Treasure Island (1985, Raoul Ruiz)

Ruiz made a series of films in the mid-1980’s involving sailors, pirates, children, islands, treasure and magic. There’s an explicit Treasure Island reference in Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), and in between the similarly-themed City of Pirates and Manuel on the Island of Wonders, he made the movie Treasure Island, and wrote a book called In Search of Treasure Island.

As I learned from The Golden Boat, I’m not a big fan of Ruiz’s English-language films (actually Klimt was good). Treasure Island is full of fascinating work, especially when the plot comes together at the end, but while watching all I can think of are the language problems. Most actors (not Martin Landau or Anna Karina) are badly dubbed. Dialogue is imperfectly translated and conveyed, and performance styles are inconsisent – I tried to overlook it, but it’s too clunky to ignore. Little things make me think Ruiz wasn’t at the dubbing sessions (paella is pronounced “pai-YELL-ah”). And it’s cool that Jean-Pierre Leaud was cast, but distracting to hear him speak with no trace of French accent.

Ruiz’s Treasure Island isn’t an adaptation of the novel… not exactly, anyway. After a while it starts to follow the story when young Jonathan’s father dies while his seaside home is being visited by Landau (who asks to be called The Captain), then after Jonathan runs off he’s picked up by a sailing shoe salesman named Silver.

Some mutinies and mercenaries later, it comes out that this is an annual reenactment LARP, performed with a different Jim Hawkins every time. Captain Silver is the professor who invented the game, an “expert on game theory” (maybe not coincidence: when Silver gave his real name I wrote it as Omar Amiralay, which is also the name of a Syrian filmmaker who was active at the time). Jim/Jonathan sees through the ruse when he realizes during a gun battle that the fighting is fake, so he goes off alone, commandeering the ship with only Israel Hands (who soon dies) aboard. I start to lose track of the characters as the roles shift (The Dead Father returns as the ship’s doctor, for instance) – shades of the re-enactment identity-blending of The Territory. Even the narrator, who we assumed all along to be Jim/Jonathan, is revealed to be another character, who kills J/J offscreen at the end.

Jim and Helen:

Martin Landau, who dies, comes back to life, declares Jim is his son during an earthquake, and jumps out a window:

It’s fun to analyze the movie afterwards, to go through the screen shots and read reviews – maybe a less painfully-dubbed version exists in another country and will come out someday (argh, a restored print played Paris last month – the poor dubbing remains, and the movie has lost 15 minutes). Anna Karina is very good as J/J’s mom, anyway.

Karina and Helen:

Don’t think I got all the characters straight. Multiple possible captains – besides Landau we’ve got Silver (Vic Tayback of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore), the French Captain (Yves Afonso, who appeared with Karina and Leaud in Made In USA), and Mr. Mendoza (Pedro Armendariz Jr. of Walker in a Yankees hat). Mendoza is obsessed with a different ship-mutiny novel, Benito Cereno by Herman Melville. There’s the doctor / Dead Father (Lou Castel, Bruno Ganz’s driver in The American Friend) and J/J’s aunt Helen (singer Sheila). Crabb (Michel Ferber) imprisons J/J, Ben Gunn shoots diamonds from a slingshot. That leaves Israel Hands (Jean-Francois Stévenin, the immortal Max in Le Pont du Nord), Squire Tim Moretti (Jeffrey Kime, the doomed Jim in The Territory), and back on shore before the adventure began, Leaud as a writer (and possibly the narrator), and the creepy Blind Man (Charles Schmitt). Jim/Jonathan himself is regular Ruiz star Melvil Poupaud, returning from City of Pirates.

The island scenes (second half of the movie) were filmed on the coast of Senegal, where Katy is now.

Back on land, The Blind Man with Karina:

Played in Cannes in 1991 alongside Yumeji, Boyz n the Hood, Hearts of Darkness, and three African films. Rumor is that Chris Marker assisted Ruiz in some way. A four-hour cut was planned, but I don’t think it was completed (nobody claims to have seen it).

Ruiz in conversation with J. Rosenbaum:

Treasure Island was a complete misunderstanding, because the money was there at the beginning and then suddenly the money was gone [not there anymore]. So I had to reduce the budget, and do it like a kind of B movie. This movie starts very strangely, with a good atmosphere, and then suddenly we are in a typical TV serial, because it was shot in continuity, so you can see the point at which the money starts to vanish.

From Michael Goddard’s book:

As [the film’s introductory] television transmission is interrupted by a power cut, we are informed that its tale of a coup d’etat, diamonds and treachery continued in Jim’s head. In other words while we may be aware that stories originate elsewhere and come to us from the outside it is we who continue them as they take possession of our imaginations; so before even introducing any of the elements of Treasure Island, the key theme of possession by prior stories that make up not only Ruiz’s film but in a more implicit way the original novel itself is already established.

As in the cartographic game in Zig-Zag this is a game played in real spaces with real lives and deaths but it is no less fictional than the novel on which it is based, while the latter is increasingly read not as fiction but rather as an instruction manual for how to operate successfully in the Treasure Island game.

JW McCormack:

For one thing, the pirates don’t look much like pirates, more like guerillas, revolutionaries. Jim’s friends the Doctor and the Squire appear without much fanfare. Other characters, like participatory academic Aunt Helen, are without an analogue in the book. The Oedipal strains of the Disney version have gone haywire, as everybody claims to be Jim’s father and nobody seems terribly concerned with treasure. But as Jim says — or, rather, as Jean-Pierre Léaud says, since we learn three quarters of the way through that he has literally run away with the script and has been telling the story from Jim’s point of view — “I didn’t see why we couldn’t just carry on without the treasure. It was an adventure anyway.”

But alas, no reconstruction is perfect: in perhaps the funniest joke in the movie, Silver, disappointed that the action has fallen so far from the book, echoes the sentiments of any reader who has ever been outraged by a movie straying from its source: he fires a machine gun into the air while shouting “It was not written! It was not written!”

Ruiz interviewed by D. Ehrenstein:

When I reread Treasure Island recently I discovered that the structure was stronger than the material. The way Stevenson tells the story is so remarkable that it could be about anything – pirates, kidnappers, whatever. We are surrounded by stories that are like houses we can enter. We play amidst these stories, sometimes being involved in two or three of them at once. In one you’re the hero, in another you’re a secondary character. These scripts are the society in which we live – if you want to be a sociologist. It’s a notion I feel more and more. This has been expressed in many ways – by Stevenson, by Orson Welles, Borges, and many others – this notion that certain stories have the structure of dreams. For those stories it’s as if the cinema had already been invented.

Manuel on the Island of Wonders (1985, Raoul Ruiz)

“What do you want to be when you grow up?”
“A tourist.”

I was planning to watch this anyway, but not as a memorial screening. Low-quality copy of this three-episode miniseries. You can see through the dubbed videotape murk and the MPEG blocks that much of the lighting and composition is probably wonderful (and the music score too good to be consigned to a lost TV-movie) – hope there will be an official release some day. This shows no compromise to the commercial requirements of television, just as twisty as the great City of Pirates, and similarly featuring featuring ships, pirate ghosts, islands, children, plot paradoxes and murder.

Part 1: Manoel’s Destinies

A narrator sets up the time-travel theme right away.
“I’m called ‘long ago.’ This story took place in the past, but I’m sure it will happen again soon. That’s why I chose to tell it to you in the present.”

Seven-year-old Manoel is on his way to school the morning after his family’s jewelry was stolen in the night, when he hears whispered voices, sidetracks into a courtyard and meets himself, six years older. Older Manoel says six years ago he was on his way to school, sidetracked into the courtyard and met a fisherman in a cave, went boating with him, came home and his life changed. His parents’ hopes in their son were shattered, his mother died, and he went off to work after dropping out of school. But he sidetracked into a courtyard, met the fisherman again, and boated backwards through time, retrieved his family’s jewels from the sea, and met his seven-year-old self.

So, young Manoel continues to school, follows the advice of older Manoel, becomes an extreme overachiever, and a few years later his father dies. So he visits the fisherman, goes back and yells at his young self. “This time he chooses caution: he must ignore the fisherman’s call, but he mustn’t succeed at school.” At the end of the day, his parents are fine, but the townspeople find a dead boy on the beach: older Manoel.

