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ReelTalk Movie Reviews
The Book of Pirates, Ships and Sailors
by Donald Levit

Little of his prodigious multimedia output available or distributed in the Anglo world, Raúl Ruiz was self-exiled in Paris after 9/11/73, worked through a Portuguese producer and was a darling of Continental critics and art-house audiences. And of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, where the New York Film Festival has showcased even a posthumous film completed by his wife-editor, and “Film Comments Selects” now offers a rare look at the 1983 City of Pirates/La ville des pirates.

In this “unclassifiable” hundred-eleven minutes, surrealist Magritte-Dalí-De Chirico Magic Realism is visually evidenced in sinister camera angles, irregular impossible perspectives, bright light but long shadows in empty spaces, abrupt shifts in scene, in story trajectory and between color and off-kilter black-and-white. Like the cult work of also protean Paris-based Chilean Alejandro Jodorowsky, his redirects plotline often -- confusedly and pretentiously so, say detractors -- with characters and players assuming different rôles or names or advancing conflicting life stories or stories within stories within stories.

Commentators have seen in this particular film a macabre, sexual take on Peter Pan. If true or not true, the theme of childhood (re)surfacing among and sometimes killing adults not infrequently its parents, was recurrent in the director-writer’s work. So, too, were the images of sea and littoral and escape by boat -- Ruiz’ father had been a ship’s captain -- and the connections that, as in dreams, seem logical enough at the time but on awakening prove tantalizingly beyond reach.

Despite the title, there is nothing faintly resembling a city and no buccaneers. Father and Mother (Duarte de Almeida, Clarisse Dole) drink the bitter coffee of exile, catastrophic world news and memories of a dead or absent son in decaying coastal houses. They are accompanied by Isidore (Anne Alvaro), a grown daughter that some see as, instead or concurrently, a maidservant. A virgin and later sleepwalker and potential sex victim and The Collector slave, she is visited by Malo (Melvil Poupaud), elusive, ringleted tempting teaser, as androgynously beautiful as Björn Andresen in Death in Venice and Bouguereau’s Cupidon. He is the ten-year-old who sliced up parents and siblings in an old news item, or at least is mild enough to grant her supposition that he is “if you say so.”


He either helps her cut apart bearded Father, or eggs her on or does the deed himself and then repeats it with a bicyclist-fisherman (André Engel) whom he first castrates and who may or may not have impregnated her on the strand.

The angel-child’s paper boats burst into flame on the sea of blood. He insists Isidore is his fiancée as they flee in a real boat to Never-Never Land isle of St. Sébastian, mapped in lipstick on gendarme cheeks (André Gomes) and where she is tied to a moldering Castle bed by Tobi (Hughes Quester), who assumes mental rôles of his non-appearing or dead mother and father, a Jeremy, a colonel, and a sister about whom he talks of having an incestuous relationship with.

Freed for her gowned wedding with this Mediterranean Norman Bates, she is led to a garden of innocence, then escapes or sleepwalks to Malo’s Robinson Crusoe setup on the opposite rock beach, then on across the waters again towards an ominous sun, only to return a decade later for a double parricide and revelation of physical deformity. Woman and child are mother and son, lovers, wife and husband, accomplice or victim and killer, maybe even Virgin and Child.

No summary or retelling of City of Pirates is possible. When it seems to have settled in one direction, things reverse, reality plays off against imagination against dream against nightmare, with death as the overarching end of all. There is lots of furious energy here and arresting visuals signifying an arguable nothing, but also lots of fun for some.

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