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Foreplays #16: Raúl Ruiz's "Le film à venir"

Watch and then deconstruct a 1997 film by Raúl Ruiz, who makes puzzle films of a very special kind: Their pieces never entirely fit.
Foreplays is a column that explores under-known short films by renowned directors. Raúl Ruiz's Le film à venir (1997) is free to watch below.
I.
At the start of Le film à venir or The Film to Come (Raúl Ruiz, 1997), the narrator informs us about the existence of a secret society, the Philokinettes, devoted to the promotion of a fragment of film lasting 23 seconds—a film also called Le film à venir. This film-within-the-film is not defined by its contents, but by the way it is shown and by the effects it produces. Projected in a loop, the film induces a state of deep hypnosis—and once you reach this state, the narrator informs us, “You can see.”
The film described is thus a spiritual instrument toward revelation, an object embedded in a larger ritualistic and performative practice. Ruiz begins his own film with four black and white views of a landscape—a field populated by transmission towers and electrical cables, a sky crossed by an airplane. Afterwards, we are given to see four more shots, this time in color—different perspectives from the urban area surrounding the Philokinettes's headquarters. These four shots will then be looped twice, at different speeds. During the first minute of his film, Ruiz performs—with a witty, mocking touch—the ritualistic repetition associated with the film adored by the Philokinettes.  
The idea doesn't stop there: it will be extended and transposed, via different means, to the core of Ruiz's Le film à venir. The actors' performances are based on a very limited set of repetitive gestures, facial tics, dancing steps, and ceremonial actions, executed mainly in trios or couples. The décors exhibit an accumulation of the same kinds of objects—clocks, plants, African sculptures and masks—carefully distributed in the space. The editing rhythms, the lighting patterns and the pervasive use of shadows also help create an atmosphere suitable to a conjuration. But Ruiz's ace up his sleeve is the sound design. Through sound, he and composer Jorge Arriagada create a veritable hypnotic effect mimicking that produced by (as the narrator says) "the abusive repetition of the revelatory fragment of film."  
Le film à venir is packed with snippets of familiar sounds that, nonetheless, become quite surreal: blowing and breathing, bells and cutlery, the creak of a door, the rustling of paper, the running of water, a mechanical toy voice, a rooster's cock-a-doodle-doo… These sounds, created autonomously without reference to the image track, are laid out in sequences—looped, recombined, extended or shortened—forming a musique concrète with incantatory effect. What we hear has no correspondence with what we see. In the few cases where there's a link between image and sound, our attention is directed towards their asynchrony: the steps we hear when two characters ascend the stairs become the ghostly echo of an absent sound.
Sometimes the same sound is used in order to suggest a relation between two moments that will later reveal their essential difference—such as the dramatic suspension created by the accelerated knock of a ping-pong ball during the two scenes of "reading." Arriagada's music is ever present: the film features no less than eight different musical themes (one of them performed in three distinct variations: organ, harpsichord, and a capella). But all we hear of these themes are small portions, brief fragments given no special treatment. The music is just one more sound playing alongside the others, a punctuation that inhabits larger loops while producing its own repetitions.
II.
Ramon Llull's 13th century ars combinatoria—a “thinking machine” system for generating statements from diverse ideas—is, according to Ruiz, his preferred method of building fictions. Ruiz’s films are often described as puzzles. These puzzles, however, are of a very special kind. They have pieces, but those pieces don't belong to a single totality; they never entirely fit. They have an ending, but not a solution or definitive closure. The puzzles are not guided by a fixed meaning that precedes them, one that is externally imposed, or has been scattered and awaits its reconstitution; rather, they play with combinations that produce sense—a sense that is always provisional, internal, and relational.
