Raúl Ruiz: An Annotated Filmography

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Bérénice (France, 1983)

Olivier Curchod

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1. Jean Racine (translated by Samuel Solomon), The Complete Plays of Jean Racine, Volume I (New York: Random House, 1967), p. 377. All subsequent citations of the play are taken from this version, but without Solomon’s renderings of the French forms of the names Bérénice, Arsace and Phénice as Berenice, Arsaces and Phenice.  

At the end of a screening of Bérénice, a friend said to me that it was all the more beautiful for having been ‘made from nothing.’

He could not have put it better, since, in defining the mise en scène this way, he inadvertently connected with the problematic developed by Jean Racine himself in this 1671 preface to the play: ‘All invention consists in making something out of nothing.’ (1)


2. J. Fontaine, interview with Ruiz, Le Matin de Paris (11 October, 1983).
  What kind of object are we talking about? At the start, Ruiz was going to stage Bérénice for the Avignon Theatre Festival. But, doubtless fearing that he would not be sufficiently at ease on the boards, he decided to take refuge within the coils of celluloid: he even considered shooting ‘the collected works of Racine on Super 8’! (2) The end result of this very Ruizian path was the preview presentation of a film titled Bérénice to the Avignon audience.  


  On screen, the absolutely remarkable actors read the text, nothing but the text, and almost all the text (Act IV has been hacked around a bit in order to postpone the big scene between Bérénice and Titus until its end).  


3. Ovid (translated by Mary Innes), Metamorphoses (London: Penguin, 1955), p. 226.


Here, anxious in case his wife’s strength be failing and eager to see her, the lover looked behind him, and straightaway Eurydice slipped back into the depths. Orpheus stretched out his arms, straining to clasp her and be clasped; but the hapless man touched nothing but yielding air. Eurydice, dying now a second time, uttered no complaint against her husband. What was there to complain of, but that she had been loved? With a last farewell that scarcely reached his ears, she fell back again into the same place from which she had come.
Ovid, Metamorphoses (3)



  The characters move in a residence complete with doors and stairs, dressed in dark coloured suits and long robes – but without, in these choices, any particular desire to ‘modernise’ the play, as was the fashion on certain French stages of the 1950s. Ruiz’s Bérénice is ‘simple’ (in the chemical sense of the word), in that Racine’s play does not become the pretext for one of those rebuses dear to Ruiz, gleefully superimposing cultural references taken from very diverse horizons. The film opts, simultaneously, for great unity and great richness: every scene invents a new effect, a new way to play the scene, but the aesthetic of shadow and light gives it overall unity.  


4. See Yann Lardeau’s essay "Le décor et la masque [The Set and the Mask]", Cahiers du cinéma no. 351 (September 1983).
  Let’s go further. Ruiz chose to film Bérénice because it is the only Racine tragedy that does not end in slaughter. And yet the characters are represented as spectres, in ways which will be examined later. Such a decision connects with a theme already encountered before in Ruiz: The One-Eyed Man and Three Crowns of the Sailor are peopled by mock-living creatures, and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting brought the characters in Tonnerre’s paintings to life. But beyond this thematic pedigree, why make Racine’s characters ‘dead souls’? Others before me have immediately attached this suggestion of death to a reflection on theatre (but let’s not forget this is, after all, a cinematic adaptation) – theatre as the privileged frame of observation for those apparitions, false-seeming images and like illusions which feed Ruiz’s work. (4) However, this amounts to a truism as old as theatre itself, one which I suspect can shed little light on our object of study.  

5. Lucien Goldmann, Le Dieu caché (Paris: Gallimard, 1959), p. 372. English translation by Philip Thody, The Hidden God: A Study of Tragic Vision in the Pensées of Pascal and the Tragedies of Racine (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1964).
  This mise en scène of shadows can equally be related to the strictly literary problematic developed by Lucien Goldmann in The Hidden God: ‘For the man of tragedy, conscious of the insurmountable abyss that separates him from the world, that world can no longer exist as a perceptible, concrete reality, it can only have an abstract, general existence.’ (5) So what I call the ‘ghost film’ would merely be in fact the concrete representation of this tragic abstraction (if such an antinomy is even possible).  


