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Shattered Image

Review by Sean Axmaker
Posted 4 December 1998

  Directed by Raul Ruiz

Starring Anne Parillaud, William Baldwin,
Grahame Green, Lisanne Falk, Billy Wilmott,
O'Neal Peart, Leonie Forbes, and Bulle Ogier

Written by Duanne Poole

When Orson Welles began shooting Citizen Kane, he described RKO as "The biggest toy train set a boy ever had." You get that sense in watching a Raul Ruiz film, that the entire cinematic apparatus is an intellectual puzzle, a brain toy for a sophisticated kid. Ruiz works with much smaller toy train sets (much as Welles did later in his career), but his constructions are just as arresting and labyrinthine. With rich material, such as Three Lives and Only One Death (the first of his more than 90 films to receive any kind of widespread American distribution), the results are astounding, a masterpiece of invention and imagination grounded in vivid characters. Ruiz’s playful style comes off so naturally it feels simply tossed off (with 90 films in about 30 years perhaps it is), but the way weaves motifs, characters, story elements, and lines of dialogue through a film to create a web of connections shows the result of a creative artist behind the production.

Would that he brought that intelligence to the screenplay of Shattered Image, his "official" English language debut (I believe that honor belongs to The Golden Boat). Duane Poole’s script on the surface seems a natural for Ruiz’s love of dream imagery and doppelgangers. Jessie (Anne Parillaud, looking like La Femme Nikita after ten years of hard road) walks into a upscale Seattle bar, follows a man into the john, and dispatches him in the stall. It’s a cool, sleek Euro-chic thriller in the glamorous (?) Pacific Northwest, or so we think.

When she falls asleep in her cave-like concrete apartment, another Jessie wakes up on a small airplane. Where assassin Jesse is a cynical, world weary, but very lethal tiger, this one is a rabbit, a skittish, wide eyed newlywed trying to escape a nightmare from the past with a Jamaican honeymoon (Ruiz makes sure we see the attempted suicide scars on her wrist). Her husband Brian (William Baldwin) tries to comfort her as she nervously looks around (is someone following them?) and becomes transfixed in the flashing mirrors of a bunch of kids (flashing mirrors as your basic Jamaican toy?). The clichés start coming hot and heavy: a car pulls behind and follows them, they meet a mysterious an aggressively chatty blonde American tourist (Lisanne Falk), the phone rings but no one is there. It begins to look very much like every direct to video erotic thriller ever made, a suspicion compounded by the hoary performances of Baldwin and Falk. It’s almost too much as the couple settles down for soft-core sex, when suddenly the assassin wakes up again, almost hung over from the helplessness of her dream double.

And then the honeymooner awakens, puzzled by her violent, active fantasy assassin.

And then… you get the idea: "Am I butterfly dreaming I am a man or a man dreaming I am a butterfly?" to paraphrase Taoist philosopher Shang Tze.

The real question to pose is whether this is a Ruiz parody of a clichés-R-us B-movie thriller (or rather two thrillers) with a psychodrama twist, or simply a bad film set off by a brilliant execution. As a formal exercise the film is fascinating. Brian soon shows up in the assassin’s story as a mysterious blonde (you guessed it) hires her for a hit, and before you know it Graham Greene, in a strange Joe Mantegna-esque performance, is appearing in both stories, delivering the same words of advice line for line. Images, room numbers, situations show up as refracted clues from one reality to another and the two Jesses are soon trying to understand what their dream double is attempting to impart to one another.

Ruiz’s play between the two realities becomes the film. His movies are as much about the process of storytelling as the stories themselves, breaking the narrative with devices that foreground the framework of his fictions, and then using these devices to enrich those fictions. It’s not so much a question of which Jesse is the real one as what does this schism between the two women reveal about each of them – are they in fact the broken halves of a whole character? Just when it seems Ruiz falls down one side of the split, he throws it back into question. It’s like looking through a kaleidoscope as camera lens, shards of reality colliding with one another to create a collage-like world.

Cinematographer Robby Muller, whose sharp, austere photography have helped dream the visions of Wim Wenders and Jim Jarmusch onto the screen, creates images both beautiful (honeymooner Jesse tiptoes across a floor alive with a carpet of crabs skittering across) and bold (he dares use a split lens – one which allows the camera to hold two separate fields in focus, in this case an extreme close up and a long shot – in a moving shot, where the focal split becomes not merely visible but emphasized). At one point Ruiz and Muller even homage Orson Welles’ The Lady From Shanghai in an aquarium scene that straddles both realities, a cross-fading connection where sex seems to draw the two lives together in the same waking moments. It anticipates the third act where the realities begins to blur into reflections and then shatter into shards of images, like a broken mirror.

Ruiz’s storytelling skills are so fascinating, so intriguing, that the ridiculous stories and stilted, arch performances are drawn further into the foreground. It’s obviously no mistake – his direction of actors in any language is excellent – so the whole point of the exercise is drawn into question. Why direct his performers as if in a Shannon Tweed soft-core thriller? Why play every cliché straight, suggesting parody only in its straight-faced absurdity?

I’m the first to admit I don’t get it. I like it, not so much because of its creaky B movie elements as despite them, but I can’t bring the elements together into a cinematic whole. And perhaps that’s part of Ruiz’s narrative plan, weaving the ideas of alienation and disconnection through every level of the story. It’s almost maddening, this strange mix of sophisticated storytelling and naively fatuousness, and I can’t say it works completely, but when the film comes down to its neat little conclusion Ruiz’s exercise in psychodrama remains one of the most cleverly engaging and irresistibly entertaining films to come out all year.

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