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Labyrinths

By Jonathan Robbins

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Reality is up for grabs in Raúl Ruiz’s Life Is a Dream and The Blind Owl

Raul Ruiz

Life is a Dream

Over the course of his prolific career, Chilean writer-director Raúl Ruiz made more than 100 films. Conceived as a pair and shot in consecutive years, Life Is a Dream (Mémoire des apparences, 86) and The Blind Owl (La Chouette aveugle, 87) showcase Ruiz’s signature sense of humor and predilection for putting the sacred, the profane, and the absurd in delicious proximity. Perhaps more than any of Ruiz’s other films, Life Is a Dream and The Blind Owl manifest an appealing admixture of self-reflexivity and self-indulgence in pursuit of the idea that cinema is a game whose rules are meant to be broken… and then gleefully trampled upon.

Both films are loosely based on literary works with a shared point of view: that dreams and imagination are no less real than waking reality. In addition, both feature protagonists who dream or hallucinate the very films in which they appear. To top it off, there is a significant overlap of cast members, and both films were made possible by funding from La Maison de la Culture at Le Havre, where Ruiz served as director. Regrettably, these unique works are currently unavailable in the U.S. for either theatrical or home video distribution (although Life Is a Dream was for a time distributed by IFEX in the late Eighties). As seriously underrated as they are prodigiously inventive, The Blind Owl and Life Is a Dream deserve to be reintroduced to the American public.

Life Is a Dream developed out of Ruiz’s staging of Pedro Calderón de la Barca’s 17th-century play of the same name at the Avignon Theater Festival earlier in 1986. Calderón’s play tells the story of Segismundo, the Prince of Poland, who has been imprisoned since birth by his father, the king—acting on a prophecy that the younger man would grow up to become a cruel ruler. When Segismundo comes of age, his father tests the prophecy by presenting him to the court. The Prince becomes dangerously violent, which seems to confirm things. The king has him drugged and thrown back in prison, where Segismundo remains convinced that the previous day’s events were merely a dream. Rebels learn of Segismundo’s predicament, however, and overthrow the king. Segismundo pardons his father, who rewards his benevolence by declaring his official abdication to the public and resolves to rule justly in both dreams and waking life. 

Life is a Dream Raul Ruiz

Life is a Dream

Difficult to summarize, Ruiz’s film version is set in 1984, but it features scenes of his staging of Calderón’s play performed in full 17th-century dress. The film’s protagonist, Ignacio Vega (Sylvain Thirolle), is a Chilean dissident and former member of the underground who returns, in one of the film’s many stark incongruities, to the provincial French town where he grew up. A voiceover explains that 10 years earlier Ignacio learned the names and missions of 15,000 anti-junta activists using the verses of Calderón’s play as a mnemonic: “Each line contained a militant’s name, each metaphor an address, each stanza an armed operation.” He was later caught and forced to forget the information. Back home, Ignacio frequents the local movie theater, where the movies he sees begin to jog his memory of the play. Ruiz’s film takes place in an indeterminate space between Ignacio’s moviegoing experiences, the many popular genre films he encounters there, and the magical workings of his memory as he gradually begins to recall snippets of Calderón’s play.

Life Is a Dream is composed of a patchwork of episodes organized around two narrative threads: Ignacio’s return to his hometown (spy thriller) and the French-language performance (ostensibly as recalled by Ignacio) of Calderón’s play. Interspersed with these are green-tinted installments of a science-fiction side-story inspired by Flash Gordon (one iteration of which includes an apparent Star Wars parody—the Flash Gordon serials were among Ruiz’s childhood favorites); a Columbo-inspired detective story set at a country manor; a black-and-white romantic costume drama; a touch of musical comedy; and a Western-style shootout inside the movie theater. As if that weren’t enough, the film also performs a shot-by-shot, film-school-style dissection of itself. Disorienting and delightfully deranged, Life Is a Dream concludes with Segismundo delivering a soliloquy on the seashore, after the cast roams the beach in suits and sunglasses proclaiming: “Death to nudists!” The same five or so actors play most of the roles, which makes matters even more confusing.

Life Is a Dream’s French title translates to “memory of appearances,” which, better than the English, suggests all the parallels between cinema, dream, and memory. The film is ultimately a kind of zany Rabelaisian collage, guided by Ruiz’s unique sense of whimsy and playfulness. The movies that Ignacio watches become part of Life Is a Dream’s diegesis, such that viewers are never quite sure just what they’re watching, let alone how it might correspond to what proceeds or follows it. Ruiz actually mimics the structure of a dream: events are verisimilar yet surreal, and causality is always hazy. He applies dream logic to both story and mise en scène, so that the film has no reliable present tense, no stable reality, but is composed of seemingly unrelated genres and events that blur and merge within its oneiric undulations.