Part 2: The Picnic of Dreams

More tense-twisting from the narrator, and Manoel’s class is on a field trip, literally to a field, where the teacher wants them to attempt to fall asleep and dream a hospital, which might become real. This doesn’t work, and Manoel walks through the dream forest and meets a large man who talks to trees.

The giant takes a coin from Manoel, and with it they swap bodies. Now Manoel in the man’s body must reclaim the coin, breaks into his own house at night and grabs it from his piggybank. A more straightforward story than the other parts.

Part 3: The Little Chess Champion

After his mother dies (guess he failed to save her through time-travel) Manoel is sent to live with his aunt, who lives with her son and two nephews in a museum. “The staff had moved out because of ghosts.”

Manoel plays violent games with the servant’s sons Pedro and Paulo, and visits the funhouse on Elephant Island with his cousins and a mysterious sea captain – but that may have been a dream. He meets seven-year-old Marylina, a genetically-engineered super-child who’s now the world chess champion and has a fiancee named Rock who has exchanged brains with a famed pianist.

There’s levitation, shadow plays, and my favorite visual effect, a bit of perspective-play with a hand coming through a keyhole. The captain takes Pedro into the shadow world, so Manoel visits the chess girl for help. But she and her fiancee have been discovering secret codes hidden in the structures of things. My favorite: “The Eiffel Tower is an iron code that translates French body odor into perfume.” The Captain comes and steals more children into his shadow world. It’s a completely insane episode.

The Captain and his demise:

“Now after all these years, when I remember my childhood, I think these things were just my imagination.”

This has played in different forms (a four-episode version, a theatrical film) in different places, including at Cannes. The acting credits are listed without character names, but someone figured out that Teresa Madruga (of Joao Monteiro’s Silvestre) plays Manoel’s mother. Fernando Heitor and Diogo Doria (an Oliveira regular, also in Love Torn in Dream) may play his father and teacher. The rest is a mystery to me.

F. Daly:

Writing or filming for children can sometimes bring a person straight to the source of their art. Having to perceptibly adapt their style confronts them with what must be included. Manoel leaves us with the essential Ruiz, the audio-visual companion to his extraordinary book Poetics of Cinema. Its dizzying narrative fold-over-fold methodology creates a labyrinthine temporal structure.

Also watched a TV episode called Exiles from 1988, which provides a nice career summary, focusing on Ruiz’s relationship with Chile and identity as an exile within his film stories.

The Great Man:

And something called Screen Pioneers (episode 3) from 1985 – an eccentric biography program, purporting to be from the future (like Time Trumpet) looking back on our present, and on this semi-unknown character named Raoul Ruiz. Written by Michael Powell expert Ian Christie – I’ve listened to some of his Criterion audio commentaries.
It’s only ten minutes long, plays like an extended intro to…

Return of a Library Lover (1983)

A first-person travel essay about Ruiz’s first return to Chile in ten years. Everything seems the same as when he left (it’s first-person narrated), except he notices a single pink book is missing from his shelf, a book he decides holds “the key to what happened on that night of Pinochet’s coup.” He interviews friends (including a “renowned library constructor”), and checks the bars. He talks to a bookseller. “I deduced that he couldn’t speak Spanish anymore and constantly had to check his own subtitles and translate them laboriously back.” What started out as a personal slideshow has turned into a full-fledged Ruiz movie. The book is discovered at the end, by contemporary Chilean poet Juan Uribe Echevarria.

My favorite line, a casual, matter-of-fact note on subjective memory: “Apart from having shrunk a little, the house was still intact.”

“From the Mayans I’ve inherited the knack of changing my childhood
just as one changes one’s native country.”

