Raúl Ruiz: Hypothesis and Enigma

By George Clark

bernice-raul-ruiz.jpgBérénice, 1983

The prolific myth-maker interviewed

At the 2004 Rotterdam International Film Festival, in his last year as artistic director, Simon Field dedicated a large portion of the programme to the retrospective ‘Raúl Ruiz: an Eternal Wanderer’. This scale of coverage would be enough to cover one or even two directors’ work but with Ruiz it could barely showcase a third of his output. Born in Chile in 1941, Ruiz begun working with film, after a previous engagement with theatre, in 1960 and now has a constantly expanding filmography of over 100 feature films, shorts and documentaries in various genres.

Seeing Ruiz’ works in close succession one gets a strong impression of his working method, open to influence and improvisation, always deeply human. There is a great sense of community about the work. In this retrospective alone one could twice encounter the magical Anne Alvaro, who leads The City of Pirates (1983) and Bérénice (1983) with a trance-like authority that draws us into the depths of those dramas. The amazing scores of Jorge Arriagada accompany nearly all the films, from the early synthesizer piece for the short Colloque de Chiens (1977) through the lush accompaniment for macabre marina’s tale Three Crowns of the Sailor (1982) and on to the erratic, melodramatic orchestration for Ce Jour-là (2003).

Raúl Ruiz: Well I make films with everything I can, so by definition everything that has happened to me is there. Chile is a country with an earthquake and sometimes, when you are in the middle of an earthquake, you say it should be an earthquake somewhere else; you never believe you are in the centre. I realised a little later that, with this political earthquake, I was in the centre. At the beginning it was almost like an epi-phenomenon. I didn’t realize the importance and that this has happened often. It happened to me, happened to many people, but you only realise little by little.

ce-jour-la-raul-ruiz.jpgCe Jour-là, 2003

GC: Do you make a distinction between your various projects? Between one that is more personal, that you have maybe cherished for a long time, or one that is more spontaneously made?

RR: Well this film was supposed to be a film for TV. It was filmed in 1978 just after I had finished The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting and The Suspended Vocation. It was a little embarrassing to work for TV. The project was a commission, in a series of documentaries on the election, that was supported by the Left. The Left was meant to win the election but the Right succeeded instead, so the film was nonsense. People didn’t want to answer any questions. There was a big accident in Italy at that time and I remember seeing a newsreel, and there was only one witness, but all he wanted to talk about was his coffee, how he couldn’t get his coffee anymore. All documentaries commit something of an original sin in the attempt to frame an abstract idea. Documentaries are about ‘something’; this was about nothing.

GC: In your recent work there are often references to other art forms, that are perhaps more radical than the film within which they are presented. The poetry of the two protagonists in Ce Jour-là (2003), or the film the child is making in La Comédie de l’Innocence (2000). I find this juxtaposition fascinating, the idea that a more radical or avant-garde work is hidden, lying dormant within a seemingly ordinary film.

hypothesis-of-the-stolen-painting-raul-ruiz.jpgThe Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, 1979 

RR: I am always trying to keep some of my activity as a filmmaker who tries not to conform all the time. And by the way I always try to go back to that work anytime I can. Those movies that you mention, they are films made for normal theatres in France. In France they are considered normal, a little bit odd but still normal movies. Of course there are elements inside that are more expressive, sometimes outside the film itself. This theoretical expression I call the secret journey; inside the film there is a secret movie.

GC: Another interesting element of your work is your eclecticism. You move smoothly between very different projects, from literary adaptations to B-movies. Are you interested in avoiding easy characterisation or being labelled as an auteur?

RR: Well, I know that a film like Time Regained offered a kind of an alibi to play with forms that I like. Because Proust works in a very similar way to myself, playing with a flexibility of narrative without making it fantastic. It’s not very easy, but it doesn’t go very far in an experimental way with language, like Joyce. But he does experiment with what Americans call the mind, in the odd and oblique way of seeing things.

Each film is a completely different thing, if we assume that, you have to re-establish your position every time you make a movie. It’s completely different each time. Sometimes a film just starts because there is a well-known actor with whom you would be happy to work and he says, I am free in two weeks. If you have something for me I’ll do it. So you have to start thinking quickly.

GC: This ability to work within the confines that are set for you is exemplary. I could never see you as a purely experimental filmmaker because it seems so important for you to be working against or within another form.

RR: I was always in the middle, I was very eclectic. I remember in the hard times of ‘structuralist’ filmmaking, one filmmaker told me that he considered me as the only commercial film-maker acceptable, and it was because of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. At this moment I am very interested with what happens when you give yourself limitations. Like sonnets or like the OuLiPo, the French movement, which included Georges Perec, who wrote a book without ‘e’ (translated as A Void, and remarkably also without a single ‘e’, by Gilbert Adair). It’s curious because I have tried to write without an ‘a’ and the sentence becomes really, really strange; it’s almost Mallarmé all the time. Just by taking away a vowel. I was recently talking with Gilbert Adair about how you could exclude something in a film, so that it is not so evident. Of course you can make a film without glasses, and manage to not notice that. Things like that are possible – and by the way this is what I’m doing digitally at this moment, in my apartment.

time-regained-raul-ruiz.jpgTime Regained, 1999

At the beginning I would establish a situation and then change it – suddenly to move from tennis to football. It’s not good sport but it can be good art.

GC: Making a film without glasses?

RR: It’s one idea. It started now that I am 62 and I have some troubles with memory starting, very normal ones. Where did I put my coat, where is my hat, and I find it on my head, things like that. Suddenly I realise that you can make a film about the simultaneity of time just using those games. A film wherein suddenly you realise that all these troubles are not troubles. What happens is that you are starting to have the perception of the simultaneity of all the situations of your life at once.

