Raúl Ruiz: An Annotated Filmography
Lives and Only One Death
Three Lives and Only One Death inaugurated a series of star-driven projects in Raúl Ruiz’s career built around the personae of such actors as Marcello Mastroianni, John Malkovich, Isabelle Huppert and Catherine Deneuve. So far, that list includes Genealogies of a Crime, Time Regained, The Comedy of Innocence and Savage Souls.
In the domain of storytelling, Ruiz’s films of the ‘90s and beyond draw less on the models of Surrealism or Latin American magical realism than the ancient Arabic example of A Thousand and One Nights, with its tales-within-tales, diverted tales, recurring tales. Three Lives and Only One Death has a deliberately corny framing device: it begins with a famous radio personality (Ruiz mastered French in the ‘70s by avidly following his broadcasts) presenting an on-air folio of bizarre true-life stories. We see three such stories illustrated in the course of the film.
Mastroianni, in his penultimate role, stars in each. The project reportedly began with a question Ruiz put to the actor asking him what roles he would like to play. Mastroianni replied: a professor, a bum, a servant. But this is not a simple anthology of discrete, separate tales; sure enough, somewhere during the second story, certain characters from the first story start popping up in a way that suggests strange interconnections and overlaps.
It is as if, in some magical, tortuous, Chinese box way, all these narrative bits and pieces are going to fit together perfectly – as if each new narrative event somewhere fits into the strategic gaps of a neighbouring tale. But if that's the case, then how can the one lead actor be playing three completely different characters? This paradox taunts our rational ability to make conventional sense of what we see unfolding.
Narrative gaps are Ruiz’s territory. He is the cinema's greatest poet of discontinuity; black holes, empty spaces and alarming fissures riddle every story. Ruiz likes to muse, in interviews and in his book Poetics of Cinema, about how there's always something hidden and mysterious in a film created by the interval between each shot and the next. Even within a single shot, funny things can happen: Ruiz’s images are split down the middle by a fuzzy, almost imperceptible line created by a diopter lens – so that (for example) we see Mastroianni sitting down and drumming his fingers at the dinner table in the left of the shot, and in the right, a view of him in a mirror showing him doing something similar, but just nigglingly different, slightly out-of-phase with the other view.
Each of the three strange tales in the film is already full of the most extraordinary leaps, gaps and multiplicities – simply at the level of what the characters do, where they go, and what they say as they present and explain themselves. Three Lives is full of situations in which people are suddenly taken out of themselves, their lives, their daily roles. Whenever Mastroianni hears the sound of a tinkling bell, he goes into a trance, and wanders off. He reaches some spot – a cemetery, for instance, or a park where tramps gather to beg – and in that place, instantly takes up a new life, complete with a new name and identity.
Secondary characters in the film are constantly led astray by strangers met in chance encounters. For instance, there are two young lovers in the third part of the film who exude passion so completely that they end up sleeping, separately or together, with anyone who asks for this favour – because they're just so nice, so sweet, so accommodating. And there are completely peripheral figures – barflies in a pub, for instance – whom we overhear telling odd, compelling stories about the ever-forgetfulness of people, or of the universe itself.
Walking out of someone's life, and then walking back in: Three Lives is crucially about that particular gap, the mysterious hole in time between when someone says goodbye to you and when they next say hello. Or even just the gap between falling asleep next to someone in the night, and then waking up next to them in the morning. Is that other person still the same person – and are you still the same person? In the first tale, Mastroianni grabs a guy in a bar, drinks with him, feeds him, finally even pays him so that he can keep talking to this captive audience of one. Mastroianni knows where this man lives, knows who his wife is: in fact, Mastroianni was this woman's first husband, in that very apartment, twenty years previously. But one day he walked out and never returned.
In the eyes of the world, he was missing, presumed dead. But what happened to him? Mastroianni explains that he bought an apartment which kept magically expanding in size when he was unawares. And, each night as he slept, tiny little fairies would eat the newspapers, drain bottles of booze, and finally eat time itself – devouring twenty years of his life in a single night. Ruiz invents several ways of showing us these rather demonic fairies: at one moment they are a cluster of blinking lights, and another they are a little gang of cute baby chickens. Or of course, they may not exist at all – except in Mastroianni's mind, or his story, or his lie.
