I am still in shock and mourning over the death of Raul Ruiz, the brilliant Chilean-born, Paris-based filmmaker, who died from complications of a pulmonary infection late last week. The filmmaker had been coping, rather heroically, with the discovery of cancer, though even he suggested to the New York Times’ A.O. Scott in a fantastic recent Magazine profile that he was optimistic about his chances of a recovery.
Ruiz (1941-2011) was one of the giants of modern European art-cinema. His ouevre, almost impossible to summarize, was alternately fantastic, intransigent and wildly inventive. Ruiz’s penultimate Mysteries of Lisbon is a masterpiece. It is his finest work since his magisterial Proust adaptation Time Regained, knocked me out at Cannes twelve years ago.
I met Raul a couple of times, the first time probably eighteen or nineteen years ago when he came to Chicago for a retrospective of his work. We spent probably an hour or so together, and he kept gracefully extending the previously allotted time because he had more he wanted to talk about, especially Orson Welles and John Ford.
My experience mirrored that of many others. I found him alternately charming, lovely, graceful and deeply humane. He was self-deprecating and very accessible emotionally. One of my last and most cherished memories is watching him hold, in three different languages, simultaneous conversations at a reception in Venice.
(My only regret today is my lack of foresight in holding onto to our original interview.) My professional home town, Chicago, as instrumental to Ruiz’s reputation in America because Richard Pena, during his eight-year stint as director of the Film Center of the School of the Art Institute, was, I believe, the first programmer to regularly screen his works, beginning in the late seventies.
His output was truly staggering. Reading one of Jonathan Rosenbaum’s masterful studies of Ruiz, I learned that he had set out to write one hundred plays. His complete film output, including television, is probably impossible to fully catalogue, though I imagine we are talking about one-hundred and thirty or one-hundred and fifty titles.
The question of political exile, mandated by his voluntary departure from his native Chile following the CIA-backed Pinochet coup in 1973, is one of the defining themes of his work. It accounts for the instability of the image, of drama as labyrinth, of puzzles and allusions.
Speaking of Chicago, my professional friends and colleagues at Music Box Films, are the distributors of his great Mysteries of Lisbon. They opened the film in New York and Los Angeles in early August. Brian Andreotti, who programs the calendar for the company’s trademark Music Box Theatre, commissioned me to write a piece about the film. The published version will appear in its fall calendar, out this week.
The following is an extension of that piece.
A two-part, two-hundred, fifty-seven minute epic distilled from a six-hour television work, Ruiz’s dazzling and daunting meditation on history, honor and destiny is suffused with a tragic grandeur and novelistic density. The work is adapted from the serialized novel of Camilo Castelo Branco, the nineteenth-century Portuguese author who also produced the source material for arguably the greatest Portuguese movie ever made, Manoel de Oliveira’s Doomed Love.
Despite the literary and television origins, Mysteries of Lisbon is emphatically a work of the cinema. Ruiz has long acknowledged the impact of two modernist giants: Orson Welles and Jorge Luis Borges.
Ruiz’s adaptation, aided greatly by a very smart script by Carlos Saboga, is narrative as labyrinth, an arabesque that continually twists and turns on itself and angling in strange and surreal spaces. The director’s surrealist streak and Welles-derived visual influence is everywhere, especially the baroque and vertiginous imagery, the delirious off-center framing and almost blindingly beguiling pictures, like a man’s reflection caught in the swirling surface of a cup of coffee.
Ruiz luxuriates in his Wellesian love of artifice, the conjurer’s art, but also finding pictorial solutions, like a supple moment where he installs some kind of glass surface for his actors to walk on, so that as the ripped shreds of a amorous note are torn and dispersed to the floor at a baronial estate during a magnificent ball, we see the shreds float to the ground from a reverse floor perspective.
The movie is filled with images of watching and looking. Like many Ruiz films, it is marked by a splendor and curiosity of the world. Set amid the Portuguese aristocracy during the convulsive civil wars, Napoleon’s military campaigns and country’s colonial decline, the movie is fundamentally an origins tale. The first part, set in motion by the striking inquiry of a young orphan named João (João Luis Arrais) to comprehend his provenance.
Ruiz documents with visual flair the social privilege and paralyzing noble conventions of an epoch by relating the tragic story of the boy’s parents, a countess and her young suitor. João narrates the first part, as a collection of recovered memories and associations, as an adult, now called Pedro (and nicely played by Afonso Pimentel).
The story’s linking characters are Dinis (Adriano Luz), the priest who operates the orphanage where the boy lives, and Alberto (Ricardo Pereira), a flamboyant Brazilian mercenary. As the movie explicitly notes, character is fluid and few people are quite what they seem. The movie’s expansive second part draws on each man’s strange, even contradictory past in animating a strange, violent and unaccountable world.
The fluidity of the narrative is absolutely spellbinding; it entwines flashbacks within flashbacks, and the structure creates a musical and novelistic range through the multiplicity of voices that provides not only a shading and moral depth. The characters and stories illustrate in all their manifestations, folly, madness and passion.
As such the second part has a Tolstoyan sweep. Where the first part is largely self-contained, the second part moves through various outposts and corners of western Europe. About three hours in, the soundtrack imperceptibly shifts from Portuguese to French with the arrival of a French officer (Ruiz regular Melvil Poupaud) and two ravishing women (Léa Seydoux and Clotilde Hesme).
Ruiz flouts the connection of character, story and incident. What makes the movie so enthralling is the brilliant way Ruiz negotiates these interlocking stories, granting them a musical flow and feverish intensity. Ruiz shares with Oliveira a feverish sense of space and light, and a fondness for theatrical interpolation, like the theater diorama João studiously peers through in an attempt to grasp the fullness and ecstatic nature of life and events swirling around him.
It’s easy, I guess, to mock those who cherish and privilege a director like Ruiz, somebody all but unknown to those who don’t frequent film festivals or art house cinemas. The only letter I ever wrote the New Yorker was in response to a churlish and uncharacteristically parochial piece by the usually great Adam Gopnik implying Ruiz was irrelevant because of his anonymity here.
One of the best writers on Ruiz, the excellent J. Hoberman, in his lovely tribute, pointed out the occasional scorn that came his way for his consistent challenging of this great director. “More than a few Voice readers (and even some writers) complained about the praise that I lavished on this esoteric figure and several years later I made a tongue-in-cheek attempt to pigeonhole him: ‘Now that the Film Forum has opened two Raul Ruiz films in a single month, it may be that 1988 will be the year one no longer needs to explain just who the double-hey huh? is this dude with B-movie monicker--e.g. the Godard of the '80s, Mister early-Borges-plus-middle-period Welles, a Barthesian Bunuel, the Edgar G. Ulmer of the European art film, a Third World H. Rider Haggard, the Garcia Marquez of French TV.'"
My friend Gabe Klinger pointed out on his Twitter feed that, having counted, he has seen probably thirteen Ruiz titles, amounting to just about eleven percent of the director’s output.
No more Raul Ruiz. And, with apparently just one final work to come our way, no more Raul Ruiz movies. They are not exactly easy to find. But his movies are out there, in different forms, styles and formats. We are all the better for their existence.
Further reading suggestions: