That Raúl Ruíz describes his new film as his most theoretical might seem a bit daunting. He’s made over 100 movies in 30 years and they’re all pretty theoretical, from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979), to Time Regained (1999). Plus, the new one’s a four and half-hour nineteenth-century drama.
The theoretical aspect keeps heritage stuffiness at bay, however. Ruíz has been attached to Harvard and lectured at various other Universities, and much of his singular teaching has recently been collected in “Poétique du cinema”. He has explicitly presented Mysteries of Lisbon as an alternative to the Bordwell Paradigm of straight-arrow narrative, although his simplistic demarcations may be a little tongue in cheek (Ruíz expounds in the New York Times; Bordwell responds with polite bemusement on his blog). There are intricacies to be hashed out by the academically-minded, but the most immediate result is that Ruíz’s new film is an explosion of narratives weaving and nesting in and out of one another.
The first narrator of several presents himself as an orphan child Joao, and the story cleaves to his immediate situation – begun on a sickbed – as a secret, titled mother pops up; his gruff priest father-surrogate turns out to have been a soldier and a gypsy; a scar-face Brazilian freebooter and a Parisian seductress are mixed in; flashbacks grow out of flashbacks and names and identities fluctuate as the whirl of character relationships becomes increasingly head-scratching.
All of this is presented in exquisite period style, with perfect production design that hides its budgetry restraints, and long, long takes through gorgeous sets and locations: the camera (and occasionally even people!) glides and cranes so smoothly as to be frequently invisible. Ruíz fully creates a world here, but there is a tension between the lived experience of environment and his constant attention to theatricality. Like the narratives, these elements feed into one another, as servants peer through windows; the camera peers through frames and masks (and at one point, through a delightfully mobile crack in a chamber curtain); and guns and sometimes even gazes are leveled directly at the viewer. Joao sets the whole thing in motion with a toy theatre, to which we return from time to time, and these intermissions serve to break the lull of the film’s languid rhythm in the same way as the uncanny use of a split-diopter and other suddenly striking shots.
The stylistic quirks fit perfectly with that rhythm, however, because the film reveals itself to be – just like his Klimt (2006) – no more than a deathbed fever dream. The child never grows up, even if he imagines a youthful suicide, and then an alternate, lovelorn growing-up. The febrile get-out actually robs Ruíz’s narrative strategy of its most potent force: the chaos of the universe as opposed to that of an individual mind. Chinese-box tales from the Thousand and One Nights to The Manuscript Found at Saragossa are gripping and infinite because their potentiality seems limitlessly expansive. Ruíz’s bag of stories looks ever inward, reluctantly adding new characters, and the confusion of information becomes that oppressive, Wuthering Heights sort of brain-deadening, wherein one’s interest in who was who’s lover/brother/love-child or whatever becomes rather eroded by repetition. Ruíz has also been explicit in his fondness for the soap operas on which he worked in his youth and freely admits their relevance. The problem is that the self-generating narrative of soap opera is almost by definition a law of diminishing returns: the mechanical nature of the reconfiguring of a limited set of characters and relationships is supposed to be invisible, and attempts to expand and extend are typically limited – new characters are a big deal in soap opera.
None of which is to suggest that the film doesn’t succeed on its own terms. It’s just that those terms seem predestined to deliver rather dry rewards. There is little to be excited about here, and as impressive an achievement as Mysteries of Lisbon is – let it not be forgotten that Ruíz is now over ninety and that it looked like a dud kidney would carry him off before he’d finish shooting – it lacks the sense of pleasure in story-telling that would seem to be essential to these sorts of never-ending narratives: they never catch fire or excite in the way that, say, the multiple tales of Mario Llinás’ Historias Extraordinarias (2008) grip one from the very start of its four hours. But Ruíz is a masterful film-maker, of an elegantly old-fashioned Romanesque style, with an exquisite eye for the period and a powerfully seductive camera all combining to weave a certain kind of hypnotic spell.