Raúl Ruiz and His ‘Secondary Elements’ Take Lincoln Center

Part two of the Film Society’s retrospective dives back into the Chilean director’s narrative contraptions


In The Wandering Soap Opera (2017) — fragments of a project shot by Raúl Ruiz in his homeland of Chile in 1990, and assembled by his wife, Valeria Sarmiento, six years after his death, in 2011 — we enter a strange vortex. Characters who appear to be acting out their own TV soap opera scenario frequently stop to watch other, neighboring telenovelas occurring on the screens in their homes. As we slip from one odd situation to another, the same actors reappear in different guises. The absurd exchanges (on the order of: “If I give you my heart, is it a piece of meat?”) between these characters reveal at least some consciousness, however muddled, of the constant metamorphosis they are undergoing before our eyes.

Is this a gothic tale of trauma, in the manner of Inland Empire? Or perhaps a “mind game” puzzle film, like Inception? Not quite. Ruiz, one of the most prodigiously inventive of filmmakers — and also one of the few truly happy artists I’ve ever met — once described his method to me in the following way. He wasn’t interested in telling just one, single story, set in its own, plausible, coherent world. Nor was he interested in fashionable fantasies about “parallel worlds” and whatnot. All that mattered, he declared, was the possibility of building a bridge or opening a portal that would allow the passage from one story-world into another. And once you have two more spaces set up in this way, Ruiz explained, then you can start mixing them up.

To that end, Ruiz built numerous narrative contraptions — a dazzling legacy on view this month in the second part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s mammoth retrospective, “Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz.” In his shot-in-Canada-and-Jamaica thriller Shattered Image (1998), Anne Parillaud more or less reprises her famous role as a crack-shot assassin from Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita — except when, in an alternate storyline not long into the movie, she starts playing a dissatisfied housewife. But which character is dreaming the exploits of the other, and which side of the mirror are we on as viewers? Ruiz likes to keep such guessing-games open beyond the apparent finales of his plots.

It is sometimes difficult to get a proper focus on Ruiz’s films, to know what their supposed center is. Did he want to reveal the contents of a Freudian or surrealist unconscious, like Alejandro Jodorowsky? Was he invested in the great, cosmic war between forces of goodness and evil, like David Lynch? Was he a poet of passing time and personal memory, in the vein of Alain Resnais or Andrei Tarkovsky? His impressive string of literary adaptations — whether Marcel Proust condensed into Time Regained (1999), the reimagining of Iranian author Sadegh Hedayat’s dark fantasy The Blind Owl (1987), or Massimo Bontempelli’s The Boy With Two Mothers retooled as Comedy of Innocence (2000) — provide further temptation for viewers looking to jam Ruiz into one of these classic templates of the “art film.”

The truth of the matter is, Ruiz didn’t really much care about the nominal subject matter of his films. Trappings such as genre, plot, characters, setting, and historical period — while respected, up to a certain point — often offered him a mere pretext. Ruiz frequently expounded on his perverse attraction to what he called “secondary elements” in a film: those small, niggling details, echoes, and overtones that, especially when repeated and varied ad nauseam, have the power to rise up and swallow the whole movie.

The secondary element could be a banal line of dialogue (Ruiz had a great ear for everyday platitudes); a play of lights, shadows, and colors on the walls and props in the decor; or a weird gesture produced by one of his actors. In fact, it could come from anywhere, and Ruiz always had his eyes peeled and his ears pricked for that magic detail which could throw everything — including the spectator — just that little bit off. So we get the endless game with ringing cellphones, eventually coalescing into a musical scene of dance, in Ce Jour-Là (2003), one of his wittiest films; the hyper-melodramatic tale of Dog’s Dialogue (1977), told, in the style of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, all in posed stills; or the obsessive bodily twitches and convulsions that overwhelm any traditional notion of choreography in his dance film, Mammame (1986).

This follow-up season of Ruiz at the Film Society spans from the mid Eighties to his death, and also includes such posthumous films as the lyrical Night Across the Street (2012) that, true to his otherworldly style, have appeared since. The survey allows us to get a good sense of the two, starkly different production levels on which Ruiz liked to work. From the mid Nineties onward, he achieved (much to his own surprise) a certain standing as someone hired to helm star-filled, glamorous productions, like his underrrated artist biopic Klimt (2006). But he always managed to bend these assignments in the direction of his own, proudly arcane interests, usually because actors such as John Malkovich or Catherine Deneuve adored him and supported his adventurous spirit. But no less significant to Ruiz were the smaller projects — low-budget features such as Fado, Major and Minor (1994) that allowed a wide margin for day-to-day improvisation, or veritable no-budget exercises like The Wandering Soap Opera, made in the space of a week with groups of friends or students.

A production tale imparted to me by Vasco Pimentel, Ruiz’s Portuguese sound recordist, sums up the cagey spirit in which Ruiz frequently worked. More than once, the director managed to smuggle the production of an extra little film inside a bigger one. No time was ever wasted on a Ruiz set. Among these smuggled films is Vanishing Point (1984) — the title bearing closer relation to the French philosophic theory of the ligne de fuite, or “line of flight,” than to the cult American road movie of the same title from 1971.

Ruiz’s Vanishing Point is a zany, absurdist piece, shot in mere days. When the producer of Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), Paulo Branco, got wind of this subversion/production, he became furious, and traveled to the faraway location to put a stop to it. In an inspired moment of improvisation, Ruiz, eyes twinkling, suddenly announced to his forbidding commander: “But this film has been entirely planned around the major role set aside for…you!” And with that flattering “secondary element” duly included, the shoot continued.

‘Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz’
Film Society of Lincoln Center
February 9–18