SHATTERED IMAGE

Directed by Raul Ruiz

Written by Duane Poole

With Anne Parillaud, William Baldwin, Graham Greene and Bulle Ogier

Distributed by Lions Gate

***1/2


A few years ago, David Ehrenstein lamented that Raul Ruiz had "fallen out of fashion without ever coming into fashion." Back then, he seemed barred from a chance to reach a New York audience outside the Film Society of Lincoln Center's auspices, and the Film Society's valiant support of his work , which has included a week-long run of DARK AT NOON in 1993, the New York premiere of TREASURE ISLAND in 1995 and a lengthy retrospective last year, was never rewarded by much audience interest. Beginning with the 1996 THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH, all that has changed. Not that anyone outside the festival circuit cares much about Ruiz as an auteur - that still hasn't happened - but his cannily calculated use of stars has finally won him the attention of American distributors. I never thought I'd see 2 Ruiz films released commercially here in the same year, but then I never thought he'd try his hand at the "erotic thriller" genre either.

SHATTERED IMAGE is what LOST HIGHWAY might have been if David Lynch wasn't so full of himself. Unfortunately, Lions Gate doesn't seem to know how to market it, as they're dumping it at the Art Greenwich, the Westernmost theater in the Village and one that rarely plays "art films." To the uninitiated (a group that includes far too many critics), this might seem justified; for them, SHATTERED IMAGE is bound to feel like the work of a European art filmmaker slumming in Zalman King territory. For someone familiar with the Chilean-French director's oeuvre, it's a sly exercise in genre subversion. In recent years, Ruiz has become our closest equivalent to the Buñuel of BELLE DE JOUR and THE DISCREET CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISE, but by taking on this project, based on an admittedly dreadful screenplay by TV producer Duane Poole, he achieves something closer to what Buñuel did in Mexico in the 50s and Douglas Sirk did in America around the same time: making a personal, idiosyncratic film within the framework of a formulaic screenplay.

The shattered image belongs to Jessie (Anne Parillaud), a woman with an extremely active dream life. The first Jessie is a punkishly chic, black-clad hit-woman who lives in Seattle (as several critics who've noted, this segment is an unofficial sequel to LA FEMME NIKITA, which also starred Parillaud); her adventures are the dreams of a more timid Jessie enjoying a honeymoon in Jamaica with her husband Brian (William Baldwin). Or so it initially seems until the second Jessie's life becomes the dream of the first Jessie. Their lives appear as different as night and day. The first Jessie lives in a dank Seattle, played by the versatile Vancouver and shot by Robby Müller as a BLADE RUNNER-style noir netherworld of blue tones, rain, chrome and steel. Her life is accompanied by a moody, saxophone-driven score, while the second Jessie visits a picture-postcard Jamaica, full of sunshine, bright colors, romantic music and upbeat reggae. However, both women have been traumatized by rape, and although they've been affected in different ways, both have a lot of trouble trusting men. As the film goes on, their stories gradually start to blend, and objects even begin migrating from the world of one to the other's.

The detractors of SHATTERED IMAGE have cried: "The screenplay is terrible! And Parillaud and Baldwin's performances are wooden!" Quite true. Poole's dialogue has little in common with the way anyone I know actually speaks except insofar as it's made up of words and sentences, and the performances are indeed stiff. However, Ruiz is certainly aware of this - could anyone read the scene in which Jessie #1 pulls a gun on her cat and then tells it "You don't beg, you insist. I like that in a woman." as anything other than tongue-in-cheek? - but as one might expect from a director who's sometimes had actors speak their lines phonetically in a language they don't understand, he uses this undeniable "badness" as an expressive element in a larger whole: one more ingredient in the incompleteness of both Jessie's worlds.

At several points, SHATTERED IMAGES comes to a false ending. On the verge of slitting her wrist, Jessie #2 is saved by a hallucination of Jessie #1, after which she suddenly seems to fall back in love with Brian. A little further down the road, the film suggests that one or both stories could be the dream of another Jessie, a mental patient who's spent 6 months in shock. In a more conventional film, the image would be un-shattered. As a response to the rape and her subsequent inability to trust men, Jessie #2 would be the creation of Jessie #1, an excuse to express the aggressive side of her personality. After her unconventional but effective course of self-therapy, she would have learned her analysand's lesson and managed to bring both sides of her personality together. Probably she would do so by tracking down her rapist and kicking his ass. Everything would come to a comforting, satisfying conclusion. This SHATTERED IMAGE is not the one Ruiz has made, but it's hard to watch the film without dreaming up its alter egos.

What is SHATTERED IMAGE really about? I'm not entirely sure, but Roland Barthes' 1961 comments on the way Buñuel's EXTERMINATING ANGEL suspends meaning without ever disintegrating into nonsense offer some clues. Ruiz uses genre forms as a way to tantalize the audience, to hold out the promise of baseline reality without letting us into it. He's only interested in psychology to the extent that he can mock it, and this mockery suggests the ways in which conventional storytelling often satisfies our urge for solutions by settling for comfortable lies. Like the character(s) played by Marcello Mastroanni in THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH, Jessie(s) must learn to live without a stable identity. In its own odd way, the aggressive flakiness of Ruiz's films is an accurate description of the uncertain world we live in. SHATTERED IMAGE isn't the equal of his best 80s work, but masterworks like CITY OF PIRATES and THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR never came without hailing distance of Cinemax and Blockbuster, where this film is likely to finally find an audience. It offers a thrill unique in the Ruiz canon: that of, in J. Hoberman's words, "imagining an entire multiplex audience looking around at each other and wondering 'What the fuck?' "