The first popular movie freaks in history were the post-World War I French Surrealists, who, taking note of the resemblances between dreams and films, located their entryway into the unconscious not in calculatedly artistic movies but in the unplanned disjunctures and uncanny moments of denigrated-by-intellectuals genres: chase comedies, serials, low-budget horror pictures. Later in America, Joseph Cornell created a brilliant found-footage dreamfilm, Rose Hobart (1936), by ingeniously reediting a mumbo-jumbo piece of Hollywood tropical exotica, East of Borneo. In France, the Surrealist Georges Franju made Judex (1963, a masterly retelling of Feuillade's 1917 serial, which had been embraced by Aragon and Breton, about a pre-Batman master of disguise.
Shattered Image is a dandy, playful movie loyal to the tradition above, of finding enchantment, and the disquieting door into nightmares, through the retelling of a familiar genre story. Raul Ruiz, the Paris-based, Chilean filmmaker (Three Lives and Only One Death, Genealogies of a Crime), has attached his special brand of Surrealism to a gothic thriller tale about a traumatized young woman, Jessie (Anne Parillaud). She keeps waking up as either as a paranoid wife on a Carribean honeymoon with a perhaps-untrustworthy husband (William Baldwin) or as a hired assassin on a mission-to-kill in Seattle. Which is the real Jessie? Which identity is the dream?
The "found object" for Ruiz is the cliche-riddled genre script by Duane Poole, a someone with a history of anonymous television production. When Ruiz was offered this generic screenplay, he saw it as as a launching pad for his Surrealist amusements. Rather than trying to bury Poole's hackneyed writing, Ruiz plays the risible dialogue on the money, and he has his actors say their lines - Parillaud painfully, Baldwin affably - as if they've never been uttered in umpteen earlier movies.
Here's what Ruiz serves up: a Carribean honeymoon hot-sauced with voodooish islanders and with the archetypal shifty-eyed spouse (William Baldwin) of myriad Hitchcock ripoffs, persuading his wife a bit too adamantly that nobody evil is following her, that she's slowly dropping her marbles. The husband may be the rapist who once attacked her. The Seattle section is another open steal, an uncredited sequel to La Femme Nikita, the 1991 French film which made Parillaud famous. Her name might be Jessie, but here's the lovely-legged Parrilaud back with Nikita's iconic tiny skirts and lethal gun, confusedly murdering the wrong man.
I've already managed three viewings of Ruiz's work, and regard it as among the most rewarding film experiences of the year. The more I look, the more I see that there's always something unnervingly off-kilter about the way Ruiz shuffles his movie formulaics. Actually, they are deja vu episodes which may never have happened on screen, and certainly not quite in Ruiz's weird way. They're like those early Cindy Sherman photos, self-starring movie stills from non-existing genre movies which we still could swear we've actually seen. The perils of Cindy, and of Shattered Image's Jessie, are not just film-related; they plug in to the intensely felt dangers of our dreams.
What an unenviable challenge for Lions Gate Films, Shattered Image's distributor, to persuade an arthouse crowd that this teasingly opaque movie is made for them, if only they are savvy enough to crack through the straightfaced generic surface. Unfortunately, hardly anybody in America knows the cinema strategies of filmmaker Ruiz, whose almost-a-hundred necromantic pictures bounce between Robert Louis Stevenson and Hitchcock, Borges and Orson Welles.
Been there, seen that, some might say of Shattered Image, not getting that it's no more a straight, conventional thriller than those once-misunderstood, now-classics, Vertigo and Touch of Evil.