City of Pirates (1984, Raoul Ruiz)

Easily my favorite Ruiz feature to date. At first it seems to have cranked up the surrealistic randomness of The Golden Boat, but with the constant visual interest of the short Le Film a Venir – which would be enough of a recommendation for me. But it just gets deeper and more fascinating as it goes on, while retaining enough of a plot and character structure to keep from becoming pure, confusing symbolism. Even if it turns out to be a huge allegory that I completely misunderstood, it’s still highly enjoyable on its own, full of meaning and ideas. Before I go seeking out others’ interpretations, a simple story rundown:

Stills from the remarkable first ten minutes:

The film’s subtitle looks like Latin, “Rusticatio Civitatis Piratarum,” translated as Pirates’ Exile. Set in “Overseas Territories, one week before the end of the war.”

Isodore (Anne Alvaro of Wajda’s Danton) lives with her parents in exile, who have a missing son (“he would be nine”). They see signs, abandon the house, are visited by cops who make reference to the Isle of Pirates. The girl finds an orphan boy (Melvil Poupaud, who became a Ruiz regular, most recently as the rescued colonel Lacroze in Mysteries of Lisbon) hiding at their new house.

Isidore considers drowning in the surf (her father: “Finally!” then when she falls for a mustache man and decides against suicide, “Ah! How I hate her!”). Pierre, the little boy, is discovered to have killed his whole family, now kills Isidore’s parents, then castrates the mustache man who shoots himself. All of this is done in a low-key way, with nobody getting too upset. Ruiz characters are never shaken when their families are killed.

Off to the Isle of Pirates, where her 10-year-old fiancee Pierre (aka Malo) abandons Isidore and she’s held prisoner by a guy named Toby (Hugues Quester, Binoche’s dead husband in Blue, also in Rohmer’s Tale of Springtime) with multiple personalities. “The defeat of Spain is inevitable… and with that, the feast of blood begins.” Isidore begins to doubt her identity, kills Toby with a knife (everyone is killed with a knife).

She’s visited in jail by her mother (not dead?) and the two cops from earlier. “Know this: this wonderful child who delivered you to the Isle of Pirates is our prophet, Don Sebastian. He’s known around the world. In England, he’s called Peter Pan … He reappears every ten years. He kills with joy his entire family. He shows us how to die. But, much more importantly, he shows us how to kill.”

“We, soldiers of the great battle of the world: we swear to die and to kill in order to introduce the army of corpses for the greater glory of our country, our cemetery. We swear to be reincarnated and to have the honor of dying again for the greater glory of our fathers, of the country of worms. We promise to pursue our struggle for the triumph of Death in order to perpetuate our glory in no other things.”

Isidore is back on the island talking to Toby, referring to Sebastian as their son. Sebastian, looking feral with a knife in his mouth, kills them both. Ends with Isidore and her mother looking at the Isle through their window, the ghosts of her father and Sebastian lurking around. “Everything begins again,” one of the women repeating “We are here… we are here.”

P. Hammond wrote an article for Rouge, hammers out a bunch of the film’s references, influences and allusions.

Surprise, invention, paradox are Ruiz’s touchstones. He believes in affirmation through irony, the clarity of enigma, deferred resolution, outlandish change of mood. He moves forward by staying in the same place. The tales his characters tell echo each other in certain details, enough to suggest an occult order behind discrete events.

What binds Ruiz’s lost souls to each other’s desire is an Oedipal, narcissistic quest for identity.

D. Cairns writing about a different film:

Keats spoke of “negative capability,” the power to enjoy things without understanding them, to relish mystery without requiring a solution, and to appreciate art without being able to fit it into a rational box. Although, there’s always a frustration with movies where one is shut out of the linguistic side, since you know you’re not getting the full experience. It’s like pan-and-scan, only with words.

I’ve found the cover image for one of his Poetics of Cinema books.

Noroît (1976, Jacques Rivette)

“No more plundering until further notice”

I wish I knew how this movie’s title was pronounced, because every time I think of it, Fred Schneider sings “here comes a narwhal!” in my head. It’s gonna be “narr-WHAA” until some Frenchman tells me otherwise. One site translates it as “Nor’wester.”

Morag’s brother is killed, she seeks revenge on pirate queen Giulia, infiltrates the castle with help of traitorous Erika. Gradually all of Giulia’s associates are killed off, then G & M stab each other to death, the end.

