Tuesday, October 26, 2021

266. The late Chilean maestro Raoul Ruiz’ film in French “Les trois couronnes du matelot” (Three Crowns of the Sailor) (1983) (France/Portugal/Chile): An absorbing non-linear, surreal screenplay with stunning cinematography and loads of remarks that will make you ruminate




“You always need a living sailor on a ship full of the dead. That was me.” (Final spoken lines of the film)

“Never forget that memories, imagination and understanding must be used for an honest and productive life.”

--Two separate statements of the sailor, narrating the stories, reflecting Ruiz’ own life of self-imposed exile, moving from one country to the other, making extraordinary films

If there are two Raoul (Raul) Ruiz films that are extraordinary, these would be Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and Mysteries of Lisbon (2010). Both have absorbing, non-linear screenplays with stunning cinematography. Yet, the two films are different in one significant aspect: the former is based on Ruiz’ own original tale while the latter is based on a novel of Camilo Castelo Branco. Both films have lead characters mirroring Ruiz’ departure from and memories of his land of birth and incorporate biographical elements.

The sailor (Guillard, left) who narrates the tales,
asks the student (Deplanche, right) for 3 Danish Crowns
 and his attention to his tales for passage on his ship

The sailor narrates and Ruiz leads the viewer not merely
into the tales but also the narrator's views on death and life

Three Crowns of the Sailor takes a leaf from the Chilean folklore of a ghost ship. The sailors die and reappear, as the film unspools. Ruiz himself was the son of a ship captain. The only likely real individual in the film is a Polish student (Philippe Deplanche) of theology who kills his tutor. We learn from the opening statement of the student that his victim had also taught him the art of “polishing diamonds” and leaves his future killer-student a long letter to leave the country, as though the tutor knew the events in advance. We also get to know that the murder took place in July 1958 from the soliloquy of the killer. When Ruiz incorporates a date, there is a purpose. This writer did some checking. In July 1958, the Polish state police broke into the Institute of the Lady of Czestochowa located in a monastery in Poland and took way all the books, mimeographed texts, correspondence and texts (ref: www.jstor/stable/25777621). Did the killing of the theological tutor and the student picking up the letter, a ring offered by the tutor to the student several times, and some currency notes mirror those historical events? It is quite possible.

The fleeing murderer/student meets a sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard) who asks him for 3 Danish crowns (currency) and a promise to listen to his tale in exchange for a place on his ship called the “Funchalense” that will take him away from Poland. The ship, the student boards, is rusty but travels to Valparaiso, the main sea-port in Chile (not surprising!). There, as per the narration of the sailor, he looks for his family in his house which is boarded up by planks (suggestion to the actions of military junta regime that ousted President Allende, which in turn led to Ruiz’ self-exile, not stated explicitly in the film). His neighbors do not seem recognize him.

The main tale is a juxtaposition of several tales narrated by the sailor of unusual, bizarre persons he has met at every port of the ship’s journey—Singapore, Buenaventura (Colombia), Tangier (Morocco), Dakar (Senegal), and Tampico (Mexico). For example, there is a shy gum-chewing prostitute, who has a coffin kept in her room full of dolls and marks each customer’s encounter by depositing the chewed gum on the coffin. Then, in Singapore, there is a small boy who the sailor adopts as his son, because the boy is exceptionally intelligent and has already read all the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson.  He is boy who looks like a kid and does not grow old if he does not eat. He does not require light to read books because “he is the light” in the words of the Vice Consul of Singapore. Elsewhere, the sailor meets up with a beautiful singer who has only one orifice—her mouth (a suggestive symbol of scenarios in nations that are autocratic and singers sing only praises). In Dakar, he meets an African doctor who knows the Bible by heart, lives in poverty, philosophically claiming to discuss each minute of his life that would extend to days, and asks the sailor for three Danish Crowns if he is inclined to listen to him. This is the same proposition made by the sailor to the Polish student and the fee required to be paid for recounting the story.

The sailor in an angelic prostitute's room full of
dolls and a white coffin (white is often related
to the sinless dead, especially children).
Note the camera placement.