The second part of the film is explicitly about dual identity. Mastroianni is now a lecturer at the Sorbonne, a Professor in the Ruizian science of Negative Anthropology. Unfortunately he never gets past the main staircase in the entry hall of this venerable institution, because he keeps turning back and walking off to another life. This is his life as a tramp – a rather aristocratic tramp scorned by the more collectively minded bums of Paris (Lou Castel plays the crankiest of them). In the course of this alternate lifestyle – taking leave of his old cranky, crippled mother back home – Mastroianni becomes involved with a swish prostitute (Anna Galiena). But she's doubled, too: as a tabloid newspaper later tells us, she's in fact a prostitute by day, and a corporate President by night.
Ruiz has a lot of fun with social differences of class and status in this part of the film. As the infirm mother watches her son the tramp through binoculars, she concludes (after careful observation and calculation) that he makes just as much money begging on the street as he did lecturing at the Sorbonne. Ruiz here plumbs the ever-reversible, comic paradoxes of what he terms (in the Poetics) mystery and ministry – how all that is supposedly magical and romantic in the world (its mystery) can quickly become banal and bureaucratic, while all that is nominally ordinary and functional (ministry) expands into a secret hotbed of obsession, conspiracy and invention.
Ruiz's attitude towards storytelling has taken a cooler turn since the baroque, patchwork fantasias that made his name in the '80s. Although he is undoubtedly a fond tale-teller in that Arabic tradition, Ruiz nonetheless rails against the tyranny of a storyline – even a busy, modernist, multiple storyline. He often insists that his ultimate goal is to be able to wander freely from story to story or world to world, to find the bridges between one imaginary space and another. Thus – and this is a point his devotees sometimes overlook – he is as interested in stasis, interruption, hesitation and irresolution as he is in the dizzy connections of narrative free association (as The Real Presence demonstrates). Ruiz's cinema is – in the deepest way imaginable – a cinema of gnawing, infinite suspense.
Ruiz, like David Lynch, is fond of hidden keys, cryptic legends or anagrams that seem to generate everything we see unfolding, as in the works of those writers (such as Harry Mathews of the Oulipo school) devoted to theories and methods of ‘literary constraint’. In Three Lives this interpretative talisman seems to be that famous, fruity name, Carlos Castaneda. What starts out as a silly gag (Mastroianni's aversion to the trippy, mystical writings of Castaneda) turns out to be central to the twisted-up logic of the whole film, in light of all the bi-lingual puns that pack themselves into the writer's name.
But where Lynch tends to the Gothic, the horrific and the gut churning, Ruiz here opts for a lighter touch. When the guns start making an appearance in Three Lives, it is the excuse for a certain kind of zany, scattershot, screwball comedy, resembling Godard's Prénom Carmen (1983). The sexual aspect of Ruiz’s films can seem rather discreet, even a bit shy. However, when I took the opportunity to ask him, in 1993, why his films were so coy in this department, he acted both delighted and offended at my question. The three alchemical energies that rule the universe, he proudly informed me, are the motions of the planets, electrical energy and sexual attraction. So there are all kinds of perverse couplings and repulsions going on, at various registers, in Three Lives – beginning with the role given to Marcello's own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, as one of the young, frisky lovers.
Ruiz has come to modulate the zany style of his early ‘80s work. Almost gone are the utterly crazy camera angles, the mad point-of-view shots from the inside of somebody's mouth, the sudden parodic montage sequences, the endless play with colour filters and distorting lenses. The angles on Mastroianni and the strangers he meets in Three Lives are high or low or just slightly off-kilter, and they unsettle us like the slowly gliding camera movements, or the slightly askew visual compositions, or Jorge Arriagada's ripe, sweet, musical score. Whenever Ruiz uses wandering, probing, point-of-view tracking shots – as if taken from the eyes of Mastroianni entering some intriguing new room – the memory of Delmer Daves’ Dark Passage (1947), an amazing film noir about the malleability of identity, comes easily.
In the cinema of Raúl Ruiz, the passage from one moment to the next, one image to the next, or the passages linking bodies and events and words – these are always, as a rule, dark passages. In fact, the creepiest and most riveting moments in Three Lives and Only One Death arrive when there is a pause in a scene, and the camera simply starts to pan across the shadowy, uncertain space of a wall, mantelpiece or lounge area – because one has absolutely no idea what is going to appear or flutter, sparkle or mutate, in these calm zones of ordinary nothingness.
© Adrian Martin and Rouge 2004. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors of Rouge.