Giulia (left) and Morag having stabbed each other to death:

So on that level, I “understand” the movie… but I wouldn’t say I understand the movie. At least at the end of Duelle, when Marie banishes Frederique and Pauline (or whatever their names were) I had a sense that the story Meant Something. But comprehension aside, the playfulness and spontaneity and magic were enough to make it a pretty great movie. Plus there’s that something that Rivette does that makes his scenes fascinating to me and makes me want to watch all his films… whatever that thing is, this movie had plenty of it.

Morag and Erika have meetings in which they sit or walk robotically and recite lines in English from the play The Revengers Tragedy. So maybe reading that would help somewhat. Then again, D. Ehrenstein says “Analysis begins to run into a series of dead ends. The texts utilized as central sources of quotation… Tourneur’s The Revenger’s Tragedy in Noroit — are merely pre-texts, having nothing to “say” about the films that enclose them, posed in the narrative as subjects for further research.”

As in Duelle, whenever there’s music in a scene the musicians are part of that scene, even when they realistically would’ve left the room. Maybe right before the shot begins Giulia has threatened their lives and told them to play, no matter what. They seem to be watching the action, but not enthusiastically.


There are long, long times with no spoken dialogue. Lighting is can be dim indoors, mostly looks natural. It was Rivette’s first film shot by William Lubtchansky, who would shoot most of the rest of his career films (not Wuthering Heights). He is husband to Nicole L., who has edited everything since 1969 (incl. Out 1).

The magic is toned way down from Duelle. Morag seems to have no powers, is just a kickass fighter (the very few times she fights, or moves quickly, or changes expression). Giulia can electrocute people with her jewelry, and causes one of the treasure-greedy male fighters to explode towards the end. There is a play-with-the-play performance where the girls happily re-enact their murder of the blonde woman whose name I didn’t catch, because it wouldn’t be Rivette without some kind of meta-performance aspect. There are gas lamps and castles and swordfights and magic, all very period, but then there is lots of cool, modern (clearly 70’s) clothing and guns and motorboats.

The men of the castle:

Our lead, Morag with the murdered brother who seeks revenge, is Geraldine Chaplin, then of Cría cuervos, The Three Musketeers and Nashville, later of Love on the Ground, a couple by Resnais, and Talk To Her.

Giulia, leader of the pirates, is Bernadette Lafont, Sarah in Out 1, also in Le Beau Serge, A Gorgeous Bird Like Me, The Mother and the Whore and Geneologies of a Crime.

The traitorous Erika is Kika Markham of Truffaut’s Two English Girls and Dennis Potter’s Blade on the Feather.

Morag contemplates stabbing Giulia early on:

There’s a long piece of writing on Noroit by Mary Wiles called Sounding Out The Operatic, but of course I can’t find it.

Rivette: “When I was filming Noroît, I was persuaded that we were making a huge commercial success, that it was an adventure film that would have great appeal … When the film didn’t come out, when it was considered un-showable … I was surprised. I don’t consider myself … unfortunately, I’m not very lucid when it comes to the potential success of my projects.”

Ehrenstein points out interesting things about Noroît and Duelle: the conflicting acting approaches (Chaplin is stylized, Lafont is flip and cool), the strong position of women in the narrative, and that the setting of the castle by the sea “suggests the possibility of an atmosphere the mise en scene never seems directly to create.”

J. Reichert: “As with all good revenge dramas (this one inspired by bloody Jacobean plays), the mass of killings begin to far outweigh the initial wrong done and the angel of vengeance experiences moments of doubts and sympathy for her marks—there’s betrayal as well. Rivette shorthands these narratively rich moments, suggesting them in a glance, a line, a change of Chaplin’s face, so that he can maintain focus on the ballet-like movement of his players through space, where stowing recently acquired treasure takes on the aspect of slow-motion acrobatics. The drama climaxes in a clifftop masquerade ball/murder spree/dance performance shot across what looks like infrared, B&W, and color, that combines violence and poetry into a mix that’s literally unlike anything I’ve seen.”

cover shot:

A giddy Morag laughs in the face of the dying blonde woman:

Erika (?) performs for the crew:

Death comes too soon for Giulia:

dance party: