Three Lives and Only One Death

(Trois vies et une seule mort, Raúl Ruiz, France/Portugal, 1996)


Raúl Ruiz, like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, keeps going in and out of style. When he toured Australia in 1993, he spoke somewhat ruefully of the fickle rapidity of critical fashions in Europe – and also their cyclical nature. This was the era of Ruiz’s hopefully commercial project Dark at Noon (1992) and his smaller-scale Fado Major and Minor (1994). In the second half of the ’90s, however, fortune (in the form of support from both critics and moviegoers) again swung in Ruiz’s direction, as it had at the time of Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and City of Pirates (1983).

Three Lives and Only One Death (1996) inaugurated a series of star-driven projects (built around the personae of such actors as Marcello Mastroianni and Catherine Deneuve), followed by Genealogies of a Crime (1997) and Time Regained (1999) – with, in between, an American detour for the wonderful erotic thriller Shattered Image (1998), a project with true B movie allure that, paradoxically, cost more than the sumptuous Proust adaptation. This amounts to a rich, revitalised period in the director’s career – both for him and his regular collaborators, including screenwriter Pascal Bonitzer and producer Paolo Branco.

Ruiz loves storytelling – storytelling that follows odd, baroque paths and patterns, such as stories within stories and multiple, often competing voice-over narrations. Three Lives and Only One Death has a deliberately corny framing device: it begins with a radio announcer at a studio microphone presenting a little folio of bizarre true-life stories. We see three such stories illustrated and played out, one after the other, in the course of the film. Mastroianni (in his second last role) stars in each. Of course, no one familiar with Ruiz’s method will expect a simple anthology of discrete, separate tales – and sure enough, somewhere during the second story, certain characters from one story start popping up in the next, in a way that suggests weird interconnections and overlaps.

It’s as if, in some magical, tortuous Chinese box way, all these narrative bits and pieces are going to fit together perfectly – as if each new story event somewhere fits into the strategic gaps of one of the neighbouring stories. But if that’s the case, then how can the one lead actor be playing three completely different characters? This is a typical Ruiz paradox, one that taunts our rational ability to make normal sense of what we see unfolding.

Narrative gaps constitute true Ruiz territory. He is the cinema’s greatest poet of discontinuity, of black holes, empty spaces and alarming fissures riddling every story. Ruiz likes to muse a lot, in interviews and in his marvellous book Poetics of Cinema (Paris: Editions Dis Voir, 1995), about how there’s always something hidden and mysterious, an interval between every shot and the next in a movie. Even within a single shot, funny things happen in his films: images are split down a fuzzy, almost imperceptible line in the middle of the screen so that, for instance, we might see Mastroianni sitting down and drumming his fingers at the dinner table in the left of the shot, and in the right, a view of him in a mirror showing him doing something similar, but just nigglingly different, slightly out-of-phase with the other view.

But in Three Lives it’s not just a matter of conceptual, abstract demonstrations, on Ruiz’s part, of what light and mirrors and editing can do to create nutty ambiguities in our field of vision. Each of the three strange tales in the film is already full of the most extraordinary leaps, gaps and multiplicities – simply at the level of what the characters do, where they go, and what they say as they present and explain themselves. This film is full of situations in which people are suddenly taken out of themselves, their lives, their daily roles. Mastroianni, whenever he hears the sound of a tinkling bell, keeps going into a trance, and wandering off. He reaches a spot – a cemetery, for instance, or a park where tramps gather to beg – and in that place, he instantly takes up a new life, with a new name and identity.

Secondary characters in the film, the various people who come into contact with Mastroianni, are constantly led astray by strangers met in chance encounters. For instance, there are two young lovers in the third part of the film who exude passion so completely that they end up sleeping, separately or together, with anyone who asks to sleep with them – because they’re just so nice, so fresh, so accommodating. And there are even completely peripheral figures – barflies in a pub, for instance – whom we overhear telling odd, compelling stories about the ever-forgetfulness of people, or of the universe itself.

