This film is a tricky object: it slips between your eyes. It’s hard to know how to write about it, what angle to take. One could say the same of certain films by Renoir (The Woman on the Beach), Mizoguchi (The Empress Yang Kwei Fei) or Preminger (Bonjour Tristesse). But with those films it’s a question of an almost ascetic classicism, aiming to render the result as smooth as possible, without any sign of effort – to the extent that some people have taken these masterpieces as works of no interest, cold and academic. Here, it’s the exact opposite: an uninterrupted succession of visionary effects, including many that are bloody and shocking. But these asperities are so numerous and so frequent that they end up creating a new formula, a second-degree smooth surface, for which I can find virtually no equivalent in cinema history. This impenetrable character is due, above all, to the treatment of the story and, on another level, the nature of its significations.
At the start, however, the structure seems traditional and reassuring: straight away we see the main character, who we will follow through to the final shot (apart from some absences in its second part). This protagonist gives us in voice-off his impressions and comments on the action. So the spectator has someone to attach himself to, to identify with. We encounter here a principle common in crime or fantasy film (and fiction): the recourse to a sole protagonist, a promoted narrator, allowing the audience to introduce itself more easily into a strange world. Any more direct contact with the unusual universe of Ruiz would be completely disheartening.
Such identification, however, is hardly exploited to the hilt. Quite simply because the actor, Jean-François Lapalus, gives this protagonist a lifeless appearance – a banal face, somewhat bloated, a little too much like the ‘average young Frenchman’ – which is almost caricatural, forbidding identification, just like his infantile reactions (he ceaselessly repeats, ‘I want to return to Paris’) and his spinelessness (he lets himself be slapped in the face and spat on without reacting). Above all, he is more than anything a guiding thread: we follow him, but we resist being him. He’s far too mediocre ... The conception of this figure recalls the narrator in a film Ruiz made five years earlier, Three Crowns of the Sailor, which itself makes direct reference to the sailor in The Lady from Shanghai – minus Welles’ charm as an actor.
The narrator starts out as a projectionist in an Arabic cinema in Paris (Belleville, where Ruiz lives next to two former Arabic cinemas, the Berry and the Bellevue). He finds himself confronted with unusual facts: for example, his fellow projectionist Kassem, who permanently sports a balaclava with a hole in it (so he can smoke), designed to hide the burn marks on his face. We can’t see them but (as he informs us) they are worse than the wounds on his hands – which, as one shot shows us, are rather nasty. The narrator frequently watches the Oriental films which he projects, with their lascivious dances and trashy exoticism. At the film’s twelve minute mark, our hero tells us that he had an atrocious dream. In fact, this so-called dream is no more oneiric than the images which precede it – like the unknown young woman who pokes the torso of sleeping narrator with her fingers, or the strips of flesh which fall from Kassem’s face.
All through the film, there are three categories of images – reality, dream, and projected movie – and Ruiz never stops looking for ways to confuse them. Moreover, the dream is influenced by the movie screened. Both dream and movie are characterised by their Oriental context, which is also not absent from reality (the Arabic cinema and Kassem). It becomes increasingly useless and impossible to tell them apart. During this incoherent, contradictory dream, a young woman dies in the hero’s bedroom – an event for which he is not responsible. However, as ‘she had only come to my place on the condition of not being spotted by anyone’, our man places the corpse (which he has cut into pieces) in a trunk, which he then carries on foot in the street, then in his car towards a forest, where he hurls it in the river.
At the forty minute mark, the hero, seen in bed, confirms in voice-off that he is feverish and delirious. So it has clearly been a dream, although we might doubt this for a moment because of the length of the episode (almost half an hour), its traditional crime-story schema (the process of hiding a corpse), and certain extremely prosaic, realistic lines (that famous ‘I want to return to Paris’).
But we immediately set off elsewhere. The sick hero makes clear: ‘Allah had taken pity on me. There was a chance to start a new life.’ We then see a bearded youth, thin and half naked, scarcely French at all in appearance, at the edge of the water and in a forest, fully lit. Is this a reincarnation? One can imagine so. Is it a dream? The facts shown are not especially oneiric. In the playing out of this sequence, at the fifty minute mark, a dance scene takes us – with the continuity created by a new common language, old Spanish – into a sumptuous Grenada palace, populated by Arabs who strongly resemble those we have seen in the projected movie. The actors in the movie, the reincarnation, the dream and the reality are sometimes the same. But without this being explained, as in the type of film which switches between present and past (or dream, as is the case in Christian Jacque’s François 1er, The Woman in the Window and René Clair’s Les Belles de nuit). Just when we come to think that we are either in reincarnation or dream mode, we realise that we are inside the projected movie, since we suddenly see the lights of the projector and our hero, who looks into the theatre from the booth (as before), declares: ‘I didn’t need to watch the film anymore’ – although it has marked him sufficiently to be the sole source for his dreams. This part of the film is centred on the richness of exotic fantasy.
