It’s hard to say exactly what happens in this movie, but with its focus on sailors and murders, identity, riches and secret tasks with time limits, and the now-familiar (but still exciting) camera moves and framing tricks, bizarre storytelling and wordplay, it fits in well with City of Pirates and Manuel on the Island of Wonders.
Takes place on a single night (7/25/58, the day Thurston Moore was born) with flashbacks. A student kills his mentor, then meets a sailor on the street who offers the student a job on his ship in exchange for three Danish crowns. They sit in a mirrored lounge lit up like a carnival as the sailor tells his story.
Student and sailor:
In Valparaiso a compulsive liar called The Blindman offers people jobs on a ship that had already left town. The sailor finds the ship anyway and gets hired on, says farewell to his family (cameo by Diogo Doria of Non and Inquietude as his sister’s fiancee). He soon discovers that it’s a ship of the dead, but the movie doesn’t linger on this fact, as you normally would, just shows off certain details, like how his shipmates can suicide into the ocean then show up onboard the next day as if nothing had happened.
A murdered liar:
The sailor has no name – his mates call him The Other. At different ports he meets a prostitute, a French consul who tends to a brilliant underage doctor, a couple of thieves, a stripper, a man in Dakar (Mostefa Djadjam, director of Borders). These become his family, and when he wins big at cards, he buys a bar and sends for them all. Most are fine, but “the kid from Tampico had drowned. The black had died 10 years before we met.”
“She appeared in every glass I emptied”
“Those writers have already written your story. They spent their lives writing it,” a boy tells him, with a cutaway to RL Stevenson’s Treasure Island.
The sailor still needs the three crowns to settle a debt, which he gets from the student, who then beats him to death on the pier, apologizing all the way (“please excuse my slightly unusual reaction”). One or both of them ends up on the ship. “You always need a living sailor on a ship full of dead. That was me.”
imdb says” Based on the southern Chilean island of Chiloé’s myth of “Caleuche”, or The Ship of the Dead.
The sailor is Jean-Bernard Guillard of at least three more Ruiz movies. Shot by his Stolen Painting cinematographer Sacha Vierny, who also shot Resnais’s early films and would spend the next decade or so with Greenaway. 25 years later, Ruiz made another ghost-ship story called Litoral – there’s not much about it online.
Coincidentally, H. Ford just wrote an extensive article for Senses of Cinema:
By foregrounding narrative and the spinning of tales throughout, highlighted by the entertaining and wryly humourous voiceover in particular, Ruiz creates a story characterised by a lack of causal logic and that features the confounding of rational explanations, frequent absurdity and repetition.
When it comes to visual language, this film shows Ruiz at his zenith. And this despite – or because of – a very small budget, with the extensive visual effects apparently improvised using “found” materials (such as shooting through drinking and eye glasses) by the director and his magician-like cinematographer, Sacha Vierny… Nearly every shot in Three Crowns of the Sailor is a remarkable and often virtuosic construction that is somehow entirely familiar and right, all of a piece rather than eccentric or weird. The images masterfully utilise both soft or out-of-focus and frequent Citizen Kane-style deep focus shots in which objects in the foreground of the frame are treated with equal clarity as characters conversing much further back. The overall result is an increasingly delirious aesthetic brew that seems like it is the only possible choice for visualising this story and world.
Adding to its aesthetic interest is that no single shot appears to be repeated. As so often when clearly invested in a project, Ruiz makes you realise how visually uninventive most other directors’ work is.