GC: This idea of simultaneity would also extend to your filmography. Now, during a retrospective rather than just following a narrative through one film, one can follow it through, or into, the filmography, like a palimpsest.

RR: The idea of a palimpsest is something I come back to often, because film is somewhere a palimpsest. For instance, I have several times had the impression when I went to the cinema that there are four different films for the price of one. I sleep in one and am awake in the next one. In the first you leave Rock Hudson as a cowboy and you find him as Ivanhoe or something, then he’s a detective. If you see that as simultaneity, then this is a palimpsest.

This is something I find very funny but it’s just a secret enjoyment. I made a film called The Suspended Vocation using a Pierre Klossowski novel and I found that there were many stories about all the gossip, all the intrigue in the Socialist groups in the Left government or in the Popular Unity. Of course, you’re not supposed to talk about that, and I don’t like to be involved in it because it’s not the most important thing, but it exists and it was an everyday experience. He’s a traitor, he’s not a traitor, he said you are a traitor, etc. So, when I made the film, I added things subconsciously; for instance, the character Paul is actually a secret portrait of Winston Churchill. Klossowski also has this, it was a book where he described people like Lacan, Salvador Dali and people from France, and I have my personal secret film and they mix very strangely. This film is near to a palimpsest, because the film was as he wrote it, about something that happened to him. It was autobiographical, and then I used the same novel and made it autobiographical for me and I put other characters in that were Chilean. It is a combination of these two secret films.

three-crowns-of-a-sailor-raul-ruiz.jpgThree Crowns of the Sailor, 1983

GC: The film after that, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, is fascinating for the way it’s ageing. I showed it at a film club recently and it reminded me a lot of Cocteau’s films. But what occurred to me was that there would have been people there who won’t necessarily distinguish your film from a Cocteau film or another from that period. They may not see it as a satire but instead it could take the position of that type of French cinema. Similarly, Shattered Image could easily be seen without the knowledge that it’s a ‘Raúl Ruiz’ film and just become an American B-movie.

RR: In film this is a permanent problem. There are films that presuppose to know the cinematography and the narrative ticks of the industry. In many cases you are supposed to know that. In other cases, like with The City of Pirates, you can stay without knowing anything. You can stay with the film and it can be the same many years later. If it’s still there.

It’s very curious, because I never thought about that. I saw Godard in Chile without knowing French, so with subtitles. Godard makes references constantly, an enormous amount of reference to life in Paris at the time. And what happened to me when I understood all the references was that I was disappointed. I like his movies of course, he’s a great moviemaker, but I mean, it was less mysterious, less strong. It’s the same case with Proust. When you read Proust in Spanish it looks like an alien or a Martian point of view, like something that happened on another planet. And when you go to France and you meet people who are like the character of Proust, it becomes kind of flat.

GC: I think it’s very interesting that art works can disappear and re-emerge and have different lives at different points.

RR: For me it’s here in The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting, a film that was quite disappointing at that time in France because I was not supposed to do that. Because I was Chilean, because I was a supporter of the Left, because I was not French, because I was not exactly a homosexual, I was not supposed to do that, because this kind of movie has nothing to do with me. I read critics, saying that one can appreciate the film but it is not a film by me. Now after a long time it is celebrated as one of my more personal films. It’s funny that it’s considered like this. What is funny is the way the young see a film like that. I’m surprised by what they see and what they don’t and it changes a lot with nationalities. What is funny in England is not in France.

GC: National identity is explored in a lot in your films. For example, in Ce Jour-lá, which references a lot of Swiss customs, mannerisms and nuances, that’s a certain type of cultural humour, that will probably be enjoyed by people who know Switzerland but are not necessarily Swiss.

RR: I think it is a very Swiss movie because I am somewhere very Swiss. I feel very close to Friedrich Dürrenmatt. It’s my kind of homage, a tribute to Dürrenmatt. It was written by me, thinking of him. For me his work is perfect, because it’s quite political in a very deep sense, and it’s surreal and he’s a humorist. And he really hates his own country. He was also a big man, and he was diabetic like me. I feel that he was practically anonymous in Switzerland because most of the Swiss have the same attitude about Switzerland. They can die, they are very patriotic but they really hate their country. The condition of a patriot is that you hate the country for whom you give your own life. That is a real country!

GC: The way you describe Dürrenmatt’s work sound very much like your films. They are humorous and surreal but they reflect a lot socially and politically. I think your films manage to reflect a lot because of the speed at which they are made.

RR: I want to keep this speed because it gives you a lot of freedom. Freedom I mean poetically. You don’t have time to think about things. There’s a kind of theory that has just emerged and been developed by a French writer. He says ‘Literature as a bullfight’. The idea is, you have to put yourself in the situation of fighting with a bull, you have less than one second to have an attitude, and then it’s too late. I want to give people with my films the sensation of going on holiday or of playing truant from school. My idea is to make that impression of freedom, that you are going to school, but not going. That will never make a perfect commercial movie but it can bring much more open-mindedness. It’s not a guarantee for making a film but it’s a guarantee to make a more friendly film.

George Clark is a filmmaker, writer and programmer. He is currently working on a retrospective of Lithuanian filmmaker Sharunas Bartas and a Yugoslav Black Wave season with Rastko Novacovic. He has also completed his first feature length film, Dawn Chorus.

The book Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage, edited by Helen Bandis, Adrian Martin and Grant McDonald, was published by Rouge Press, in conjunction with the International Film Festival Rotterdam, January 2004. See also the annotated filmography of Raúl Ruiz at rouge.com