  I prefer, instead, to relate the beyond-the-grave ambience that characterises and orients the film to an ambiguity raised by certain lines in Racine’s text. At the risk of a monologue, it can be suggested that the play’s characters might already be dead. Thus Arsace’s description of Antiochus (Act I, Scene 3, lines 113-4):  



Titus embraced you, dying in my arms, and the whole camp mourned your victorious death.




Or this example, Bérénice to Titus (IV, 5, 1076):




I could accuse your father of my death.



  Or, finally, this exclamation by Titus (IV, 7, 1240):  



Do I myself know if I live or die?


6. [Curchod is alluding to the fact that Bérénice is a staple of French secondary school education. – Eds]






  An insane, extreme interpretation – this is what our old schoolteachers would doubtless say. (6) But what if there were, in these lines, a repressed interpretation of Racine’s play, suggesting a supplementary dimension which has influenced Ruiz, consciously or otherwise? If one takes play and film together, everything occurs as if the drama has already played out, and we are witness to the post mortem re-presentation of this same drama, somewhat in the manner of Agamemnon’s ghost describing his own assassination to Ulysses in the Underworld in Homer’s The Odyssey. The film’s entire mise en scène works to confirm this hypothesis: most often, it is not the flesh-and-blood characters who express themselves, but their shadows projected onto a wall or floor, or indeed their silhouettes (there is a strong use of back-lighting); the recourse to voice-off aids this detachment of voice from body, to the extent that one can rarely tell where the character that one hears is located (the character can be in the park while his voice stays in the house, for example); the actors, moreover, adopt hieratic poses (body straight and immobile, fixed gaze) and a monotonal, equally detached diction. All these elements reach their apotheosis in Act V, where the characters are successively covered in shrouds; and Titus is metamorphosed into a stone bust (although we still hear his voice-off). The characters do not seem a solid part of the drama they live, but are permanently detached from it; thus, at the end of Act III, Bérénice follows, in a book, the text that Antiochus and Arsace are in the course of declaiming; and she herself will read her own tirade at the start of the following act, thus putting herself in the margin of her own character.  


  In fact, death functions here as a metaphor for the sole action of the play: separation. Bérénice, Queen of Palestine, is repudiated by Emperor Titus at the very moment she is about to be married, because Roman tradition opposes such a marriage. The drama consists in ‘consummating’ this separation – in other words, accepting it. Separation is effectively perceived as a putting-to-death (all the more unbearable in that the play’s denouement forbids a real death – the lovers part without knowing their mutual suicide threats), as Bérénice’s celebrated monologue (IV, 5, 115-7) suggests:  



The sun shall rise and set and rise again
While Titus seeks his Bérénice in vain,
And Bérénice in vain her Titus seeks!



  The superimposition of these two registers becomes absolute in the Queen’s final words (V, 7, 1505), which are not unworthy of Iphigenia preparing for her sacrifice:  



All’s ready. They await me. Let me pass.




By virtue of the law of tragedy, separation is already present, encoded at the play’s beginning; but in order for it to be effective, it must be mediated, i.e., made to work within language and image. The film’s entire mise en scène can thus be seen as reproducing cinematically what the words say, inscribing at the very heart of image and sound the characters’ isolation. From this comes the formidable work of dislocation, the tearing apart of all filmic elements, which naturally connects with the exploration of cinematic writing and mise en scène common to every Ruiz film.

From the perspective of sound, the voices of the characters are detached from bodies, as we have noted: the camera fixes on a silent character while we hear, in voice-off, the monologue of another character; and inside that voice-off there are several registers, the same voice being, alternately, close then far off. Then something even stranger: in Act III, Scene 3, Bérénice appropriates for herself Antiochus’ discourse, successively speaking her own text and that of the King of Commagene; then Antiochus takes over the talking, but Bérénice repeats in chorus select words of her interlocuter’s monologue. The voice is thus ceaselsssly submitted to an uncertainty, a fragmentation. Procedures which would have been taken to their peak if (as Ruiz had hoped) the film had been rendered stereophonically; in fact, this project, instigated at the start of shooting, was abandoned for technical reasons.

