A signature film by the ever-eccentric Raul Ruiz (1941-2011), who was
here adapting Sadegh
Hedayat’s Iranian classic THE BLIND OWL. This being Ruiz,
however, you can be sure the film is anything but a straight adaptation.
Having been crossed with Tirso de Molina’s 1624 Spanish drama “Damned
for Despair,” it’s wildly overcomplicated and confusing, both of which,
it seems, were integral to Ruiz’s intent.
A Chilean exile who settled in France, Raul Ruiz made
quite a few playful and bizarre films, including THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE
STOLEN PAINTING, THE TERRITORY and
DARK AT NOON, all turned out at an
astonishingly rapid clip. THE BLIND OWL (LA CAHOUETTE AVEUGLE; 1987)
hails from Ruiz’s mid-period, and is very much of a piece with his other
films of the time. It’s similar in many respects to Ruiz’s LIFE IS A
DREAM (also from 1987), which like this film was freely adapted from a
literary classic and situated largely in and around a movie theater.
As for Sadegh Hedayat’s 1937 BLIND OWL, it’s a classic
of schizophrenia, with a confounding double narrative (as for Molina’s
“Damned for Despair,” it’s barely touched on in this film). Hedayat’s
novel was previously adapted by Iranian director Kiumara Derambakhsh in
the 1975 film BOOF-E KOOR.
Paris, 1955: A man arrives at a movie theater showing
Arabic movies, having been hired to work as a projectionist. The man
makes a point of not watching any of the movies he projects, until one
day he finds himself transfixed by a dancing woman on the screen.
The following night the man is lured by a mysterious
boy to a venue where a strange puppet show is put on just for him.
Returning to the theater he meets a middle-eastern man claiming to be
his “uncle,” who beats him senseless and spits repeatedly in his face.
It would seem that the protagonist is entering into the
movie he’s screening, as among other oddities he finds himself
interacting with the dancing woman he saw on the screen, and in a very
Arabic milieu far removed from that of his “real” life. Suspecting that
the woman is cheating on him, he kills and dismembers her, and places
her body parts in a crate--only to find her corpse replaced with that of
his so-called uncle, who’s very much alive. The latter helps his alleged
nephew dispose of the crate in a river, but the two are flummoxed when
the woman’s body parts are seen floating down the rapids.
Around this point the man awakens in his bed,
suggesting that the preceding was all a dream…and a second (or third?)
narrative strand commences, involving a bearded Arab man in search of
long-lost relatives. He’s led through an enchanted landscape to a palace
where a seductive woman dances--which, it turns out, is the part of the
movie that was so avidly viewed by the projectionist in the early
Switching back to the projectionist’s reality, we find
him being seduced by a woman who happens to be the identical twin(!) of
the dancer on the screen. The twin demands the projectionist fight a
duel in her honor, while back in the movie-within-the-movie the bearded
man gradually loses his mind until eventually he chops up the object of
his lust, placing her body parts in a crate…
Sadegh Hedayat’s BLIND OWL, with its schizophrenic
narrative and varying realities, would seem like ideal material for the
ever-mercurial Raul Ruiz. Interestingly but not surprisingly, adapting
the novel by itself wasn’t enough for Ruiz, who gleefully piles on all
manner of added complications, including the South American movie
theater wraparound, the insanely complicated movie-within-a-movie setup
and the secondary narrative featuring the middle eastern man. All three
realities are quite porous and frequently intersect one another, making
it impossible to discern what is supposed to be “real” and what isn’t.
As if all that weren’t enough, there are frequent and explicit
references to Dante’s INFERNO, Wilde’s SALOME and the Bible to contend
with, as well as the 1973 Chilean coup that forced Ruiz into exile.
The film moves fast (which only adds to the confusion)
and is blessed with bold multi-hued cinematography (although it seems
the surviving prints of this 20-plus year old film have lost much of
their original luster). There are many impressively visualized moments,
as well as some mildly gruesome ones (severed body parts are a
constant), with an overall style that playfully emulates the melodrama
of traditional horror and mystery filmmaking.
Obviously this film isn’t for everybody. One online
critic dubbed it “French cinema’s most beautiful jewel” of the 1980s,
yet also conceded that the film “drives you crazy.” Not every viewer
will find THE BLIND OWL’S relentlessly self-referential nature (in which
every scene calls attention in some way to its own artificiality) too
edifying, but for those willing to stick with it the film is an
undeniably fascinating mind-twister.
THE BLIND OWL
La Sept/Light Night/Maison de la Culture du Havre
Director: Raul Ruiz
Screenplay: Benoit Peters, Raul Ruiz
(Based on THE BLIND OWL by Sadegh Hedayat)
Cinematography: Patrice Cologne
Editing: Valeria Sarmiento, Rudolfo Wedeles
Cast: Francois Berthet, Jean-Marie Boeglin, Ilma De Witte, Jessica
Forde, Jean-Bernard Guillard, Alain Halle-Halle, Jean-Francois Lapalus,