The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror

(El tango del viudo y su espejo deformante, Raúl Ruiz & Valeria Sarmiento, Chile, 1967/2020)


The great Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011), who was born in Chile but spent much of his career based in France, is enjoying a busy after-life. In league with the Chilean production company Poetastros, Ruiz’s widow Valeria Sarmiento (herself a gifted filmmaker and editor) has devoted part of her energy, in recent years, to completing his unfinished works.


It’s a trilogy: The Wandering Soap Opera (2017), a delightful assemblage of scenes that Ruiz shot with students in 1990, came first. Socialist Realism, originally made in 1973 but almost never seen at its complete length, will hopefully be unveiled in 2022.


In between, The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror presents the most unusual case of the three. The Tango of the Widower was a blackly comic horror-fantasy script that Ruiz shot in 1967 in the context of a Chilean film club (the activities of which mixed passionate viewing and amateur production) – he described it as “The Ghost and Mrs Muir as re-seen by Luis Buñuel”. It was designed to run for about an hour.


The project, in that period, had to be abandoned. Ruiz made his public, feature-length breakthrough a year later with Three Sad Tigers. But he long dreamed of somehow resurrecting his surreal tango. The footage, however, took a long time to resurface, only after his death. (By contrast, his first short, La Maleta [1960], popped up while he was still alive to give it finishing touches.) And the sound recordings were completely lost …


Resurrection is exactly what Sarmiento has given this project – in the form of a revivification that is itself very ghostly and unsettling. (I tell the truth: this film immediately entered my nightmares.)


Perhaps inspired by the mindboggling palindrome exercise that Ruiz used to set his students – “create a scene that makes sense when played both forwards and backwards” – Sarmiento has more-or-less reconstructed the original film (with the help of expert lip-readers), before flipping it (with various abridgements and soundtrack interventions) into reverse motion.


The second half of the movie, therefore, is the “distorting mirror” of the first. So this film by a dead man shows another dead man spluttering back into life in order to return to his initial point of looking upon the dead body of his wife whom he has probably killed … Let the nightmares (re)begin!


But it’s also – as always with Ruiz– very funny, in its dark and imaginative way. And Sarmiento has, ingeniously, both restored and reinvented it.

MORE Ruiz: Dark at Noon, That Day, Three Lives and Only One Death, Time Regained, Three Crowns of the Sailor, Shattered Image

MORE Sarmiento: Amelia Lópes O’Neill

© Adrian Martin August 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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