Walking out of someone’s life, and then walking back in: Three Lives is mainly about that particular mysterious gap, the gap between when someone says goodbye to you, and when they next say hello again. Or even just the gap between falling asleep next to someone in the night, and then waking up next to them in the morning. Is that other person still the same person – and are you still the same person? In the first tale, Mastroianni grabs a guy in a bar, drinks with him, feeds him, finally even pays him so that he can keep talking to a captive audience of one. Mastroianni knows where this man lives, knows who his wife is: in fact, Mastroianni was this woman’s first husband, in that very apartment, twenty years previously, but one day he walked out and never returned…

In the eyes of the world, he was missing, presumed dead. But what happened to him? Mastroianni explains that he bought an apartment which kept mysteriously expanding in size when he wasn’t aware of it – and that, in this apartment, tiny little fairies, each night while he slept, would eat the newspapers, drain bottles of their booze, and then eat time itself, devouring twenty years of this guy’s life in a single night. Ruiz invents several ways of showing us these rather demonic fairies: at one moment they are a cluster of blinking lights, and another they are a little gang of cute baby chickens. Or of course, they may not exist at all – except in Mastroianni’s mind, or his story, or his lie.

The second part of the film is explicitly about dual identity. Mastroianni is now a lecturer at the Sorbonne, a Professor in the Ruizian science of Negative Anthropology. Unfortunately, he never gets past the main staircase in the entry hall of this venerable institution, because he keeps turning back and walking off to another life. This is his life as a tramp – a rather aristocratic tramp who is scorned by the more collectively minded bums of Paris. In this alternate lifestyle, taking leave of his old, cranky, crippled mother back home, Mastroianni becomes involved with a swish prostitute (Anna Galiena). But she’s doubled, too: as a tabloid newspaper later tells us, she’s in fact a prostitute by day, and a corporate president by night.

Ruiz has a lot of fun with social differences, differences of class and status, in this part of the film. As the infirm mother watches her son through binoculars in his existence as a tramp, she concludes, after careful observation and calculation, that he makes just as much money begging on the street as he did lecturing at the Sorbonne. And, as always, Ruiz plumbs the ever-reversible, comic paradoxes of what he terms (in the Poetics) "mystery and ministry" – how all that is supposedly magical and romantic in the world (its mystery) can quickly become banal and bureaucratic, while all that is nominally ordinary and functional (ministry) expands into a secret hotbed of obsession, conspiracy and invention.

Let’s break off here, as Ruiz would, from the film’s story line, and explore a digression, a floating connection, that is irresistibly suggested. I am not the first critic to observe that Three Lives and David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997) form an extraordinarily synchronous pair. Ruiz and Lynch are both very broadly and loosely engaged with the surrealist tradition (however we choose to reinterpret or place that tradition today) – and in film, that’s essentially the tradition of Luis Buñuel. These two movies share a high number of poetic motifs and plot devices: everything from the mystery of night to multiple identity. There’s a corny, droll, sometimes quite childlike humour that’s common to both filmmakers – and a similar use of pastiche, a practice of quotation that cannibalises everything from pop movies to classic literature via fairy tales and mythology.

Both filmmakers explore radical approaches to narrative organisation. Ruiz’s attitude towards storytelling, however, has taken a cooler turn since the baroque, patchwork fantasias that made his name in the ’80s. In many ways and on many levels, Ruiz rails against the tyranny of a storyline – even a busy, modernist, multiple storyline. He has often insisted that his ultimate goal is to be able to wander freely from story to story or world to world, to find the bridges between one imaginary space and another. Thus – and this is a point his devotees often overlook – he is as interested in stasis, interruption, hesitation and irresolution as he is in the dizzy connections of narrative free association (as The Real Presence [1984] demonstrates). Ruiz’s cinema is – in the deepest way imaginable – a cinema of gnawing, infinite suspense.

