Glorious. That is the word I would use to describe Les trois couronnes du matelot (Three Crowns of the Sailor, 1983), Raúl Ruiz’s French feature from 1983, both in aesthetic construction and its elusive-yet-familiar thematic and narrative content.

In light of the film’s distinct reflexivity, both in its use of the camera and constant references to storytelling – particularly the vague familiarity of a central old-as-the-hills tale, told through a quintessentially “modern” form – it was especially odd to “reacquaint” myself with Three Crowns of the Sailor. Like most people, I have seen but a small selection of Ruiz’s mind-boggling (in quantity and often content, if not always consistent “quality”) output, but long thought I had seen this one (I hadn’t). Watching it prior to writing this essay, the central narrative, distinct atmosphere, baroque visual style, and idiosyncratic philosophical tone were all strikingly familiar. However, upon viewing the film again a week or so later I came to realise that this sensation was not in fact due to my having already seen Three Crowns of the Sailor, or mistakenly recognising it in light of familiarity with other work by Ruiz, but a result of its own particular magic.

This is a film that falls into that paradoxical category of art in which the work itself appears as a perfect repository of a particular story and mode of telling it – a general “idea” that seems to have been around forever and yet is such a perfect expression of this misty “Ur-text” while remaining somehow elusively unique. All of this is very self-consciously suggested by the film itself, but it was especially odd and enlivening to have the effect play out “live” in the form of my own illusory or customised or “virtual” history with it.

The first image we see is of a large spirit glass half filled with a syrupy looking ochre-coloured drink next to a nib pen on a table, shot from above, before the camera follows a hand as it picks up the pen and begins to write in a large diary. A voiceover intones, “No use going into detail, let’s just say that. We weather a storm before arriving.” This is a perfect “setting sail” on a journey into a story culled from both an almost ahistorical time and the distinct imagination of Ruiz. Three Crowns of the Sailor, of course, will go into enormous “detail”, but mainly in the form of various “storms” in which the usual mechanisms of narrative used by both Hollywood and much mainstream “art cinema” will be turned on their head. This is not, however, a cold or even especially intellectual exercise. Rather, the film offers an often whimsical, at times dark, but also enormously funny and intriguing journey through time and space that encompasses everything from multiple literary references and confounding perceptual riddles to almost exploitation-style sequences and images (particularly the brothel and “exotic dancer” sequences plus, in a different way, the image showing worms being extracted from holes covering a shipmate’s body, which the sailor sees as a possible explanation as to why the other crew never defecate).

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. A young student in what may be Central or Eastern Europe (as suggested by the general mise en scéne of these early scenes, plus a reference to catching the train to Warsaw) meets a sailor on a misty street, shot in an opaque black-and-white where neither man’s face is properly in focus. The sailor offers the student, whom he somehow knows is surely on the run after having just committed a murder, a place on his ship sailing the following day. The only price is three Danish crowns and for the younger man to listen to his story. They then retire to a depthless restaurant bar, shot with extensive mirrors and ornate circus-like ceiling lights that dominate the background of low-angle shots showing the two men in not especially convivial conversation.

Shortly after the sailor commences his tale, the student announces: “Your story is interesting. But it’s been told before.” At a later point, after the sailor is saved from bandits by a rich boy, the latter, impressed with his new friend’s exotic narrative, adds, “All that you’ve told me is there”, while pointing to old leather-bound books in his father’s well stocked library, including many by Robert Louis Stevenson: “Those writers have already written your story. They spent their lives writing it.” Professing to prefer life to books, the boy concludes: “I want to live it. Take me with you.” But the ship sails without him. Meanwhile, on board the sailor narrates how he and the other crew spend their long hours: “To pass the time, we told stories”. Ruiz gives us a palpable sense of a fantastical story being both concurrently told and lived, privileging neither life nor storytelling. Yet we are never allowed to believe in either of them as such. Storytelling is something to pass the time, no matter how elaborate and remarkably rendered in images and words.

Finally, after a long evening and the duration of the film (which covers more than ten years), the onscreen listener announces his dissatisfaction with what the sailor has told him. The student complains that although unoriginal, the sailor’s tale was also “really beautiful. But the worms oozing out…. That was disgusting!”. But the sailor defends his story and authorship, retorting: “That was poetry! Pure poetry!” The student seems even more incensed, shouting, “That’s disgusting!”, before smashing the storyteller in the head as they stagger along the docks at what looks like dawn. The tale might be familiar but it has odd twists, “details” and “storms”, and the audience may or may not be pleased with its telling. (Although entranced by the film overall, I recoiled less from the worms than from a sequence in which the sailor has a rather arch conversation with a young prostitute who calls herself the Virgin Mary in a room filled with slightly demonic looking dolls whose eyes glow as they float in the air above the bed.)

The framing conversations between the storyteller and listener are also important for foregrounding another key theme of the film, perhaps less obviously enunciated – that of belief. The sailor announces that his story concerns “the hereafter”, at which the student interjects assertively, “I think I should tell you I’m an atheist”. The sailor laughs a laugh that suggests disdain for the too sure or too educated “modern man”. He insists: “I think it’s a good story for you”. Perhaps the easiest way to understand what we see in the flashbacks or the tale-spinning that dominate most of the film’s running time is that this story concerns a “ship of the dead” – a conceit that clearly a modern mind such as the student’s will find hard or impossible to swallow, yet the certainties of which are prodded repeatedly. Whether the sailor himself is dead is also a distinct possibility in this fantastical world. This would explain the deeply illogical nature of the experiences he has on the ship itself and in the various ports he visits, including that of his home city of Valparaíso. But Ruiz is a tricky customer. Here, as so often elsewhere in his work, scepticism and unbelief are mixed with outlandish supernatural suggestion and metaphysics into one impossible-to-unravel ball. This is a world where anything can happen, but there is always the very strong possibility that it is actually a lie, a fabrication that nonetheless becomes “true” through the spinning of a tale.

Three Crowns of the Sailor’s mediation on the bonded relationship between belief and unbelief, truth and lies, is framed very clearly in an early scene set in Valparaíso before our protagonist boards the “ghost ship” for the first time. We are yet again introduced to a character remarkably familiar from the annals of baroque and fantastical cinema, but especially literature. As we see a shifty-looking figure mooching around the streets, the voiceover announces: “One man couldn’t stop himself from lying. Nothing he said was true. Nothing about him fit what one could call normal.” However, a crucial qualification is added: “Moreover, none of his anomalies were what one could call eccentric”. This character frames Ruiz’s palimpsestic presentation of belief and unbelief, truth and lies, but also suggests something very special about his cinema. Many directors have tried, with varying success, to present a “crazy” world to us on screen, a fantastical realm in which the normal laws of perception or logic don’t apply. With Ruiz at his best, such a world in fact seems absolutely normal and not at all eccentric for the duration of the film itself.

So, does this story suggest any kind of “real” historical reality? It is often said that the director’s French-language films overall do not, with some exceptions, seek to work through his anguish as a Chilean exile from Pinochet’s dictatorship – that Ruiz fully integrated himself within French cinema and culture (and then elsewhere in Europe to procure diverse finding sources). However, even if bound up in the thick opacity I have described, Three Crowns of the Sailor offers some rich material pertaining to Chile’s then still-recent tragedy in which Salvador Allende’s democratically elected socialist government was overthrown in a US-backed coup on 11 September 1973 (sometimes called “the first September 11” in Latin America today). The sailor says at one point: “We sailed for several months. I couldn’t get along with the crew. They called me the other.” This alone wouldn’t amount to much beyond a darkly humorous turn of phrase. But while it is clear the protagonist comes from Valparaíso – a port city in Chile that was both Allende’s birthplace and where Pinochet’s military coup began – and is presumably therefore Chilean, the rest of the ship’s crew are of indeterminate origin. Much is made of the sailor leaving home, with his family throwing a middle-of-the-night neighbourhood party. Later he refers to the desire to see his mother.

On another occasion we are told: “And we sailed throughout the world. Sometimes I seemed to be lying in another body. Until I finally woke up in the body of an other.” The notion of a man out of his element is treated in a fragmentary fashion, yet offers more palpable historical resonance. When he gets back to Valparaíso a decade or more after his departure, we see that everything has changed, the sailor’s former home now a boarded up labyrinth. “A drama must have taken place here”, we are told by a strange, Dandyish travelling salesman, with the house slated for demolition. “You must forget the horrors of the past”, he adds. After the military coup, and in light of what happened to protagonists and supporters of Chile’s bold experiment in socialist democracy after the brief Allende period, as well as countless ordinary citizens who were locked up for years and tortured or killed, or those who were lucky enough to get out (like Ruiz), a sequence like this is impossible not to read as suggestive of specific and tragic loss rather than a more familiar, generic lament for the idea that you “can’t go home again”.