Ruiz loves setting up a mystery, and Le film à venir is a great example of how skillfully and speedily he can do that. He often dresses his films with the elements of a (more or less) traditional intrigue: ghostly settings, clues and riddles, strange deaths and wayward investigations, hidden enigmas and disguised identities. The spectator gets easily hooked onto these mysteries that invite us to apply our logical, deductive skills in order to decipher the paths, and find the master key that unlocks secrets. All this is part of Ruiz's game—his game of appearances—but it's not his final aim. Even in his theoretical texts (such as the Poetics of Cinema book series), Ruiz tends to proceed in this rhetorical mode of disguise: he presents a problem or situation; starts unfolding it via clear-cut dualities, divisions, or categories; and, just as we feel we are en route to some conclusion, he surprises us with a shift of perspective, a reversal of the terms, with new examples and additions that further complicate matters. With Ruiz, we feel we are always beginning anew—and never in the same way as before.
There's a full-blown Baroque tendency in Ruiz that functions at every level of his films: in the mise en scène certainly, but also on the narrative and semantic planes. He has a knack for stories: as many stories as possible, with their multiple encounters and clashes, possibilities and hypotheses, detours and interpretations … In his films, there's a never-ending inflation that opens up and pushes forward—a movement of uncontained expansion that conspires against the very idea of cohesion, overthrowing every instance of order, hierarchy, and centrality. This is as much evident in his long-duration, labyrinthine adaptations of huge literary works—Time Regained (1999), Mysteries of Lisbon (2010)—as in ultra-compressed fictions with a relatively brief running time, such as The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978). And even in a minimalist short like Le film à venir, whose concise narrative would hardly fill a couple of pages, Ruiz plays with every kind of technique—folding, nesting, inverting, swapping, repeating, recombining—in order to introduce disturbances into the linear story.
In her 2017 essay “Beyond Poetics: Raúl Ruiz's Rethinking of Narrative,” Julia Vassilieva explores the narrative strategies employed by the director in Mysteries of Lisbon. She writes, for example, about how events are embedded in stories, and these stories are embedded into other stories, with a corresponding relay of narrator—thus removing us, each time further, from the original event, and thus creating a sense of unreliability, especially emphasized by the omnipresent role of gossip. In Le film à venir, Ruiz uses some modest variations on the same strategies. Here, the narrator often refers to what the Philokinettes think, do, or believe. The narration is punctuated by clarificatory remarks ("the Philokinettes thought," "they called that," "that meant for them")—but this only accentuates our doubts about which words are quoted and which are interpreted. While written in the first person, the narration is performed by three different voices—thus undermining and disseminating the enunciator's identity. As we listen to one voice replacing another with perfect naturalness, we experience both confusion and an exhilarating bewilderment. Ruiz often uses these disorienting effects: at the end of City of Pirates (1983), for instance, the voices of mother and daughter are swapped, as if their identities were disintegrating and mixing as the film dissolves.
In Le film à venir, there's a constant play with very concrete spatial and temporal reference-points that either present flagrant contradictions, or become completely arbitrary—since we lack a trustworthy framework in which to judge them. At some point, for instance, it's said that the sect’s headquarters are situated on a fourth floor—but the room where the film is being projected is a windowless, subterranean cave. At another moment, the narrator tells us that he "resumed" the search for his daughter, but we never knew she had disappeared in the first place! In this sense, Ruiz operates like David Lynch, another director who likes to saturate his films with these kinds of specific references, while making a cinema that fully upsets every spatio-temporal coordinate.
We have a film-within-the-film, but also a book that is duplicated, read by two priests and featured in two different scenes. Once it unfolds before our eyes, we realize that this Double Book of the Dancing Mysteries is made with fragments from other books: it contains several kabbalistic illustrations—such as a Celestial Alphabet and a Tree of Life—and pages from Jean-Baptiste Lucotte du Tilliot's Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la fête des foux (1751). Du Tilliot’s book is a historical study of the Feasts of Fools celebrated in France, where social roles were inverted, normal citizens instituted as bishops, and ecclesiastical rituals subjected to sacrilege and parody. The inverted image of the 32 paths contained in the Tree of Life is the Tree of Death with its 23 paths—matching the number of seconds in the sacred film. A far-fetched connection? Maybe not. “Raúl is fanatical about equations,” Arriagada remarked in 2002. “What interests him is the shape, and to find these shapes, he is very much the mathematician.”
