August 25 2015
It has been four years since the Chilean director/mesmerist Raul Ruiz left this mortal coil, but it will take eternities to assess his work, comprising over one hundred features and shorts of labyrinthine, shape-shifting narratives. Of all of his oddball projects Shattered Image (1998) might be the oddest. It was his first film made with American producers, a dreamlike erotic thriller starring William Baldwin and Anne Parillaud (playing off her La Femme Nikita image). The production, which shot in Vancouver and Jamaica, was reportedly fraught, with Ruiz and DP Robby Muller clashing with the rest of the crew, who were used to the formula of TV movie productions. The resulting film is a curious mix of Ruiz-ian reverie and the gauzy softcore sleaze you’d find on late night Cinemax. Though not a movie with the same oneiric pull as Ruiz’s City of Pirates (1983), it remains stubbornly representative of his work, combining as it does the pulp narratives he loved as a child with the dream logic central to all of his films. As J. Hoberman wrote upon its opening in the prestige picture season of 1998 (against A Bug’s Life and the Psycho remake), “part of the movie’s pleasure is imagining an entire multiplex audience looking around at each other and wondering, “What the f**k?”
Shattered Image was a Seven Arts/Schroeder Hoffmann production, in association with Fireworks Entertainment. Thirteen producers are credited on the project, including director Barbet Schroeder. In short, it was a complicated project to get made, and there were a whole raft of interests that Ruiz had to satisfy. In an interview with Jonathan Rosenbaum Ruiz describes it as, “this American accident, Shattered Image, I fought to make, and I now have a film about what it means to make a film in America — why American movies are the way they are.” So, per the Jacques Rivette line, he considers the film a documentary of its own making, reflective of the limitations imposed on him by the lower reaches of the Hollywood production chain. In his book Poetics of Cinema Ruiz had described the Hollywood narrative system as premised on what he coined to be “central conflict theory”, in short, “someone wants something and someone else doesn’t want them to have it. From this point on […] all the elements of the story are arranged around this central conflict”. Ruiz was clearly frustrated by the experience, but if someone wanted to pick a Hollywood film of 1998 that represented central conflict theory, Shattered Image would be at the bottom of the list. It remains, miraculously, a Ruiz film through and through.
The script was written by Duane Poole, though I would have thought it a Ruiz pseudonym if not for Poole’s lengthy track record, including two other TV movies in 1998: I’ve Been Waiting For You and I Married a Monster. The dual narrative follows two Anne Parillauds, both named Jessie. The first is an ascetic assassin hired to kill the lightly tousled blackmailer Brian (William Baldwin), and she tries to fulfill her assignment despite her growing attraction to him. The second Jessie is on a honeymoon in Jamaica as Brian’s wife, though she soon suspects he is trying to kill her. The assassin dreams the story of the newlywed, and the newlywed dreams the story of the assassin. Both believe their life to be “real” and the other’s a figment of their unconscious. Ruiz leaves the truth opaque, instead preferring to run through a series of paranoid plots as if Jessie were simply at home flipping TV channels, projecting herself into every story on screen. She is an action star, a scream queen, a voracious lover, a chaste wife, a comatose depressive and a rape-revenge killer. As it ends up Jessie doesn’t even know what’s real or fake, she is as unknowable to herself as she is to us, just a ghost in a mirror grasping for a form she may never discover, caught in an endless narrative loop.
Anne Parrillaud is a sleek, mysterious presence, while Baldwin seems adrift, a cardboard cutout of sub-Keanu mumblings. His struggle, his failure to tap into the Ruiz-verse lends the film a direct-to-video stiffness, as if he was reading the script phonetically. He is most effective as a visual – and he is most often the subject of her gaze. The morning after Assassin Jessie sleeps with Brian, she gifts him with the kiss off: “You’re not the reason I couldn’t care less about you.” He is an absence that she continually cycles around, a void she is tempted to disappear into. His embrace for both Jessies means a different kind of death.
Though Ruiz was restrained by the limitations of his crew, there are still some Ruizian flourishes, including diopter shots and those constructed from impossible angles. Brian’s wife hires Assassin Jessie to kill Brian, and in this sequence Ruiz whips out the diopter, joining two shots into one to create the illusion of extreme focus shifts. In one shot-countershot, we see Jessie’s hand clutching a cigarette, with the wife in the background – then a cut to Jessie putting the cig in her mouth, with the wife’s lips seeming to yearn for that same cigarette on the right of the screen. These impossible perspectives seem to combine Jessie and the wife into one person – and Jessie will soon take on the role of vengeful spouse. Another Ruiz specialty is the impossible angle. In City of Pirates there is one from inside a man’s mouth – here it is less extravagant, but a shot from underneath a cup of tea peers up at Newlywed Jessie as if through an aquarium (the site of Assassin Jessie’s first tryst with Brian). Then there is the disorientingly surreal sequence where Newlywed Jessie wanders lost into the Jamaican woods and stumbles into an abandoned home overrun with crabs, ending up dangling of a cliff, like the moment in dream right before you wake up. Instead of wakefulness, she gets Brian helping her up off the precipice. But even with these flourishes, it is one of his more “traditional” looking features. Ruiz explained why to Rosenbaum:
The idea that I decided where to put the camera was new to them. The editor was the director, and not the cameraman. It seems to me most were coming from TV. Normally, the director does nothing, as the camera is placed by the cameraman, and the director looks when everything is ready, and then the actors are directed by the coach. There is no connection, and you are supposed to cover the scene. I was always arguing with the script girl, who said I didn’t cover the scene. And people would say where is the [covering shot, where is] the master shot? This was a film about dreams, and there were two dreams, so it was only mental images, and once you make an establishing shot you are disturbing the oneiric feeling. This is easy to understand. And they understood, of course, but they were still disturbed by the idea that there was no master shot or establishing shot. The idea that you had to convince people to do this and not that was new to me, and it was completely normal for an Anglo-Saxon mentality that you have to explain why you’re doing what you’re doing.
For Ruiz, all the explaining that needs doing is in the film itself. In watching Shattered Image, I didn’t glean any answers, but can feel its mysteries deepening around me as I type.