-set Three Sad Tigers (screening December 18). I’ve never seen the film, which was unavailable for preview, so I’ll let Ruiz’s own gnomic description, from a 1991 interview in BOMB magazine, serve as high recommendation: “There is no story. [Three Sad Tigers] is a film without a story; it is the reverse of a story. Somebody kills somebody. All the elements of a story are there but they are used like a landscape, and the landscape is used like story.” Ruiz and his wife, Valeria Sarmiento, a filmmaker and editor who often collaborated with her spouse, fled their homeland after the military coup that installed Pinochet as president, settling in Paris.

Among the earlier titles Ruiz made in his adopted country, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978; screening December 15) wryly combines connoisseurship and demon-worshipping cults. A senescent art collector (Jean Rougeul) roams through and comments on various tableaux vivants, canvases-come-to-life that illustrate abstruse conspiracy theories dilated on by this elderly amateur historian and the off-screen narrator. The works, by a little-known nineteenth-century academic painter, Ruiz’s sleuths suggest, point to scandals erupting at the time of their creation, including pagan idolatry and human sacrifice. But after having spent an hour expounding on his conjectures, the collector delivers this imperative: “Let us forget. Let us allow the paintings to vanish.” The conclusion is typical Ruizian mischief, in which interpretation and the imposition of meaning are a fool’s errand.

Two films from 1983 proliferate with tall tales and sinister dramatis personae. In Three Crowns of the Sailor (showing December 15 and 20), a weary mariner (Jean-Bernard Guillard) offers a student (Philippe Deplanche) who’s just murdered his professor a job — and an escape — on a bulk freighter. They enter a cabaret to finalize the deal, a negotiation that prompts the sailor’s bizarre recollections of life at sea and in port towns across the globe: sleep-drunk, defecation-averse crew members; exotic dancers with only one orifice; a child-poet in the opium district of Singapore who’s actually a ninety-year-old man aging in reverse. A much more baleful kid, played by ten-year-old Melvil Poupaud in his screen debut (he’d star in several other Ruiz films and collaborate with Eric Rohmer, François Ozon, and Arnaud Desplechin), dominates City of Pirates (screening December 22). The cherubic, sailor-suited tyke seduces a somnambulist (Anne Alvaro), whose fascination with this pint-size, sociopathic smoothie only grows after he admits to raping and killing his family. Both movies do more than seize viewers’ attention: They kidnap it.

One of Ruiz’s best-known films stands as one of the finest literary adaptations of the past 25 years. Time Regained (1999, showing December 19) — a majestic yet spirited page-to-screen transfer of the last volume (published in 1927) of Proust’s magnum opus In Search of Lost Time — honors the source material by immediately plunging spectators into a series of time-bending vignettes linked by the vagaries of memory. Ruiz’s movie, which centers primarily on the moribund beau monde of Paris right before and during World War I, is glutted with Gallic cinema stars (and John Malkovich, as the cackling, rough-trade-loving Baron de Charlus) and sumptuous period finery. But the film isn’t a museum piece; Ruiz is true to the text without being constrained by that fidelity, adding his own flourishes.

In the greatest of these interventions, Ruiz suggests that Marcel — Proust’s surrogate and the sprawling project’s narrator, here played at three different stages by three different actors — doubles as a kind of cinematographer. In one scene, a schoolboy-age Marcel (Georges du Fresne) maneuvers a magic lantern, casting a gorgeous spectacle of light and color onto several party guests who have suddenly turned to stone. During another blue-blooded gala, young Marcel works as a film projectionist, sitting high above the oblivious members of the aristocracy. His delicate face is alternately obscured and illuminated by the flickering of the images, which, as it happens, are early films by Georges Méliès; his innovations in special effects during cinema’s infancy mirror Proust’s bold experiments with narrative structure. “So often, in the course of my life, reality had disappointed me…,” begins one of the narrator’s laments in the concluding book of Proust’s chef d’oeuvre — a sentiment shared by Ruiz, whose fantasies beguile, confound, and elate.

‘Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz (Part 1)’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
Through December 22