Capitulating for the Camera’s Sake: the Late Artistry of Raúl Ruiz

Slideshow: The unfolding of a 3 minute shot in Raúl RuizThat Day (Ce jour-là) (2003) – captions by Kevin B. Lee [portfolio_slideshow]

Upon the recent death of Chilean-born director Raúl Ruiz, it was disconcerting to see a passage from a 1997 article I wrote about Ruiz repeatedly quoted in mainstream obituaries: “Ruiz is the least neurotic of filmmakers; he doesn’t even seem to care whether what he’s doing is good or not.” Not because this was false when I wrote it but because it related to my earliest encounters with his work and its seeming challenges to film commerce, not to his better known big-budget efforts such as Genealogies of a Crime (2007), Time Regained (1999), and Klimt (2006). Which is why these latter films tended to disappoint me, pointing towards what Ruiz himself described to me in a 2002 interview as a ”capitulation”.

Perversely, it was Point de fuite (1984), one of his weakest and emptiest films, that signaled his uniqueness to me more than the much livelier and more inventive City of Pirates (1983) when I saw both films in Rotterdam in 1984, because the sheer pointlessness of the former seemed as potentially fruitful as the radical denials of technique in early Luc Moullet, the cross-references of Jean-Luc Godard, the temporal suspensions of Jacques Rivette, and the endlessly prolific output of Andy Warhol, all of which could be construed as provocative responses to the usual capitalistic complacencies about craft and consumption.

But Ruiz’s “capitulation” also entailed a positive development that enriched his aesthetics even if it undermined some of his previous indifference regarding success or failure. Much of this was a matter of becoming interested in camera movements, which bigger budgets made more viable. As I wrote 11 years ago, in Time Regainednot only camera movements but the gliding displacements of objects and characters [re-create] some of the complex, winding journeys of Proust’s sentences. At a climactic concert at a party, rows of listeners can be seen gliding off in separate directions as if on separate mind journeys; in a much earlier surreal sequence featuring newsreel war footage in a cafe, the narrator, reading a letter, can be seen rising with his chair like a film director seated on a crane, all the way to the top of the room, where he encounters his own childhood self running a projector — an image that might be traced, like much else, to one of Proust’s extended descriptive passages.”





This achieves a kind of apotheosis in the masterful camera movements of Mysteries of Lisbon (2010) — especially those in interiors, where they sometimes implicitly suggest the viewpoints of servants — becoming an integral part of Ruiz’s mise en scène that deepens as well as sharpens Ruiz’s inquisitive skepticism about narrative itself (and which class it can sometimes belong to). It’s even possible that the mastery he achieves in this late work – not only in terms of both storytelling and visual pleasure, but also in emotional power (a relatively rare thing to be found in an oeuvre dominated by irony) – suggests that Ruiz’s two greatest works may both turn out to be Portuguese miniseries: namely the 152-minute Manoel on the Island of Wonders (1984) and the six-hour Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), shortened to four and a half hours in the theatrical version; together they ironically might be regarded as the least and best known of his major works. (Regarding the former, I can happily report that, although this Lewis Carroll-like fantasy has never been available commercially on video or DVD, it survives, according to Ruiz himself, in its original Portuguese form – which is the way that I initially saw it, at the Rotterdam Film Festival, where it was awarded a prize – at the Portuguese Cinémathèque, although it was also once shown on Australian television dubbed into French, with English subtitles. And both versions of Mistérios de Lisboa are happily already available in a Portuguese DVD box set.)

All of which suggests an extraordinary evolution on Ruiz’s part. Even if he arguably started out as a kind of low-rent Edgar G. Ulmer, he also, no less arguably, wound up as a kind of gilt-edged (or guilt-edged) Otto Preminger.

Jonathan Rosenbaum is a film critic and author of many books, most recently Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephila: Film Culture in Transition.


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