From the perspective of the image, we find a series of special effects that correspond to the sound design. The human body is constanly cut up: in Act IV, Scene 2, Phénice’s mouth appears under the cover of the book Bérénice is reading; in Scene 4 of the same act, a face is decomposed into multiple facets, not without recalling certain cubist portraits; the game of light and shadow allows only certain parts of faces to be lit; in Act II, Scene 2, Titus’ white eyes contrast with the rest of his face plunged into shadow. Each character is thus multiplied, as in the scene where we see Titus both head-on and from the back.

Finally, the mise en scène also suggests the loss of communication between beings: each character seems locked up in an autonomous space; the actors speak without looking at each other, sometimes even turning their back to each other, or to the camera; above all, they are rarely in the same space when they speak their lines – for example, in the final scene of Act III, Phénice and Bérénice speak from either side of a French window. The use of deep focus reinforces this isolation of the characters, allowing several characters to be framed at the same time without needing to have them seem close to one another. Ruiz even goes so far as to refuse Bérénice and Titus, in their big Act IV scene, any real communication: the Queen is in the foreground, addressing herself to the Emperor whom one can make out behind her, hidden behind a veil, without the two lovers ever looking at each other.

The stake in all of this is the impossible meeting, an impossible harmony. Bérénice is a tragedy of closing doors: the characters spend their time both searching for and running away from themselves, as one can note throughout the play. Thus Bérénice says (IV, 5, 1040-42):




Let me alone, I say.
( ... )
I must see him.



  Or Phénice to Bérénice (IV, 2, 980-1):  



I hear some noise. The Emperor is approaching.
Come, shun the crowd and make a quick retreat.




Ruiz exploits the film’s sole set to this end: the house is replete with trap doors and false backs, an unpredictable and mysterious space, similar to those in The Roof of the Whale and The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. The characters are caught in a contradiction: they want to see each other but know that if they do, they will lose each other, because then they must speak – and that propels the drama towards its denouement.

This is what I would call the Orpheus complex that Ruiz’s Bérénice perfectly illustrates (and which I am astonished our film theorists have not made more of). To see is to be lost: the only time that Bérénice lifts her eyes towards Titus is in the final scene – but then he is longer Titus, he is a stone bust! The shown and the hidden are confused, and the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice is here superimposed upon the story of Titus and Bérénice. A long tracking shot opens the film, following the Queen as she advances alone towards the house where the drama will play out, and the film closes on the same tracking movement but with the opposite meaning, when Bérénice leaves, alone again (like Orpheus leaving Hell alone after losing Eurydice). What happens between those two tracking shots corresponds to the fatal gaze of Orpheus. The linkings between scenes depend on this mechanism: in Act III, Scene 2, Bérénice enters into the frame where Antiochus and Arsace talk; but when she joins them, the two men disappear. The gaze ‘effaces’. The allusion to Orpheus gestures, of course, to Cocteau – to whom Bérénice, more than any other Ruiz film, refers.


7. [An allusion to the work of André Lagardé & Laurent Michard, prominent French historians of literature. – Eds]



  I would like to end on another of the film’s traits which, to my mind, clinches its enormous originality and incontestable beauty. Théophile Gautier once claimed that Racine’s play was not a tragedy but an ‘elegiac drama’; beyond any rather ‘lagardémichard’ controversy this might provoke, (7) we can say that Ruiz has effectively, with this film, offered an authentic elegy. The use of the almost constant music transforms the monologues into recitatives, far more poignant than if they were declaimed in a cold voice. This is why Ruiz – unlike Racine – accords as much importance to Antiochus’ love for Bérénice as to the latter’s love for Titus. And the film’s most beautiful scene shows the Queen caressing by hand the shadow of Antiochus’ face which little by little vanishes, leaving on the wall only a tear traced by the Queen’s finger. The intellectual rebus dear to Ruiz is ghosted here by a lyricism that is unexpected (less so perhaps since Three Crowns) and hence far more precious. One leaves the film overwhelmed. Ruiz has rarely attained such heights of emotion – which will insure Bérénice a much larger public than the filmmaker’s other works. And not only because our schoolteachers have trained their student cohorts well.  

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© Olivier Curchod 1983. Translated by Rouge © 2004. Reprinted from Positif no. 274 (December 1983).
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