Certain significations are expressed directly by the voice-off. The principle is defined in the formula, ‘We lose our minds because all is two, except Allah who is one’ (the formula gets more complicated in the case of twins: ‘One becomes two and two become one’). This principle covers everything that exists: this explains the reincarnation of the hero as his contrary. Joined by his uncle, who sticks with him for the greater part of the film, he suddenly discovers that he himself is uncle to a nephew who emerges unexpectedly and who, moreover, is hardly any younger. The eye of the dead oxen corresponds to the eye of the woman. A brief shot of an immobile extra is followed – same framing, some costume – by a shot of his skeleton, then a shot of the narrator. As for the woman cut into pieces in the trunk, ‘each of her members from now on inhabits the body of my uncle’. When he throws the trunk in the water, nudging it away with an stick, it isn’t the woman’s moan he hears, but a masculine voice that can be attributed to the uncle – but also to himself, since the narrator was the first, in an earlier scene, to offer this characteristic complaint: ‘In my chest, three hearts beat.’ (This scene offers one of best sound inventions in a film that is very rich on the sonic level.) This game is extended infinitely in every scene of the film, reflecting the basic, theoretical hypothesis: ‘I walked all night, only to realise I had hardly moved.’
Such losses of identity have all the more force given that the central character and the narration of facts were so well defined at the film’s outset. The identity of a thing plus its contrary: this systematic mix-up also affects time, as the staggering final address testifies:
I understood that a single day had unfolded, and in the space of this day I had aged forty years. A day, or maybe a month and a day, it matters little – present, future, day, month, childhood, youth, old age ... All these are merely hollow words to me. My life, perhaps I should say our lives amount to a single, uniform season perpetually re-begun. In a single day, a single place, we can live all the days of our life – but we are condemned to re-live them endlessly.
Certainly, one can claim that this all amounts to a gratuitous aesthetic game. But this kind of game is extremely rare in the artistic domain, and rarer still within the context of cinematic expression. This exceptionality must be noted. And above all, the principle is pushed to its peak, since each moment of the film offers us a new, completely unexpected application – which no one could mistake for mere repetition.
Better still, what might appear a game is only a discreet, modest, polite way of clarifying the relationship of man to the world. For it is hard not to have ever felt this impression of identity-loss, of the vanity of definitions, during one’s life. If we had to summarise contemporary art, we could suggest that it offers man a way of seeing, and accepting, his own nothingness. Here, such an acceptance is worked via a two-pronged process: a maximum presentation of attractive, bizarre or shocking elements, as well as a maximum refutation of the veracity and depth of these elements. The emotion created by this refutation is even stronger than that created by the spectacle. Ruiz’s reductive effort hits a level which is difficult to imagine: after the making-marvellous that arises from the oriental fairy tale, valorised a contrario by a slow leave-taking or abandoning of the naturalistic and miserabilist elements, we are surprised by successive annulments, which leave us, by the end, faced with nothing, a nothing increasingly emphasised with each scene, a veritable mountain of Nothingness. I’ve now seen The Blind Owl seven times, and I know a little less about it with each viewing.
A madhouse, a joke, a trompe l’œil ... of course, but to the nth degree. It’s a film which doesn’t leave the spectator unscathed: it drives you crazy. Moreover, it constitutes a special challenge to critics. It is rather symptomatic that a work of this sort has no right to even a single mention in the press. I would have to confess that it’s the film which has given me the most difficulty in my entire time as a critic. This very text you are reading strikes me as an impossibility par excellence – thus giving me extra motivation to write it.
If I had to furnish a comparison, it would be with Duras’ Destroy, She Said or, better still, Rivette’s Celine and Julie Go Boating – a film about theatre as The Blind Owl is about cinema. The reference isn’t gratuitous, since Rivette’s film was co-written by another Latin American, Eduardo De Gregorio (Argentinean, not Chilean like Ruiz). The Blind Owl can be understood more easily if one has read Borges, Cortázar, Bioy Casares and a few others. The first person to have doubled a character across two actors is, moreover, a filmmaker in the Mexican mode, Buñuel in That Obscure Object of Desire – followed closely by Merry Go Round, another Rivette-De Gregorio collaboration: the crucial renewal of cinema in contemporary times has come from Latin America.
