It is both exhilarating and humbling to realise that Raúl Ruiz has been making films for more than forty years and that, in the scintillating diversity of his output, he has contributed to the cultural practices, tropes and codes that delineate our contemporaneity. The 1973 coup in Chili defined a new political horizon for an entire generation, but Ruiz’s intelligence, chutzpah and generosity prevented him from capitalising on the event and the sympathy it generated in its adopted country; he refused to play the role of the artist in exile. So when French and British cinephilia discovered him, it was through the Klossowski-inspired The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting rather than Los Tres Tristes Tigres. When the ‘70s and its often painful political-cultural legacy ended, the ‘80s became a grey zone begging to be defined.
For me the ‘80s crystallised (at least on the cinematic level) in four movies presented in 1985 at the 22nd New York Film Festival: Maurice Pialat’s A Nos Amours, Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger than Paradise, Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet’s Class Relations and Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor. With the hindsight of time, the sometimes terrible, sometimes playful relevance of these four films to their period becomes clearer. At a first level of analysis, and in spite of their stylistic differences, they all deal with impossible relationships – a sign of the ‘80s. Bodies missed each other; speeches competed and failed to communicate anything; misunderstandings kept occurring; love was impotent to express itself except through blank silences, sullen obsession or bouts of hysteria; and language itself was in crisis.
Seemingly the most seemingly traditional of these films, A Nos Amours, marked a turning point in Pialat’s œuvre. It also pointed to what was going to become an essential part of our cultural and social landscape: the gap, the alienation, the cruel relationships between the generation of adolescents and the generation of their parents, brought to a head today in Gus Van Sant’s Elephant. Stranger than Paradise was one of these precious films that came exactly at the right moment and the right time; people in their late twenties and early thirties, whether in Paris or Caracas, even if they were not artists, identified with it – marginalised, as they were, by capitalism’s latest turn. At first glance, Class Relations is a perfect example of the Straubs’ rigorous method of filmmaking: taking entire fragments of a text in its original language and without changing a word, confronting them with the space generated by the text. The difference is that Kafka, the author of Amerika (the book which is the basis of the film), never travelled to that country, so the film consists in juxtaposing the author¹s imagined spaces to American landscapes and cityscapes - most of which, in fact, were not shot in America. The relevance of Class Relations to the ‘80s lies in its desire to investigate the social space of America. There was a time, indeed, when some of us thought that the secret of our modernity lay there, but no longer – now we are overwhelmed by the brutal raw reality of the violence perpetrated by the American government.
Three Crowns of the Sailor stands in an ironic, undefined category of its own. The film elegantly plays with a bevy of traditional narrative structures – hence the pleasure and fascination it creates. Its apparent timelessness comes from its central trope: the immortal story, a self-generating fiction. This story reappears, with small variants, in different harbours all around the world throughout the centuries. Immortal stories seem to come out of nowhere (maybe the sea itself) and are repeated from sailor to sailor in dives, registration offices, brothels, and on the decks of their ships. The most famous immortal stories are those involving ghost ships, or the plight of an old man who pays a young sailor to make his wife pregnant. By the time immortal stories reach us, they are already palimpsests of multifarious artistic influences and references.
Ruiz’s father was a merchant marine captain, so Three Crowns is, from the outset, impregnated with the memories of Chilean sea legends. But Ruiz is also a reader of Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Cortazar’s and Borges’ labyrinthine fictions, Selma Lagerloff’s Nils Holgerson, the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the novels of Stevenson; he is privy to the immortal legend of The Flying Dutchman (in its pre- and post-Wagnerian versions); and a spectator of Orson Welles’ The Lady from Shanghai, Mr Arkadin and The Immortal Story. Welles in particular is an important reference, for the director of F for Fake turned the immortal story into a robust yet cynical discourse upon fallacy and mise en scène. For Ruiz, however, it becomes a quasi-metaphysical reflection on the nature of language, lie, and representation – and, with uncanny accuracy, on the nature of the sexual impasse and the role of the dead father as defined by Lacan. After the initial shock caused by Lacanian theories in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, the ‘80s became a time when Lacan almost become mainstream, his problematic occupying centre stage of our modernity. Three Crowns of the Sailor, moving sensuously and imaginatively toward the ‘moment of truth’ represented by the encounter with Mathilde (Lisa Lyon) and the ‘impossible’ female sex organ, articulates this moment when the crisis in narration became a crisis in language, itself a symptom of the implacable disorder and gap in the relationship between the sexes.
The ‘three crowns’ of the title are a mode of exchange between dead men. The sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard) borrows them from his captain – a ghost – to give them to his symbolic ‘father’ – a black longshoreman met in Africa, about whom he’ll tell us later, ‘He had been dead many years before our encounter’. The student (Philippe Delplanche) has the coins in his pocket through the entire duration of the film because he has murdered another father figure, his benefactor; and the final exchange between the student and the sailor will cause the brutal killing of the latter. The sailor will become (like the others on the ship) a living-dead, a corpse pretending to be alive.
Money, this reified signifier of death, is the only ‘real’ thing in the movie. The sailor enters a world where truth no longer has any currency. At one point, on the ship, the sailor sees a man jumping into the water; but the next day the same character is nonchalantly walking on the deck denying that anything had happened to him (‘It was the other...’). Later, the Funchaleuse, which had bravely resisted the worst tempests, sinks calmly on a fine day in full sight of the sailor, only to reappear in another harbour, under another name. The encounter between the sailor and the student, which gives birth to the fiction, is improbable since they are located in different parts of the world. Their meeting is the repetition of an earlier one, which had given birth to the sailor’s story: his encounter with a blind man who was telling so many lies that one could not even believe the contrary of what he said. To the desperate, out-of-work young sailor, he promises a job on the Funchaleuse and gives him money while telling him, ‘Never accept money from anybody’ – then takes it back and says, ‘Never give money to anybody without requiring something in exchange.’
The sailor’s encounter with the blind man is an encounter with the falsity of representation and the world of money. Money is the only item about which the characters of the story do not lie. The blind man’s warning was true: the sailor’s doom will be the result of his carelessness in accepting money, and giving it without exchange. For Lacan, money was ‘this signifier that abolishes all others’. Because money represents nothing, it cannot be lied about: it is pure form. The black longshoreman burns the banknotes given to him by the sailor (‘This is a lot of money, but what I need is three Danish crowns’), and then refuses to exchange these three crowns for another garrulous stream of stories, because ‘every moment of life would take years to explain.’
I am reminded of a text by avant-garde filmmaker Hollis Frampton, which investigates both the role of the father and the nature of filmic representation. A rich man, wanting to keep a record of the entire life of his baby daughter, hires several crews of cameramen to film her day and night. The heiress leads a very active life, and never has the time to watch any of the footage. So, when she dies, she orders that a baby be chosen to do nothing in his entire life but watch the movie. That is, mutatis mutandis, the situation the sailor finds himself in: because of the gap left by the silence of the father, he must star in a movie, and force someone (the student) to relive/witness it with him, to be the listener for his narration, with his lapses of memory, contradictions and possible lies.
Fiction is possible because of the ‘wandering of the son’. The sailor may try to eradicate his filiation through namelessness, but he is nevertheless a son – precisely in his desire to leave his family behind, which will prompt him to embark on any ship available. Yet he cannot really let go of his obsession for the family romance. During his trips around the world, he tries to rewrite it by creating an artificial family: a wife (the delicate, childish prostitute in the Valparaiso brothel, who works there to pay a debt contracted by her dead father), two brothers (the two Arabian thieves), a son (the Hong Kong professor kept in a state of perpetual childhood), a father (the impoverished longshoreman whose tribe had been elected by God but who has forgotten the name of that tribe), and even a substitute mother (one of the men of the Funchaleuse ‘rents’ his mother to those in need of affection, and the sailor refers to her as "my mother".) This new family is just as fake – or as real - as the original one. When the sailor comes back to his hometown, he finds his house deserted, and is told many conflicting stories about the fate of the people who used to inhabit it: one of these stories depicts him as a murderer, and all of them assert that his is dead. Is he really the young sailor that we saw leaving his mother and sister and promising to bring them back ‘two bicycles, a necklace, some coffee’ – or is he somebody else?
Puzzled by these constant shifts in meaning, the sailor looks for something real: nudity – absolute, total, integral nudity – and fancies he is going to find it in the person of Mathilde, a dancer who ‘has made nudity an art’, even though in her music hall act she is partially covered with black nylons and bikini. Mathilde undresses, and finally takes off the silver stars that cover her nipples. To his horror, the sailor discovers that Mathilde’s body is also a fiction – the pubic hair that covered her groin was a prothesis, there is nothing ‘underneath’, nothing hidden, her mouth is her only orifice. A simple interpretation may decipher this unexpected turn of events as the expression of masculine anxiety regarding the female genitals – oral sex, after all, is still possible and much less threatening, especially if you pay. Yet in Three Crowns, this moment of ‘non-truth’ has more complex resonances. Firstly, the living-dead sailors of the Funchaleuse never defecate, so we can assume they have only one orifice as well. Secondly, the visual art reference tantalisingly alluded to here is The Origins of the World, in which Courbet painted (in what we’d now call a close-up) a female vagina, while the body of the woman, naked with her legs spread, is only half-visible, with her head hidden, as if she had no identity. (Lacan once owned this painting.) It is as if, dead tired of being nothing but the half-baked products of fictions coined by a succession of fake fathers, the sailor looked towards the mother for a metaphor of his origins – and ended up being short-changed there as well. The sailor has no name – meaning his wandering somewhat protects him from the Law of the Father – yet the jouissance of the Mother’s body is prohibited to him as well. Like the Funchaleuse, he is anchored nowhere and going nowhere, hence is not really sure that he really exists.
Thirdly, at the level of the diegesis, once the first moment of horror passed, the discovery that Mathilde has only one orifice overwhelms the sailor with an ‘unspeakable’ sexual obsession. It is at this point that he ‘graduates’ from being a simple pawn in a fantastic tale whole rules have been forgotten long ago, to being a romantic hero. The sailor’s world is, indeed, one of fathomless illusions, but for all of us in the real world, total nudity is as unattainable as total truth – it is impossible for a body to fully grasp another body (Lacan: ‘One can enjoy only a part of the other’s body ... one is limited to a small embrace, to taking a forearm’). And, finally, this social-cultural-marketing artifact called female nudity is nothing but a construction.
The challenge – and the seduction – offered by Three Crowns of the Sailor is in no small way increased by the obvious pleasure Ruiz-the-director had in making the film. To suggest this constant, vertiginous shift in representation, he was very careful not to take more than one shot from the same angle. For Ruiz-the-son, or Ruiz-the-implicit-cultural-critic, the film takes on a more ominous meaning. It is always exhilarating to listen to or to tell stories, but the narratives that make up the backbone of Three Crowns are shadows, ghosts, illusions of stories, truncated fragments made of scraps of other stories, lingering in every harbour and every brothel to the point that nobody believes in them anymore. And finally, the point of origin and point of arrival of such stories is always the same – not the forbidden, tantalising, comforting body of the mother, but the death inflicted to or by the father. Like in Arabian Nights, these stories have been coined to ward off death, but not for long; they are the only possible discourse before death, but once there is nothing left to tell, the outcome is swift and unavoidable. And what generates them, in their tedious repetition – for they have already been told, written, painted and filmed countless times – is the constant burden of having to pay the debt of the father, whether he is dead, gone, lying or unconscious.
The final signifier that runs throughout the fiction, remaining potent in all the harbours and all the dives, which resists death and even gains greater currency from it, is money. And now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, this dimension seems prophetic. For we live in a world in which Borges, Welles, Courbet and Lacan have less importance than oil and money. In 1973, Allende was assassinated; in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Three Crowns of a Sailors emanated from a world defined by these two events, but it was also a harbinger of the world to come. A world where utopia, twice lost, keeps functioning as a provider of illusions no less fantastic than that experienced by the nameless sailor. A world about which Ruiz himself would write in Poetics of Cinema, developing ideas first sketched out at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Authorless and rootless, the immortal stories are what he called ‘stories for everyone’ which ‘don’t exist in any particular place: they are utopian. In order to manufacture such tales, we are inventing, manufacturing and experimenting with utopian images – placeless, rootless images’. (With uncanny prescience, Ruiz mentions ‘Professor Arnold Schwarzenegger’ as a provider/champion of this utopia. In California, 2003, the utopia became real – and also a nightmare.)
One version of this utopia mentioned by Ruiz involves ‘cabalistic players ... engage[d] in a massive exchange of coded text. The winner takes away more than he can consume. The loser hands over what he never had.’ Ruiz also referred to glorified ‘bank clerks’ enacting the diktats (or marché de dupes) of late capitalism. Strangely enough – but nothing should surprise us aboard the Funchaleuse – this is also an excellent description of Three Crowns of the Sailor.