8/10 (Very Good — read the friendly warnings before you embark….)
We enter, from the street, a sprawling house occupied by a single long-winded art collector of dubious authority and his proliferation of mannequins and silent helpers who recreate the paintings of an invented 19th century French painter by the name of Tonnerre as tableaux vivants. Tonnerre is no genius — instead, his paintings are of drastically different styles and subjects and are said to have caused a scandal (the exact cause and nature of which is up to debate). The art collector/critic, instead of showing the canvases, beckons us to peer out of a window into the house garden.
A strange scene greats us — the enraptured viewer. The tableaux vivant mingles with the overgrown bushes and surrounds an artificial pond created by crumbled plastic. The collector explains at length in a serious/academic manner his theories — eventually, the mirror in the Greek inspired tableaux vivant shines a ray of light across the garden to a window, into a room, where the next painting recreation awaits — two men playing chess interrupted by a crusader.
Paintings are linked. The audience is stunned by this illogical connection. Not only are the paintings themselves linked but arrangements have been arrayed around the house reflecting these outrageously preposterous connections. The narrator behind the camera obligingly follows. Another linkage is made between paintings. If only the one painting hadn’t been stolen — it would have solved all the riddles. Another linkage is made — equally absurd. We move from room to room….
The tableaux vivant participants often make no ostensible effort to be still but even blink forcefully enough to convulse the face. The collector wanders around his recreations and a conspiracy is hatched — the paintings are all connected by occult imagery — an elaborate plot — an androgynous wigged demon hanging from the ceiling — the templars — mirrors in the shape of crescents — gestures, gestures, gestures. The collector himself hints at his own doubts (perhaps) and we slowly weave back through the house — the tableaux vivants have proliferated, crowding us, casting their shadows across the walls, emerging from sheets of light, crouched around tables, repeating the same gestures, in new arrangements, again, and again — we exit, exasperated, onto the street.
Raoul Ruiz, an exiled Chilean director living in France, became known to the film world for The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. The film was originally meant to be a documentary about a philosopher. Ruiz maintains the feel and delivery of a documentary — and thus, moves into the territory of the esteemed Argentine writer, Borges (I’ve heard this thrown around a lot with this film but I think the comparison is apt).
Ruis differs in a key area with Borges (who I feel is rarely ironic and takes himself seriously ). While Borges’ short stories/fictional essays are serious, Ruiz’s film “essay”– whose painters and paintings have all been invented — is deeply ironic and based on bizarre leaps of incomprehensible logic. We are entering a world of artifice. The collector has constructed a fantastical world of the occult from these disconnected paintings that the viewer and the even the second narrator knows cannot possibly exist. We are not supposed to be drawn into a potential or reasonable story — instead, we are drawn into the world this bumbling art collector has entirely (possibly) misconstrued from the shaky evidence.
And it is this exercise that I find so fascinating. And in turn, it is this exercise that will put off many many many viewers. The black-and-white photography is by the esteemed French cinematographer Sacha Vierny who draws heavily from his previous work on Resnais’ masterpiece Last Year at Marienbad (1961) and Hiroshima mon Amour (he would eventually team up with Peter Greenaway on Prospero’s Books and The Cook, The Thief, His Wife & Her Lover, A Zed & Two Noughts, among others).
Ruiz’s film is for those who love Borges, Greenaway’s early films (The Falls, Vertical Features Remake), art theory, and various other forms of experimental film — this really feels like an extended essay with accompanying scenes. An absolutely fascinating experiment….