In Poetics of Cinema Ruiz asserts that, in most films, the story comes first, and then the images are devised to fit, illustrate, express, communicate it. He seeks to reverse that relation, wanting an image, sound or idea to generate the moments of fiction – as in those real-life dreams which terminate in tandem with an alarm clock sound, a kind of punch line that they seem, irrationally and impossibly, to have been completely constructed towards producing. The effect – the mood – of this unusual generative process brings Ruiz closer to the suspended, imagistic cinema of Tarkovsky or Paradjanov than either the neo-surrealism of Lynch or the hyper-narrative elaboration of Tarantino.

Both Lynch and Ruiz are fond of hidden keys, cryptic legends or anagrams that seem to generate everything we’re seeing unfold, like in the works of those writers (such as Harry Mathews) devoted to theories and methods of "literary constraint". In Three Lives, this interpretative talisman seems to be that famous, fruity name, Carlos Castaneda. What starts out as a silly gag – Mastroianni’s aversion to the trippy, mystical writings of Castaneda – turns out to be absolutely central to the twisted-up logic of the whole movie, because of all the bilingual puns that pack themselves into the writer’s name.

In both Lost Highway and Three Lives, there’s sexual perversity and violence – although here is where the crucial differences between these two great filmmakers start to show. Lynch tends to the gothic, the horrific and the gut-churning, while Ruiz has a lighter touch. When the guns start making an appearance in Three Lives, it’s the excuse for a certain kind of zany, scatter-shot, screwball comedy, like in some of Godard‘s films of the ’80s. The sexual aspect is always very discreet, even a bit shy in Ruiz’s movies – although, when I took the opportunity to ask him, in 1993, why his films were so coy in this department, he acted both delighted and offended at my question. The three alchemical energies that rule the universe, he proudly informed me, are the motions of the planets, electrical energy and sexual attraction. So there are all kinds of strange couplings and repulsions going on, at various perverse registers, in Three Lives – beginning with the role given to Marcello’s own daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, as one of the young, frisky lovers.

There’s also a difference in style or tone or intensity, between Lynch and Ruiz, now more than ever. Where Lynch’s stylisations are reasonably expressionistic and lurid, Ruiz has been modulating his familiar zany style in his recent work. Almost gone are the utterly crazy angles, the mad point-of-view shots from the inside of somebody’s mouth, the rapid free-associative montage sequences, the endless play with mirrors and colour filters and Marx Brothers-type dialogue that marked earlier Ruiz films like Three Crowns of the Sailor.

There are still disturbing intrusions of hyperreal worlds, alternate universes or dreamscapes in Ruiz’s work of the ’90s – but they are more sparsely and cannily placed, so as to destabilise us more profoundly, and set off even scarier or more delicious reverberations echoing through an entire film. The profound continuity between Three Crowns and Three Lives is in the intense poetic logic that Ruiz has always pursued – a logic constructed upon images of nature, of the body, and strange, sudden, magical exchanges between life and death, self and other, word and image, past and present.

Ruiz’s angles on Mastroianni and the strangers he meets in Three Lives are high or low or just slightly off-kilter, and they unsettle us like the slowly gliding camera movements, or the slightly askew visual compositions, or Jorge Arriagada’s ripe, sweet, musical score. Whenever Ruiz uses wandering, probing point-of-view tracking shots – as if taken from the eyes of Mastroianni entering some intriguing new room – one recalls the amazing film noir by Delmer Daves, Dark Passage (1947), a film about the malleability of identity which must have partly inspired Lost Highway.

In the cinema of Ruiz, the passage from one moment to the next, from one image to the next, the passages linking bodies and events and words – these are always, as a rule, dark passages. In fact, for me, the creepiest, the most riveting, the most wonderful moments in Three Lives and Only One Death come when there’s a pause in a scene, and the camera simply starts to pan across the shadowy, uncertain space of a wall, mantle piece or lounge area – because I had absolutely no idea, ever, what was going to appear or flutter, sparkle or mutate, in those calm zones of ordinary nothingness.

MORE Ruiz: That Day, The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror, Of Great Events and Ordinary People, Mysteries of Lisbon, La noche de enfrente

© Adrian Martin February 2000

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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