Three Lives and Only One Death

Raúl Ruiz



Synopsis: Four or five Marcello Mastroianni’s have four or five unusual days.

Overall: Is it possible to appreciate a puzzle more for its individual pieces than for the picture it makes when you put it all back together? I’m sure there’s an overarching plot in Raúl Ruiz’s Three Lives and Only One Death. At least, you could probably decipher one if you meticulously combed through its two hour runtime of self-reflective whimsy. Unlike many films that revel in their own opacity, there’s an underlying rhythm and purpose at work here. But there’s never a specific eureka-moment where all of the mysteries are solved; no Keyser Söze flash of revelation. This is narrative as autostereogram, a gradual increase in clarity until we think, for just a second, that we comprehend the three-dimensional whole obscured by its two-dimensional parts. It reminds one of Ruiz’s earlier film The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978), a purported piece of reconstructive investigative reporting on possible conspiracies lurking within the paintings of an obscure 19th century French artist that deliberately creates more questions than it answers. To try and studiously follow Ruiz’s films is to miss the point: he uses the trappings of narrative to jolt how we see and comprehend the world around us. It’s not that there could be a conspiracy in the paintings—the investigation itself is a living synecdoche for how we alternatively allow the world to delude and reveal itself to us.

And now we return to Three Lives and Only One Death, a film first and foremost about identity that masks itself in the trappings of magical realism and Iñárritu-style hyperlink cinema. In his penultimate film, Mastroianni plays Matteo Strano, a happily married middle class man who—in a fabulist reinterpretation of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Wakefield—compulsively rents a Parisian apartment only to have 20 years of his life eaten away by fairies living in its walls.

But Mastroianni also plays George Vickers, an elderly Sorbonne professor who, after a quasi-mystical explosion of emotion while in a graveyard, abandons his life, becomes a beggar, and becomes friends with a prostitute named Tanya (Anna Galiena). But after learning that Tanya is really Maria Gabri-Colosso, the fabulously wealthy president of an electric company, he returns to his life as a professor only to abandon it once more to resume life as a beggar. Is this the first time this has happened? Or are we merely getting a glimpse of a man trapped in a cyclical identity crisis?

Elsewhere, Mastroianni plays the unnamed butler of a countryside mansion willed by its recently deceased owner to a foolish young Parisian couple named Cecile and Martin (Chiara Mastroianni, Melvil Poupaud), both of whom routinely engage in even more foolish trysts with their neighbors and employers. To Cecile and Martin’s frustration, the butler only responds to the sound of a small silver bell which sometimes goes missing. What’s more, after repeated bouts of hypersomnia, they begin suspecting him of drugging them. But why?

Finally, Mastroianni plays Luc Allamand, a well-to-do businessman disturbed by the unexpected appearance of an ex-wife, daughter, and sister he had invented in his imagination. Are these women real? Did he merely forget about them? Or did he literally create them with the power of his mind?

Even when Three Lives and Only One Death starts explaining the links between these seemingly unconnected stories, it’s difficult to shake of the feeling that Ruiz is pulling a fast one on us. Again, the answers to these mysteries seem unimportant in the face of Ruiz’s idiosyncratic storytelling panache, particularly his use of the camera. If Hitchcock’s camera made us feel like voyeurs, Pagnol’s like eavesdroppers, and DeMille’s like spectators, Ruiz’s camera treats us almost like captives being seized by the neck and led around a museum gallery. Look! Don’t think, just look and see!

And as with many of his films, Ruiz demonstrates an obsession with surfaces and mirrors, best demonstrated in a strange split-screen shot about thirty minutes into the runtime when Matteo returns to his old house after decades of internment. The left-hand side watches as Matteo walks from the foyer to the living room, pulls a chair from a table, sits down, and adjusts his tie. Meanwhile, the right-hand side focuses on a mirror reflecting…the exact same thing. There’s also a hyper-awareness of the camera frame as purveyor of images in itself, best demonstrated by the seemingly superfluous dutch angles, sweeping camera pans, and nearly cubist mise-en-scène that bedazzle even such blasé sequences as two men talking in a cafe.

For Ruiz, answers are static. But questions and mysteries are living, breathing things that color and beatify the world. Three Lives and Only One Death may be a puzzle. But don’t look too hard at the image at its center. You’ll miss all the beautiful pieces.

Rating: A

Featured Image: Rézo Films