The Blind Owl

The Blind Owl

Like Ignacio, the unnamed protagonist of The Blind Owl dreams (or hallucinates) his own life—and Ruiz’s film—into being by watching a movie. Loosely based on Iranian writer Sadegh Hedayat’s eponymous 1937 novel and 17th-century Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina’s Damned for Despair, The Blind Owl tells the story of a projectionist (Jean-François Lapalus) at a theater in the Belleville neighborhood of Paris (where Ruiz lived) whose uncle, a diminutive and demanding man, pays an unexpected visit. Wearing dark glasses and rather resembling an owl, the uncle is a madcap character who takes to reciting Apollinaire while giving his nephew a piggyback ride under the starlit night sky. The projectionist becomes obsessed with a beautiful dancer in one of the films shown at his theater, and soon past and present, truth and fiction, dream and reality all become intermingled in strange, magical, and seemingly impossible ways.

Shot in 16mm, The Blind Owl is set in two principal locations that are hundreds of years and a thousand miles apart. First, there is the contemporary French setting that corresponds most directly to Hedayat’s novel. Ruiz stays relatively close to the original source material in these sections. But he takes many liberties in the portion of the film meant to correspond to Damned for Despair, which he sets in the Orient sometime after the Crusades, not in Naples as in the play. In Ruiz’s telling, madmen in fezzes run about making incomprehensible declarations, a creepy woman cryptically repeats a nonsensical song, and bloody decapitated heads sold by the souk butcher talk to the customers.

One cannot be certain just how the period Oriental and contemporary Parisian sections relate, but multiple attentive viewings reveal some clues. Characters, images, and storylines from the projectionist’s life recur in the Orient, and vice versa, in impossible ways. For example, traveling by train, the protagonist and his uncle encounter a man who tells them an outlandish story about twin traveling fabric salesmen who take turns sleeping in a suitcase containing their wares. Later, in the Oriental section, an anonymous Arab recounts a disturbing story about a woman in love with twin brothers whom she could not tell apart. Arab twins then briefly make an appearance in the Oriental section, which may in fact be part of the film that the projectionist’s Belleville theater is showing. Despite the tantalizing suggestion that these otherwise incidental yet recurring elements might be related, no relationship is affirmed—they are just vividly present.

The Blind Owl Raul Ruiz

The Blind Owl

As if its labyrinthine narrative were not complicated enough, The Blind Owl abandons French dialogue at the midway point in favor of Old Spanish—or what the French actors, dressed in Oriental garb, are able to muster of it—mixed with Arabic. Even more incredibly, in the film’s original French version, all of this dialogue is subtitled into “Old French,” most of which is completely unrelated to what the characters are saying (or trying to say) and doing on screen, and some of which is gibberish. The film also features unsubtitled dialogue in German and Italian.

The unexplained poetic recurrence of ambiguous symbols, narratives, and characters, further complicated and enriched by the presence of subtitles that purposefully mistranslate dialogue that is already partially nonsensical, turns The Blind Owl into a zone of pure play. The film may be thought of as a game in which the rules of narrative coherence and classical realism are gradually swapped out for a purely associative logic, making the viewer’s relationship to the film feel improvisational and contingent. Through the jokes, paradoxes, and multiple heresies of its complex fictional universe, The Blind Owl offers viewers the option of not having to know what’s going on, while still being fully engaged in the game of the film. This cognitive autonomy is uncannily liberating.

Some scholars have compared Ruiz’s self-reflexive impulses to those of Latin American magical realism. There is also a political component to the oneiric narratives of The Blind Owl and Life Is a Dream insofar as the politics of dreaming contest orthodox narrative structures. Certainly, both films challenge the spectator in different ways, and both encourage and reward multiple viewings.

That said, one might argue that there is a more pervasive force at work in The Blind Owl and Life Is a Dream. By putting the projectionist and Ignacio—whose lives occur through the films they watch—in the same position as those watching the films, Ruiz creates a kind of communion between viewers of his films and viewers in his films. Steeped in the chaotic, absurd universes of characters who dream themselves into being, the imaginations of the audience, the characters, and Ruiz himself converge into one. 

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