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Raúl Ruiz and the Poetics of Cinema
By Jonathan Marlow
September 26, 2006 - 1:18 AM PDT

"It's always making bridges or connections."

Despite a career that begins in the 1960s and decades of fruitful collaborations with composer Jorge Arriagada (arguably the greatest film-scorer working today) and numerous legendary cinematographers (Sacha Vierny, Robby Müller and Henri Alekan among them), the work of Raúl Ruiz remains sadly underrepresented on video or in theaters in the United States. This was somewhat remedied recently when Kino released Ce jour-là (That Day) in June and Blaq Out (by way of Facets) released Three Crowns of the Sailor in July and Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting today - all landmark works by the director from three different decades. What follows is a conversation between Jonathan Marlow and Raúl Ruiz in a crowded café in Rotterdam. Expect that a few things were lost in translation as the conversation infrequently shifted from English, to French and Spanish, occasionally within the same sentence.

Marlow talks with
Elsa Zylberstein
in San Francisco

How were you cast for Time Regained, your first film with Raúl Ruiz?

The producer who introduced me to Raúl wanted to work with me. I am just doing Rachel, an actress. It's a very tiny part. We did another movie together with no script [Combat d'amour en songe (Love Torn in Dream)]. We went to Lisbon together. He gave me pages every day and, one day while we were waiting, he said, "I think we'll make a movie about a woman who is just alone and she's just has a dog and her whole family is going to be killed." Okay, whatever! From that he wrote That Day.

The film is a little treasure for me. I talked to Raúl in Rotterdam and he showed me his notebook full of drawings and stories and ideas. Even in the course of our conversation, he suggested one idea after another for possible films. With That Day, you came to a project with the character relatively formed when you arrived at the set. On several of his films, actors are seemingly not up to the challenge of filling the part.

Raúl, as a director, is someone that requires you to fit into his world and create a real character, because everything is so precise. If you don't arrive prepared, he will give you two or three keys to the character and just let it go. You really have to deal sometimes with the inside world from the depth of yourself and to create something very concrete, very down to earth, compared to his world.

There is a moment in That Day when you walk into a room, you shut the door and your expression is blank and then, all of a sudden, it explodes with emotion. There's so much to what you bring to this character, a whole realm of little nuances. Even in the opening scene, the whole establishment of the characters as angels when they fall.

You know, for me, everything is concrete and I have a reason for everything. Especially for Raúl, you need a very cold and perfect line. I knew everything about my character. I know what she wrote in her book. I know why she thinks people are falling angels. That makes things relative and real when she's talking and looking at people. We have so much that is relative, when you are touched by someone it has to belong to something specific and intimate. As long as I knew what it means to me when she says, "Oh, you're an angel," or as long as I knew she was forgetting things, when she has amnesia and suddenly she'd say, "Who are you?" Everything has a reason for me in that character. It has to be very concrete. I really worked on someone who was just forgetting who you are minutes ago and just worked on that amnesia. That's my job.

What did you use as a source for research into this character?

Emotional, personal feelings.

In much of Ruiz's work, the characters sometimes seem lost.

You know why? The actors are not working in his world and I knew that I had to work. I trust his world, but I didn't want to be lazy and say, "I am in this movie so I'm going to go from here to here and I'll be fine." I simply turn my head and I have to bring all of my life and what I have inside to create a whole character. The two worlds were meeting.

The scenes in the Swiss town with the military vehicles were completed after you had shot all the other material in France?


It was his rethinking of a political allegory to the story?

I think so, yes.

Even in such a diabolical story, he effortlessly maintains a sense of humor. For instance, the repeated issue of the antagonist's blood sugar level as a spark for his violence. The joke is maintained even when it is clear that this is no longer a critical, or credible, issue. Since he wrote this script with you specifically in mind, do you expect to work with him again?

Oh yes, I can't wait! I'd be ready for him even without reading anything. I will go for it. I love him. He's a great character and a wonderful person.

Unfortunately, in the United States, most French films fail to play outside of the festival realm. Even then, festival programmers are not always the sharpest people in the bunch and pass over a number of exceptional films from your country. I know that you've made many films and yet the majority of them have never played here. Does that disappoint you a bit?

No, that's life. This is a good gig. This is the cherry on the cake. Coming here [to a festival] with a movie, you don't know what's going to happen or what movie will bring you somewhere else. I just trust the good star above my head. I just finished this movie about Modigliani with Andy Garcia [ed. a disappointing film with only one quality worthy of mention - yet another remarkable performance from Ms. Zylberstein], so...

You traveled with That Day to Cannes. How was the film received? Most audiences have a lot of difficulty with Ruiz's films but obviously your performance is very different than is usual in his work. Something unusual is happening in this particular film.

I think it's more human. The first time, when there is a kiss, it becomes a love story. It's a moral story... It's related to who he is. They are kind of naïve characters, as we are in life. In a way, I am him.

In that role?

Both of us are him. It's kind of the way I look at things. He is very shy about his feelings. I just have the feeling that we could both be him.

You mentioned that a lot of the discussions about the story happened over meals. I know he's something of a gourmet, in a sense - he really loves to cook, loves food, loves wine. I've heard stories...

We like talking...

Mostly talking about life outside of the actual film?

Of course, before we began filming we liked to talk about the movie but, when you're filming, you have to have lunch and talk about life.

You've mentioned in the book Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage and elsewhere that you were unsatisfied with the popularity of Three Crowns of the Sailor. What are the conflicting issues at work - both in wanting success for your films and then the repercussions of their popularity when audiences embrace them?

Of course, I don't know. It's kind of natural. It's naturally different to observe than to be the center; to be in a good position to shoot the scene but not be in the center of the scene. I'm not a comedian. I'm not an actor. I should be something like that, not more than that, because I have to do everything. I have to comment so I escape for a while and then I return. It was quite embarrassing because there were politics in France, looking for international directors. So I was considered a sort of French ambassador. I still am.

You've now lived in France nearly as long as you lived in Chile.

Oh, yes. I've spent much time in French countries. The center still is France, Paris [Ruiz left Chile because of his public position against the overthrow of Salvador Allende in 1973].

But you'll never escape your identity as a Chilean. That always infuses and informs your work. Even in That Day, the film draws a parallel to Chile's past.

It's always making bridges or connections.

Even if these connections are not immediately apparent. I didn't initially notice a specific reference in That Day, although the military presence seems to reach back to the Allende coup. The film is a Swiss/French co-production. Did you shoot the exteriors on location and the interiors in France?

Yes. It was less expensive. They made all the interiors in France. Switzerland is only landscapes and streets.

So the scene with the bicycles in the beginning was filmed in Switzerland?

Yes, all that is Switzerland. All of the scenes in the little town are in Switzerland.

It's difficult to anticipate the reception of such a black comedy in the United States. They have difficulty with things that are not clear. The relationship between the couple is more complicated than what most Americans can deal with. How did the project actually come about? I was under the impression that it originated from an unfinished detective story...

No. At the beginning, I wanted to make a kind of an American movie in the Middle East. The woman was normal, not rich. Suddenly, all the family around her is being killed. In the original, there were many ways that they died accidentally. Many Americans are hysterically optimistic.

So the deaths, in the original concept, were purely accidental?

There were accidents. So it was God, at the end of the day [that was causing the deaths]. All these people for her were the most beloved persons. She is surprised and doesn't know how to react. The other element was that a homeless man could be the suspect. This person was simply a way to distract her. This guy makes all kinds of mistakes, almost like Peter Sellers in The Party. He provokes interest and he protects her without knowing that he protects. It's kind of grotesque. It finally becomes a metaphor of another Swiss element, as it seems to me more and more. The story I told you now could be set entirely in America, where people come and stay alone. People die in houses and nobody knows. At the same time, it's a kind of sociability that makes possible this story. So then I moved the story to Europe.

When did you first want to make That Day?

The idea? I had it when I was shooting Combat d'amour en songe [Love Torn in Dream, also starring Elsa Zylberstein] and suddenly the idea came to me. Like two days ago, I had an idea forming around Spinoza, who is completely forgotten. Spinoza was completely quiet and dissident of everything. One day, it was too much and he started screaming. It was his stopping point.

Considering that you're extraordinarily prolific, I presume that you must have a number of story ideas in your notebook. How many of them actually get made? A good number, more than most filmmakers...

If you don't include Asia! They really have a lot [of prolific filmmakers]. And now with digital [technology]... They are commercial [directors]; they want to be. But they do not generally do the kind of research that tries to understand what we're doing philosophically. "What is this all about in this world?"

A large part of directing is working with actors. A few contemporary Japanese directors, such as Takashi Miike, seem to falter on this front. You seem to be exceptionally fortunate with actors. I don't know if it's from working in the theater, but...

