8.25/10 (Very Good)
If Jan Potocki’s fantastic 18th century novel A Manuscript Found in Saragossa — a frame story within a frame story within a frame story — was recited over the course of a wine filled evening by a drunken sailor the result might conjure something of the kaleidoscope of heavily tinted images, rambling narrative threads, outrageously inventive camera work, and bizarrely disjointed dialogue of Raoul Ruiz’s Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983).
Only a few of Raoul Ruiz’ hundred plus films (he’s still churning them out) are available in the US. I’m thankful that Three Crowns was chosen since it’s definitely a worthwhile but challenging cinematic experience. In addition, Raoul Ruiz — a Chilean director who went into exile in France in the 70s — combines the French New Wave’s drive for experimentation (think Last Year at Marienbad) with what I assume are South American legends about the ship of the dead. Ruiz manipulates and creates elaborate pastiches of the classic “exotic” ports-of-call tropes…
Raoul Ruiz’s films are often dismissed as empty pretensions — The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979) is a notorious example. His films are polarizing and often more interesting to talk about afterwards than to watch. However, unlike The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting which gets somewhat bogged down in strange academic conversations about esoteric topics that BOTH the audience AND the film’s narrator dismiss AS empty pretensions, Three Crowns is so visually inventive and unusually plotted that the viewer is (or, at least I was) drawn (inexplicably?) into its grasp.
The Plot (with limited spoilers)
A “plot” might not be the right word but I’ll give it a try. A sailor encounters a night traveler and decides that over the course of an alcohol filled evening to tell his story — a series of stories and stories within stories.
And the stories he tells about his vessel and its meandering voyages across the oceans from continent to continent are fantastic! Stories about a beautiful prostitute in a room filled with hanging dolls, about sailors whose bodies exude strange worms which metamorphosize into butterflies and kill birds with their poisons, about his mother hiding in the hold of the ship, about the captain murmuring/singing/muttering the Ode to Joy with every breath, about matching tattooed letters, about prison in Tangier and the obsessions which develop, about a murder (s), the quest for three Danish crowns, the passageway where the Freemasons once controlled the world beneath the fountain where Jesuits drown their sons…
Despite the delightfully fractured manner of the narrative there is eventually resolution — although, it is somewhat forced and abrupt. However, the pure off the wall qualities of the experience make this a rather unimportant flaw.
This is bound to be either hated or loved. The pure imaginative exuberance is to be marveled at. The technical mastery, the startling camera work, the strange tinted images, the unusual characters are all fascinating. One gets the feeling the “plot” is only there to reign in Ruiz’s more outrageous tendencies. One experiences the pure joy of storytelling when watching Three Crowns. I highly recommend this film to those who enjoy the esoteric fringes of the medium. This is a marvelously inventive experience….
Perhaps the stills speak for themselves…