Ruiz also thematises the émigré experience through the film’s very wry take on language. Three Crowns of the Sailor is almost entirely spoken in French no matter what region of the world the ship travels through. When the sailor attempts to speak to a woman in Singapore (where we do hear snippets of Chinese) he is told in English, “I don’t understand Spanish”. Nevertheless, while coming from Chile, such a figure would almost certainly speak Spanish but only converses in French (the language of Ruiz’s exilic home and the majority funder of his films) throughout the film – even in Valparaíso, where Spanish is only heard in the singing of songs at  the sailor’s farewell party. Listening to the young boy in the library, the sailor says, “It’s good to hear some Spanish”, despite the fact that both the conversation and his own preceding “interior” voiceover have been in French. More than a wry comment on the familiar – and usually irritating in the extreme – habit of films (most obviously from Hollywood, but historically other national industries as well) presenting different cultures speaking in “our” language, such moments also riff on the idea of hearing one’s language as a kind of fantastical illusion, suggesting a sense of home, culture and history now impossible to access in ‘reality’.

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, who also lensed L’année dernière à Marienbad (Last Year in Marienbad, Alain Resnais, 1961), as well as other of the more visually ambitious nouvelle vague films. 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.

The black-and-white sequences, mainly the framing story, look fantastical and mythic enough, but the film reaches its most striking and characteristic moments with the majority colour scenes, which often feature slightly washed out pink and orange hues (with some visible colour mixing done in post-production, including within single shots) that perfectly utilise 16mm stock. If shot on 35mm, Three Crowns of the Sailor would have looked “better” in terms of “quality” as defined by clarity. But the film would no longer have the visual patina and odour of something long told and now returning to us, dusted-off and rearranged. 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.

Finally, Three Crowns of the Sailor offers in large doses what might be called the “Ruiz philosophy”. Unlike many filmmakers who deal with overtly philosophical concepts, this director’s philosophy (at times like that of Resnais), at least in terms of dialogue, often comes in the form of jokes. Offering the sailor a cigarette back on the ship, one of the ship’s crew quickly exclaims: “Not that one! The middle one, the others are contaminated. Everything around is always contaminated. Pity the world’s made up of things around. So everything is contaminated.” While such an exchange would perhaps have an air of moral anguish or even religious despair if appearing in a film by another director, here it is both funny and also a comment on inevitable impurity – perhaps including that of political positions for the émigré easily drawn to a nostalgia for home and an idealistic vision thereof (in this case the Allende dream) – and the absurd theological nature of such delineations.

Again suggestive of the émigré experience but also offering an expanded philosophical take on such notions, the sailor seems to pull together a new global home or family in lieu of that which he has lost. He adopts a “son” in Singapore (an old doctor in the body of a small child), becomes a kind of benefactor (to the “Virgin Mary” prostitute), and gains a “father” in Dakar. A kind of philosopher-priest, this latter figure explains to the sailor the difficulty of telling his own story, concluding with a nice take on the pleasures of the film itself, its very special and unique rendering of a vaguely familiar tale: “To explain one minute of my life, I’d need a whole day. To explain my whole life, I’d need a number if years. Curiously, this infinite number of years would be totally found in this single instant of my life that we will share.” However, in case we get too sentimental, metaphysical, or take this philosophical cinema too much to heart as pure whimsy or willful human communion, he adds a crucial qualification: “Our presence here is gratuitous. Like most of the things in life.”

Les trois couronnes du matelot/Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983 France 117 mins)

Prod Co: Institut National de l’Audiovisuel (INA)/Films A2 Prod: Maya Feuiette, Jean Lefaux, José Luis Vasconcelos Dir: Raúl Ruiz Scr: Emilio Del Solar, François Ede, Raúl Ruiz Phot: Sacha Vierny Ed: Valeria Sarmiento, Jacqueline Simoni-Adamus, Pascale Sueur, Janine Verneau Mus: Jorge Arriagada

Cast: Jean-Barnard Guillard, Philippe Deplanche, Nadège Clair, Lisa Lyon, Jean Badin, Claude Derepp