Raúl Ruiz: An Annotated Filmography

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Dark at Noon or Eyes and Lies
(L'śil qui ment, France, 1992)

Adrian Martin

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During the 1993 Australian Film Institute retrospective of his work, Raúl Ruiz was asked to describe his uniquely surrealistic approach to filmmaking. He responded with an anecdote about the Latin American writer Lezama Lima, who stated that the task of the poet is ‘to go into a dark room and build a waterfall there’.

Ruiz’s films are full of such strange and intoxicating juxtapositions. They create an equally idiosyncratic approach to screen narrative. Every story, he once suggested, exists in two, parallel universes. There is the normal universe in which characters act and react, using their free will (or so they believe) to shape their destiny. Then there is an invisible, occult universe, where immaterial beings stage-manage the predestined order of all things.

But, as is obsessively the case in Ruiz’s work, even this type of interpretation is really only the alibi for allegory, and hence another level of reading. The two worlds of the story – the real world and its double – correspond to a modern condition that Dark at Noon only alludes to through dramatising ‘old fashioned’ media like books and paintings as almost living entities. The shadow world of the fiction is really our own, present-day realm of media representations – film, TV, advertising billboards, computers – which threatens to swallow us up on a daily basis.

Dark at Noon is about such mind-spinning possibilities. It is also a comedy, a surreal game pieced together from bits of numerous philosophical systems, old horror movies and stories by Jorge Luis Borges and H. P. Lovecraft. Although many of Ruiz’s films are frankly bewildering in their hallucinatory plot moves and proliferation of imaginary worlds, Dark at Noon unfolds relatively simply.

Felicien (played by French comedian Didier Bourdon) travels to a remote Portuguese village. He finds his hard-won rationalism sorely tested by a dizzying, daily procession of miracles, apparitions and supernatural enigmas. Miracles, as Ruiz has remarked, are like cosmic jokes – but jokes, he adds, are finally rather serious, and certainly more than a bit mysterious. Most mysterious in these proceedings is the relationship between a young married couple and a forbidding father figure – especially since both men in this triangle are incarnated by the same actor, John Hurt.

Events quickly spin into states of madness, perversity and apocalypse that are both hilarious and disquieting. Characters swap identities, the letters of written words scramble on the page, parallel universes start communicating with each other, and the dead never seem to lie in their graves for very long. The barrage of dreamy visual effects and the atmospheric music by Jorge Arriagada keep the viewer enchanted and intrigued even as the deep themes of the story remain cryptic.

With Dark at Noon, Ruiz indeed managed to build a waterfall in a dark room. For the first time in the ‘90s, the director had the resources to render his characteristic motifs in a lush, expansive manner. The film – although it did not manage to be the breakthrough into commercial success that Ruiz’s fans predicted – is an ideal introduction to the work of cinema’s cheekiest and most gnomic poet.

 

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© Adrian Martin 1994
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