Inversion (a feature of Arriagada’s musical scores) is among the shape-shifting, ars combinatoria procedures that fascinate Ruiz. The idea of inversion permeates Le film à venir in different, inventive ways. Some shots (the narrator seen at one side or another of a glass window), and some sequences (the two readings of the book), are constructed as mirrored inversions of each other. During the film’s first minute, we pass from black and white to color, from rural to urban landscapes, and from the open-air shots of the sky to the images of a closed underground room. The whole narrative of Le film à venir, despite its apparent linearity, is put together through successive slippages of a pair of inverted terms, namely lost and found: these terms are displaced, moved around—making the story advance, but in a zigzag movement. First, a film is lost and found by the narrator's daughter; then, the daughter is lost and found by her father; finally, the father disappears inside the film that was lost at the very beginning.  
III.
"Cinema, like America, was discovered several times," writes Ruiz at the start of his essay "For a Shamanic Cinema" in Poetics of Cinema (Volume 1). Then he proceeds to sketch a brief list of the many forms taken by these prefigurations of cinema. Le film à venir continues this history by imagining a possible reincarnation for cinema—a future woven with cinema's own dreams. For the Philokinettes, cinema is “the primeval soup of a new life form from which would emerge creatures that are pure projections […] beings stripped of actuality, vast ensembles of loops out of which everyone would be given their own little eternal return." We are not far from Adolfo Bioy Casares's novel The Invention of Morel (1940), where a man takes a group of his friends to a deserted island in order to secretly photograph a week of their lives. With the apparatus he has invented, this week will be projected forever in a loop: "Here we will be eternally, even if we leave tomorrow, repeating consecutively the moments of this week. […] The future, left behind many times, will maintain its attributes forever."
The Philokinettes project their sacred film in the Room of Clocks—a room which is, indeed, saturated with clocks (all marking different hours, a few functioning, others frozen, some even lacking their hands); it's as if, confronted with the infinite duration of the looped film, time had collapsed. The narrator's death—a moment of total and joyous immobility—is preceded by a vibratory movement: the priests bump in their seats as if they were traveling in an old train, the shadows cast on the walls shake violently, we hear a sound resembling a magnetic tape passed forwards and backwards on a playback head. Then, at the same time as the narrator is swallowed by the film to come, he travels back to the first film he ever saw—and the images travel back with him, recovering the black and white shots from the beginning.
Le film à venir
These riddles and ambiguities concerning the nature of time and travel link Le film à venir with Chris Marker's La jetée (1962). Both films are experimental works, with a voice-over narration of rich literary qualities, having at their center a victim who has been lured into an experiment. Both explore the dynamic between stillness and movement: in his Diaries, Ruiz wrote that Le film à venir would be filmed "in the manner of a photo-roman" and, while he doesn't use still photographs as Marker did in La jetée (or as he himself did in Dogs’ Dialogue, 1977), Le film à venir renounces the complex camera movements that characterize Ruiz's more ambitious works, using mainly fixed shots. Moreover, both Le film à venir and La jetée envision an ending that strikes with the fatal force of a lightning bolt, tracing in one single gesture both the awaited revelation to a mystery, and its ultimate dissolution.  
When the narrator checks the Double Book of the Dancing Mysteries for the first time, he only encounters a conventional book whose falsehoods fuel the faith of the Philokinettes. The second time, however, reading becomes something else. The "vow of illiteracy" made by the priests and the "reading without reading" performed by the narrator equal the same thing: the sacred book becomes indistinguishable from the sacred film, the reader becomes a seer, and to finally see becomes to see no more.
In this sense, we can see a link with the poet Stéphane Mallarmé and his almost mystical concept of “The Book,” an imaginary or virtual object, explored by Maurice Blanchot in a 1959 work titled, precisely, The Book to Come. In Ruiz’s piece, the sacred film is materially absent, never shown to us; but it bleeds everywhere, filling every space. The sacred film is a bridge to another world, but also is that other world. The sacred film is eternal, unfolding in the present; but it is also traveling backwards, as well as being a film always to come. Le film à venir exists only insofar as it animates, and is animated by, these paradoxes concerning time, materiality, and finality.

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