In Singapore, the sailor is introduced to a well-read
doctor who looks like a child
and can read books without light

Berenice Reynaude’s essay in “Fuse” (February/March 1985) and in “Rouge” (www.rouge.com.au/2/crowns/html) points out the several literary cinematic connections within the narrative—from Coleridge to Borges to Cortezar to Hans Christian Andersen to Selma Lagerloff. Raoul Ruiz could do that with considerable felicity rarely associated with any other director/writer worldwide. Ruiz’ ability to do this in Three Crowns of the Sailor (and in all his other films) would not be easily perceived by viewers unless they themselves are equally well-read and acquainted with works of great writers of different continents and languages to appreciate the full mastery of Ruiz’ craft. For instance, a character is reading the novel The Sea Rose by Paul Vialer, an obscure novel that was made into a French film called La maison sous la mer in 1947. Each Ruiz film is a crossword puzzle (in this film, the Vice Consul of Singapore informs the sailor that his Consulate was attacked by crossword fanatics!)  asking to be solved with clues that include love, money, religion, politics, sailors, perceived insanity, history, art (both paintings and cinematic visual perspectives), music, philosophy and literature thrown in. Three Crowns of the Sailor is no exception in this regard.

While knowledge of literature helped Ruiz carve out a niche among directors, he is also one who opted for surrealism in most of his films. In Three Crowns of the Sailor, Ruiz scripted a ghost tale where all the sailors of the ship, except for the narrator, did not defecate and had worms surfacing from their abscesses on their bodies. He has sailors committing suicide only to resurface alive next day attributing the suicide to someone else. A key spoken line in the film is “Art is barbarous.” Ruiz used surrealism to encourage the viewer to re-evaluate reality.

Surrealism vs reality

Ruiz and cinematographer Sacha Vierny:
The words spoken are neither by the person holding
the food nor the persons immediately behind the beer glass.
They are spoken by the sailor (Guillard)
at the extreme end of the room, also in focus. 

In Three Crowns of the Sailor, Ruiz is helped by the cinematographer Sacha Vierny (a regular for directors Peter Greenaway and Alain Resnais and for Bunuel’s Belle de Jour) to produce the unusual visual perspectives that bear the stamp of Ruiz in most of his films—an aspect that reached perfection in Ruiz’ Mysteries of Lisbon (decades later). The unusual camera angles and the switches from color to black-and-white and back might unnerve the regular filmgoer—but Ruiz does it with a purpose, to nudge the viewer to appreciate the unwritten script suggesting a reality that can be perceived if you distance yourself from the obvious and take in the wider world of the “political exile,” the “stranger,” the “thinker,” the “symbolic sailor striding from one geography to another,” etc.

If there is another filmmaker to match Ruiz in knowledge and surreal filmmaking it is Orson Welles (in particular, Welles’ films The Immortal Story--based on Isaak Denisen’s novel complete with a sailor as a key character as in Three Crowns of the Sailor—and F for Fake on paintings and visual tricks). Ruiz and Welles were an evolved set of directors who have few equivalent peers and have yet to be appreciated sufficiently by a broad swath of the film-going public.

Finally, another quote from the film Three Crowns of the Sailor encapsulates the film for reflection “Our presence here is gratuitous, like most things in life.” The final sequence of the film is appropriately presented in black and white as in the early segment where the sailor asks the student “Do you believe in the hereafter?” and gets the reply “I am an atheist.”

The sailor tells the student: "If all the jerks
 spread their wings, we will never see the sun"
in the final sequence

P.S.  Three Crowns of the Sailor was bestowed the rare “Perspectives du cinema“ award even though it was not a participant in any of the official sections of the 1983 Cannes film festival. The author has reviewed the following films of Ruiz on this blog earlier: Mysteries of Lisbon (2010); Klimt (2006) and That Day (2006). Orson Welles' F for Fake was also reviewed earlier on this blog. Three Crowns of the Sailor has been included among the author’s Best 100 Films which already included Mysteries of Lisbon. (Click on the names of the films in this postscript to access the author's review)