Three Crowns of the Sailor

(Les trois couronnes du matelot, Raśl Ruiz, France, 1983)


Three Crowns of the Sailor was Raúl Ruiz’s first major commercial success within the European arthouse circuit; it quickly became a 1980s classic. It introduced a set of elements that the director conitinued to work through in projects including City of Pirates (1983), The Insomniac on the Alma Bridge (1985) and Manoel on the Island of Marvels (two versions for film and TV, 1984 and 1985).


According to Raphaël Bassan, these elements comprise “a mélange of cultural sources (cinema, comics, French, Anglo-Saxon and Latin American novels); a mise en abyme of narrative elements; polyculturality; non-psychological definition of characters; occultation of sexuality reinforced by an insistent nostalgia for the parental home; the theme of the double; and the omnipresence of death”. (1)


Speaking of that mélange of cultural sources, the fantastic storyline of Three Crowns of the Sailor, which is quite impossible to summarise, is conjured from just about every story, novel or film that has ever had anything to do with the sea and its myriad mythologies. It has sailors and drunken boats, fantasy women in every port, crusty old storytellers. I was surprised not to hear Procol Harum’s “A Salty Dog” burst onto the soundtrack! It's a tale of eternal exile and wandering, and recurring “immortal stories” of loss and revenge.


The film takes elements from  a vast expanse of literature, including Coleridge’s “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, sea shanties, Hans Christian Andersen, Robert Louis Stevenson, Dylan Thomas, and Edgar Allan Poe. And it also draws from a wide range of cinema: Resnais’ Last Year in Marienbad (1961), Albert Lewin’s remarkable fantasy Pandora and the Flying Dutchman (1951), and the intoxicating films of the French Poetic Realism movement in the 1940s.


But the key inspiration for Ruiz is surely Orson Welles: he re-invents the master’s baroque, deep-focus visuals, as well as his elaborately post-synchronised soundtracks. And via Welles comes another stream of literary references: Isak Dinesen (aka Karen Blixen), Cervantes, Joseph Conrad, Herman Melville.


Of all Ruiz’s films, Three Crowns of the Sailor is the one most devoted to the wild possibilities of supernatural storytelling, endless fantasies, dreams and memories jostling each other. Ruiz understands what, say, How to Make an American Quilt (1995) does not: that stories float, multiply and transmute, that they belong to no single storyteller. With all its many references to cinema and literature, it is no wonder that François Thomas described it as “a mosaic seemingly scattered to the four winds”.


Yet Thomas rightly intuited a unity here: a rigorous sytem founded on paradox, inversion, exchange and the fluid co-existence of seemingly incompatible opposites – life and death, Self and Other, word and image, past and present. (2) This seemingly overripe, busy, baroque movie indeed has an intense poetic logic, built upon recurring and metamorphosing images of nature and of the body. The sound design – powered by Jorge Arriagada’s characteristically florid musical score – pulls everything together, as is often the case with Ruiz.


Zuzana Pick, taking a postcolonial perspective, praised the “perverse erotic charge of the film” which, for her, resided in the “fascinating insistence on the tropical settings of the Third World”, positioned as “the exotic Other of Western representation”. A properly second-degree representation (his cinema is full such elaborate “exoticisms”) to which Ruiz adds “an eccentric and decentring integration of European elements”. (3)


But it is best not to intellectualise, rationalise or decode Ruiz’s films entirely; you have to surrender to them, abandon yourself to their strange rhythms and apparitions, and their truly infectious, oddball humour.


Derived from, in part, material prepared for the January-June 1993 Australian Film Institute/Carnivale retrospective season The Cinema of Raúl Ruiz, which the filmmaker attended in Melbourne and Sydney during February ‘93.



1. Raphaël Bassan, “Raúl Ruiz”, La revue du cinéma, no. 409 (October 1985), p. 47.

2. François Thomas, “Les trois couronnes du matelot”, Positif, no. 274 (December 1983), pp. 36-38.

3. Zuzana M. Pick, “The Dialectical Wanderings of Exile”, Screen, Vol. 30 No. 4 (1989), pp. 46-65.

MORE Ruiz: Dark at Noon, Shattered Image, Three Lives and Only One Death, That Day, Time Regained, The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror

© Adrian Martin January 1993 / May 1996

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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