Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz

On Film / The Daily — Feb 9, 2018

Life Is a Dream: The Films of Raúl Ruiz, opening today at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York and running through February 18, is the second half of an extensive retrospective organized by Dennis Lim and Dan Sullivan. The first half ran in December 2016, and I gathered critical reaction throughout that run here. A highlight of this round is a new restoration of Time Regained (1999), whose week-long run also begins today.

“Raúl Ruiz frequently remarked that he was the perfect person to adapt Marcel Proust’s vast set of novels Remembrance of Things Past (or, more literally, In Search of Lost Time) to the screen because, having reached the end of reading the entire work, he instantly forgot it all,” writes Adrian Martin in the Notebook. “He was joking, of course, but his jest disguised a serious method. The only way to convey Proust on screen, in Ruiz’s opinion, was to approach it not as a literal condensation of multiple characters and events, but as a psychic swirl of half-remembered, half-forgotten fragments and impressions—full of uncanny superimpositions and metamorphoses. ‘The best way to adapt something for film,’ he summed up, ‘is to dream it.’”

“As omnipresent as Proust’s narrator, the camera insinuates itself among the glamorous cast,” writes J. Hoberman for the New York Times. “Catherine Deneuve plays the former courtesan Odette de Crecy, with Emmanuelle Béart as her daughter Gilberte. Ms. Deneuve’s actual daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, has a cameo as the elusive Albertine. Marie-France Pisier trills her way through the film as the social climbing Madame Verdurin. Pascal Greggory and John Malkovich also have juicy roles, as Gilberte’s unfaithful husband and the cheerfully depraved Baron de Charlus. . . . Proust is a writer whose work defeated such distinguished adapters as Joseph Losey and Luchino Visconti; Ruiz succeeds because his movie is something of a search for Proust’s own search.”

Screening this evening, Sunday afternoon, and again on February 17 is The Wandering Soap Opera, and here’s how the FSLC introduces it: “In 1990, Ruiz conducted six days of acting workshops and filming in his native Chile, yielding a small wealth of 16mm footage that was never edited together until Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s wife and chief collaborator, returned to it nearly six years after Ruiz’s death in 2011.” The premiere was in Locarno last summer, and I gathered reviews here.

Jaime Grijalba talks with Sarmiento for Film Comment: “If you put together everything that Raúl did, it just turned into a very strange thing. So I decided that we had to divide it into chapters, days, to make it more playful. I filmed old TV sets, and I inserted the footage inside them to give the telenovela the sensation of vertigo that it should have. You don’t know where you are, and then you realize that you’re inside the telenovela, or outside of it, or you’re looking at the telenovela, and the idea was to play with that.”

For more on Ruiz, his page at Critics Round Up is a rich resource. And as more reviews appear throughout the series, we’ll be making note of them here.

Update: “Ruiz frequently expounded on his perverse attraction to what he called ‘secondary elements’ in a film: those small, niggling details, echoes, and overtones that, especially when repeated and varied ad nauseam, have the power to rise up and swallow the whole movie,” writes Adrian Martin in the Village Voice. “Ruiz always had his eyes peeled and his ears pricked for that magic detail which could throw everything—including the spectator—just that little bit off. So we get the endless game with ringing cellphones, eventually coalescing into a musical scene of dance, in Ce jour-là (2003), one of his wittiest films; the hyper-melodramatic tale of Dog’s Dialogue (1977), told, in the style of Chris Marker’s La Jetée, all in posed stills; or the obsessive bodily twitches and convulsions that overwhelm any traditional notion of choreography in his dance film, Mammame (1986).”

Update, 2/10:Night Across the Street (2012) is one of the gems, a charming riff on some of the Chilean director's favorite subjects—time, memory, language, and death—and among his most inventive works,” writes Tony Pipolo for Artforum. “The ostensible narrative is slight: Celso Roble, an office clerk about to retire, reflects nostalgically on the past while voicing odd premonitions of the future. . . . These time shifts are elegantly mirrored by Ruiz's graceful tracking camera. . . . It's tempting to read a great artist's final work autobiographically, as if he or she were fully aware that it was in fact the last. . . . But there is some consolation in thinking that Celso speaks for Ruiz when he says, ‘We only lend ourselves to death,’ which is, after all, in the neighborhood—just across the street.”

Update, 2/12: “Though an obscure entry in his already obscure body of work, 1984’s Vanishing Point—which he made during the breaks in shooting his film City of Pirates—is possibly the most concise example that Ruiz left of his theories about filmmaking,” writes Jon Auman at Screen Slate. “Practically speaking that means that Vanishing Point is a collection of situations—man arrives on island, chats, plays cards, observes the somnambulistic islanders, his ex-wife arrives, and then she leaves—which unravel themselves without requiring our participation, or even, really, our recognition. . . . And if we can abandon, for a moment, what we have been taught to look for in movies—namely, a plot with characters that need to do something specific—we’ll notice that we are not at all uncomfortable with our inability to explain in words what the images mean. We can simply watch.”

Update, 2/15: Jonathan Romney, writing for Film Comment:

It’s worth noting that The Wandering Soap Opera is no more or less bizarre than any other representative Ruiz film. The delirious flavor of his work in France in the 1970s and 1980s can’t be attributed only to his experience as an exile, but stems deeply from his rich literary culture and fascination with the ontological and existential riddles of Borges, Chesterton, Stevenson, the Spanish Golden Age, the French Absurdists, various Islamic and Western philosophical texts . . . The Wandering Soap Opera is very much of a piece with the director’s sprawling output: its vertiginous use of mise en abyme and fragmented drift from narrative to narrative echoes both Life Is a Dream (1987), a science-fictionalization of the classic Calderón play, and his later Love Torn in a Dream (2000). The latter is arguably the nearest Ruiz came in structure to a book I once saw him carrying a copy of, Jan Potocki’s 19th-century novel-as-narrative-chain The Saragossa Manuscript (memorably filmed in 1965 by Wojciech Has).

Update, 2/18: At Screen Slate, Patrick Dahl recommends On Top of the Whale (1982), “a parody of colonial first-contact fantasies and a sound-salad experiment worthy of Beckett.”

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