It may seem surprising that I place these references above those furnished by the film’s credits. The Blind Owl was originally a short novel written in 1936 by Sadegh Hedayat (1903-1950). (1) But, in truth, Ruiz draws relatively little from this source: the uncle who rises suddenly from who-knows-where, the permanent covering on the face, the skylight that is perceived, the lines concerning corpses, the animal carcasses at the butcher’s, the eye detached from a body; as well as the narrator’s sickness, the woman who suddenly dies in the hero’s bedroom, and the long transference of the body, the principle of struggle between the two rivals. Ruiz ignores the book’s basic premise: the narrator’s difficult relationship with his wife, who sleeps with everybody except him. And he adds everything concerning the projected movie and the picture theatre, which is not to be found in Hedayat.
Certainly, there is one external common point: the narrator’s vision, and the world he perceives, harbour a strangeness common to both novel and film. But the difference is major: Hedayat’s universe is marked by neurasthenia and, it would seem, schizophrenia (the author killed himself). We are not too far from Kafka or Tarkovsky – but at the other extreme from Celine and Julie. With death, the narrator sees above all the hope of nothingness, but dreads the chance ... of a second life. He dies, while Ruiz’s hero passes through all these tests like a zombie, quite indifferent to reality’s lack of meaning. Ruiz’s luxuriant aesthetic, and his comic touches, give the film an exuberant character absent from Hedayat – a man of implacable moroseness.
Hedayat, like Ruiz, situates himself in an Oriental context. But while the Iranian anchors this context in a miserable daily reality, for the Chilean the Oriental world is opposed to a daily French reality, and draws upon a traditional kind of exoticism, facile but seductive. There are as many differences here as between the Orients depicted by Naruse and Sternberg – whose taste for placing vegetation in the foreground reappears in Ruiz.
The very title is never justified in Ruiz’s film, except in its sheer formal beauty. In Hedayat, it is just barely explained: the narrator compares himself to an owl, and alludes to a hermetically blinded skylight. Ruiz seems above all to have wished to profit from the cover provided by the fact of adaptation: few people know of Hedayat, and it’s easy for them to automatically attribute all the weirdness of the film to this apparent ‘cult novel’. Moreover, the credits are ambiguous: shortly after the title comes this mention: ‘The Condemned, freely inspired by The Blind Owl, and by Condemned Through Lack of Faith by Tirso de Molina.’ This is the first time that credits have ever cited source material as far apart as a 1936 Iranian novel and a 1625 Spanish play! A cosmic will accrued by the recourse to five languages (French, Spanish, Arabic, German, Italian) – and even more than five languages, once the film’s unusual subtitling of unheard words begins. The whole thing, filmed by a Chilean, is a French film, or rather a regional film, since it was shot in Le Havre and produced by the local Maison de la culture – the kind of project that usually concerns itself with regional problems and gripes ...
The borrowings from Tirso are more punctual, and are situated in the film’s last third: they concern a perfect Catholic who has followed dogma in the purest way, and who is thus sure of going to heaven. However, this lack of humility means he will be refused entry, while a sinner who committed evil his whole life gains his ticket to Paradise because he repented at the last second ... What’s more interesting in Ruiz is not so much the representation in dialogue of this seesawing game, but rather the insertion of a purely Christian problematic into a specifically Arab and Muslim context – something debated by seventeenth century theologians. Imagine the strangeness of a Mauriac among the Ayatollahs ...
Once, I wanted to watch The Blind Owl on a Secam player, but only had a Pal cassette. So, no colour. A few seconds later, I realised that it was absolutely impossible to keep watching. I couldn’t see or follow anything! Previously, I had watched many colour films on my black and white set without too many problems. But I realised that, of all the films I know, The Blind Owl is truly the one for which colour reception is utterly indispensable.
I am certain that if Ruiz only made one film every two years, like everybody else, The Blind Owl would have been an event.
The Blind Owl offers a series of very diverse formal elements, superimposed without annulling each other – a true inverted pyramid – achieving an aesthetic apotheosis: it is at once an enormous joke and a cosmic, existential work on the human condition. We are not terribly far from Smiles of a Summer Night. And rarely has a film’s ending provided such a succession or simultaneity of contradictory elements – mixing the extremes of pessimism and joy – or a summit quite so bewitching and extravagant. This finale is part of what makes The Blind Owl French cinema’s most beautiful jewel of the past decade.