According to the sparse information available in standard reference books, Chilean expatriate director Ral Ruiz, still in his late fifties, has made more than a hundred films since 1960; apparently only fifty or so are features, but that's still an impressive stat. He's been a staple on the festival circuit for years, but until the release of Three Lives and Only One Death two years ago, his work almost never showed up anywhere else in the United States. In the ten years prior to that, only three of his movies screened in Los Angeles, as best I can tell, and no more than a half-dozen seem to be available on video.
Three Lives and Only One Death presumably got released here because it featured one of Marcello Mastroianni's final performances, but it turned out to be one of the best films of 1996--a thoroughly delightful experiment in narrative form that played on our deeply entrenched assumptions about film conventions.
Shattered Image, Ruiz's latest, is his first film in English and the first to include an American "star": William Baldwin. Playing once again with our expectations, it's only slightly more conventional than Three Lives. As usual with Ruiz films, there's no way to even begin to describe the story without stepping on a few surprises, but Shattered Image is so rich that a synopsis won't destroy much of the movie's pleasure.
To judge from the film's opening, audiences might think that they've accidentally stumbled into La Femme Nikita 2: Going Freelance! We see an all-dolled-up Anne Parillaud (who shot to fame as Nikita in Luc Besson's 1990 original) heading into the men's room of an upscale Seattle bar. After pausing briefly to observe her own multiple images on the mirror-lined walls, Jessie (Parillaud) pulls out a gun and coolly dispatches a man emerging from a stall.
After she arrives back at her apartment, there is still little to suggest that this isn't a Nikita knockoff: She lives in a sterile loft with a cat that she just barely acknowledges. As she relaxes to watch TV, we hear a wild-eyed evangelist shouting, "Just what part of 'Thou shalt not kill' do you not understand?"
Suddenly there is a loud noise and a jump cut, and we see Parillaud waking up with a start. She is on a plane to Jamaica. "I'm sorry. Just a bad dream," she explains to the flight attendant. She looks completely different--fragile and human.
Aha! we think. It was all a joke: She was merely dreaming she was in La Femme Nikita!
We quickly learn that Jessie is a newlywed heading for a honeymoon in Jamaica with her husband, Brian (Baldwin), who is affectionate, almost to the point of being unctuous. As they make their way to their hotel, Jessie appears to be paranoid, and everything/everyone around her seems sinister, including a pushy, flirtatious blonde (Lisanne Falk) who makes small talk with her.
It's clear that the trip isn't merely a honeymoon. It's also part of Jessie's recovery from twin traumas: Her father has died recently, and she was raped in New York City. Brian rescued her after the attack, leading to their courtship.
But Brian is an ambiguous character himself. As they make love in their room, he seems a little too violent; he has an icky predilection for grasping her throat in one hand. Jessie has a moment of fear, she looks over at the room's fish tank, and--bam!--with another loud noise she wakes up again in her apartment...in Seattle. She is really the other Jessie--Jessie the assassin--dreaming that she is a honeymooner in Jamaica.
You catch the drift. For the rest of the movie, Ruiz throws us violently back and forth between the two stories. The "lives" of the two Jessies begin to converge, even as their personalities remain complete opposites. Initially, the only history they have in common is the rape. But as the film progresses, each life becomes more and more a dream version of the other. Brian shows up in Killer Jessie's world, as do some other characters from Newlywed Jessie's world. An apparent stalker (Graham Greene) from one world becomes the prey in the other. In both, he issues the same warning to Jessie: "You're making a terrible mistake, you know. You have decided on a course of action, and you are going to go through with it. But you'll live to regret it."
Each Jessie thinks the other is a dream--a nightmare, really. Newlywed Jessie is horrified by Killer Jessie's coldhearted violence. Killer Jessie tells her psychiatrist, "She is so weak. I hate that about her." Which Jessie is real? Which Jessie is Jessie? What (dare we ask) is reality?
This might sound like pretentious Ingmar Bergman turf, but the film is primarily an entertaining thriller. Ruiz is too impish to fall into the heavy self-importance that Bergman, however brilliant, is prone to. The closest familiar comparison to Ruiz in Shattered Image would be Nicolas Roeg in films such as Don't Look Now and Cold Heaven. There are hints of The Wizard of Oz and Repulsion. There is even one moment just like (perish the thought!) I Still Know What You Did Last Summer.
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More than anything, Shattered Image recalls the completely insane and droll Desire and Hell at the Sunset Motel, directed by one Alien Castle, which sank like a stone back in 1992. (Go rent it. If nothing else, it's way different.) But where Desire and Hell pushed the amnesia/identity shtick to the point of farce, Ruiz, however playful, keeps Shattered Image closer to the realm of tragedy.
The final ten minutes suggest a definitive, pat explanation for what has been going on. It may be an intriguing explanation, but it's unnecessary. In the long run, is it really important just which world is real? I don't think so. The film is what it is; the images mean not a whit more than precisely what they are. To demand a resolution that connects Shattered Image's world to our own is to limit the experience. Like exposing the sleight of hand behind a magic trick, it ruins the magic forever.
Directed by Raul Ruiz. Written by Duane Poole. Starring Anne Parillaud, William Baldwin, Graham Greene and Lisanne Falk.