“I think in any film worth seeing you should identify with the film itself, not with one of its characters.”
– Raúl Ruiz (1)

Throughout his prolific career, Chilean director Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) demonstrated a proclivity for reinventing narrative form and conventions. Both his status as an “exile” (a Chilean working in France) and his Latin American background (emerging from the same culture as Kafka, Borges and magic realism) offered Ruiz a unique perspective on storytelling. In Ruiz’s magical world anything is possible: 20 years can go by in an instant and an instant can last for two months; a beggar can earn as much as a professor; and on any given day a young couple can inherit a château with a butler who only responds to the sound of a certain bell.

In 1974 Ruiz left his troubled homeland for Paris, where he made many of his films. As Zuzana Pick writes, “[Ruiz’s films] have taken on a quality of a hybrid and culturally androgynous practice, swaying between the recognition of its origin and its identification within foreign formations” (2). This struggle with identity is epitomised in Trois vies & une seule mort (Three Lives and Only One Death, 1996) where the same actor (Marcello Mastroianni) plays four characters in four divergent yet interconnected tales.

This case of fragmented identity is made explicit in the film’s title and by laying bare the artifice of the narrator, a radio announcer, who introduces us to each of Mastroianni’s characters in turn. The first incarnation of the protagonist expresses his confusion saying, “the more photos I took, the less I recognised myself”. Furthermore, the film is full of mirrors and reflections, bringing to mind Baudrillardian notions of the simulacra and the hyper-real, where signs can only refer to other signs, increasingly losing any relation to reality. Certainly, reflections cannot be trusted.

The star persona of Mastroianni itself comes with a series of associations. The tortured artist of (Federico Fellini, 1963) and the playboy journalist of La Dolce Vita (Fellini, 1960) are just a couple of the cinematic “lives” Mastroianni has “lived”. Adding further to this self-reflexivity, Mastroianni’s real-life daughter (Chiara) plays the young lover who is revealed to be the daughter of the protagonist.

Three Lives and Only One Death is indisputably a narrative, but perhaps unlike those we are accustomed to. There are story threads that go nowhere, actions that have no consequences, empty symbolism and warped time. At times it feels more like a series of short stories in which characters and actors have been recycled. As a matter of fact, Ruiz borrows freely from literature including short stories by Nathaniel Hawthorne and Isak Dinesen (3).

Ruiz was not only a filmmaker but also a film theorist. He famously rejected the Central Conflict Theory underpinning American scriptwriting, which asserts that all scenes not essential to the central conflict driving the narrative should be omitted. Instead Ruiz valorises moments of “sublime ennui” (4). These moments are privileged in Three Lives and Only One Death, where we are led to believe certain conversations may explain the story, and then are quickly brushed aside and replaced with a different exchange, as though Ruiz got bored in resolving the scene and started a new one to amuse himself. For example, when a young lover tells her boyfriend that she slept with their neighbour, he happily announces that this will bring them closer together and that they be friends with the neighbour. Suddenly they are moving into a château and the neighbour is never mentioned again.

Ruiz plays with narrative conventions in a self-reflexive manner. Our narrator makes us aware that what we are watching is a fiction through lines such as, “the foundations of the story we are about to tell are as follows” or “like all good stories it slips into the lives of its characters gradually like an incurable disease”. At the start of the butler chapter, the narrator tells us we need to “wind back the clock six months” to understand what happened, and then changes his mind, telling us “our tale starts three months earlier”. It begs the question: When does any story ever really begin? At one point a character asks, “How is this story supposed to end?” a question the audience may well be asking themselves.

Ruiz happily blends genres – elements of mystery, comedy, fantasy, romance, thriller and crime are all present in Three Lives and Only One Death. The film has its token villain (as all good stories deserve) easily identifiable by his white shoes, blue ring and comically exaggerated stutter. When everyone is receiving threatening letters, we all know who “suspect number one” must be. But it’s just another empty sign, as the villain never gets to play his proper role.

There are a number of devices Ruiz utilises to demonstrate fragmentation and deconstruction in his narrative world. The Dutch tilt is used, skewing the characters’ world and creating a sense of disorientation. Shots are frequently obstructed by household objects that obscure the “main” action happening behind them. At other times the background of a shot seems to slide forward, defying natural laws of space and creating a sense of displacement.

In the film’s first chapter, there is a shot of a twisting model staircase sitting in front of a mirror. This is reminiscent of the Möbius strip, a model of a twisted strip of paper which if you follow all the way around, you end up on the other side. This is representative of the narrative logic of the film where although the four stories are intertwined, they never quite end up where they started. Instead, we find ourselves in a yet another reality, playfully brought about by the constants that link the protagonist’s lives: champagne, Carlos Castaneda and la cloche.

And behind all this whimsy, there is the city of Paris. Its landmarks, bars, cafes and streets feature prominently in a film made around the time Ruiz became a French citizen. Amongst the flights of fancy, it is unmistakable Paris that has the most stable identity. The home of a Chilean exile.


  1. Raúl Ruiz, Poetics of Cinema 1: Miscellanies, trans. Brian Homes, Editions Dis Voir, Paris, 1995, p. 119.
  2. Zuzana Pick, “Chilean Cinema in Exile, 1973-1986”, New Latin American Cinema: Vol. 2, ed. Michael T. Martin, Wayne State University Press, Michigan, 1997, p. 438.
  3. Jonathan Rosenbaum, “Splitting Images (Three Lives and Only One Death and Lost Highway)”, Chicago Reader 26 February 1997: http://www.jonathanrosenbaum.com/?p=6673.
  4. Ruiz, p.117

Trois vies & une seule mort/Three Lives and Only One Death (1996 France/Portugal 123 mins)

Prod Co: Gemini Films/ La Sept Cinéma/Madragoa Filmes Prod: Paulo Branco Dir: Raúl Ruiz Scr: Pascale Bonitzer, Raúl Ruiz Phot: Laurent Machuel Ed: Rudolfo Wedeles Prod Des: Luc Chalon Mus: Jorge Arriagada

Cast: Marcello Mastroianni, Anna Galiena, Marisa Paredes, Melvil Poupaud, Chiara Mastroianni, Arielle Dombasle

About The Author

Beata Lukasiak is on the Melbourne Cinémathèque committee and has a postgraduate diploma in Cinema Studies from the University of Melbourne.

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