In Chile, it's one game. In Chile, we were trying something that seems to be easier to find a theatrical way to cinema. To deal with the Chilean accent was kind of impossible. How to make it not necessarily funny? It is a problem in many countries. It was a problem for the Quebecois in Canada. Australians invented a kind of neutral dialect; they never speak true Australian in the commercial cinema. So that was the problem - to deal with the relationships with the camera where they were not made of protagonist, secondary characters, extras. Always trying to say everyone is the main actor.

Sometimes an extra passes by and starts talking for a while, becoming the center of the show, and disappears never to appear again. We kept trying to deal with the screen. Instead of trying to escape the accent, we went extremely inside the accent - to transform, to accept and play with a syntactic way of talking Chilean. It's really special because it seems that you never know what the conversation is about because sometimes there is no verb. People rarely finish their sentence or they speak in metaphors. So it's too much. The moment is like Samuel Beckett, a kind of nonsense with humor; an almost English nonsense.

In Tres tristes tigers [Three Sad Tigers], there's less a style at work than working around the language.

Yes, the language, in that context, becomes more expressive because I understand all the words and all that they're talking about. Suddenly, it's violent and you don't really know why. Of course, it's evident somewhere and the actor was connected with that.

Then I went to France and I couldn't listen to the subtleties of the language. In France, it's very formal and when someone starts talking he knows where the sentence will be finished. It's not always the case in English. When you're talking, you are inventing a way of talking. You can move inside the sentence and you can break it, stop it, and all of that is expressive. It's enough because trying to play like an American - it's not in any way French. What I use is like in music - faster, slower, higher, lower. It's like the conductor of an orchestra.

And then, very recently, I've started playing with breathing and reconsidering the old masters of theater like Stanislavsky and maybe Chekhov, Michael Chekhov, the inventor of the psychological gesture, who taught in America. They played with some new kind of schema. Essentially, it's trying to play with a circle. When you have two characters, they form a circle. They are trying to play with this circle. If "a" plays with "b," you have a "c" character. If "a" plays with "e," you have an "m" character. It moves.

This plays and changes completely the way you have to study the characters. It's very simple. There are three concentric circles. Outside is your mask. It's what you want to show. It's your official image. You get dressed, go to work or to a party. It is the image you want to give to others. In the center is the image you want to give to yourself. If you are American, you don't want to be contradictory between the first and the second. If you're European, you have no problem in the center.

Something like that is psychological, it's nothing conscious. It happens in your head all the time to form hundreds of thousands of promissory personalities. When they talk about multiple personalities, that's when you put two characters in the front. Let's say there are two who are present at a cocktail party, so it's the exterior circle with an exterior circle. At some point, one wants to be honest so one is the external circle and the other is the medium circle. Sometimes the two persons are good friends who are in the middle, they want to be honest with themselves. This is what is called in France the coup de foudre. Like in the tempest - the lightening, the thunder.

It works out like a realization?

It doesn't mean that the scene has to be played in only one way. You have to link one to the other. Then you'll have a kind of middle character. That means a certain amount of exercise that actors never have the time to do. So I can do that and play with it when I make a workshop. I hope one day I will be able to do that completely. A part of what I do is write a short story in three levels.

And all the stories are infused with these separate levels?

I wrote a lot for Shattered Image. There I imitate [Gérard] de Nerval, the other is like [Friedrich] Dürrenmatt...

And you generally use other works as a starting point?

I do that for the character to the actor without saying anything. Some actors go immediately inside. With one actor, I sent the story and she thought I was rewriting the script so she sent that to her lawyer and to her agent.

Shattered Image was the only film you was made in Vancouver?


And you made a film in New York, The Golden Boat. So the only two films you've made in the US...

Yes, but I'd prefer many more. I had experience with another one. I was supposed to make Never Talk to Strangers with Rebecca De Mornay and Antonio Banderas [the project was eventually helmed by British director Peter Hall, perhaps better known for his stage and television work].

You started that project...

There are so many stupid things in Hollywood. The actors were afraid that they would never understand what I'm saying. My English has become quite bad.

next >>>

"It's always making bridges or connections."
"Sometimes you realize what you are seeing will be in a movie. You just don't know which one."

back to articles


Jonathan Marlow
In addition to his persistence in acquiring obscure films for GreenCine, Marlow is a writer, filmmaker, curator and occasional critic. Not necessarily in that order. He is also a dedicated skeptic.

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