Saturday 26 September 2020

1,001 Films: "Three Lives and Only One Death/Trois Vies et Une Seule Mort" (1996)

Three Lives and Only One Death, an agreeably batty collaboration between the veteran Chilean director Raoul Ruiz and the French writer Pascal Bonitzer, comes on like a modernist retort to Groundhog Day, taking huge delight in setting up stories within stories, and then casting Marcello Mastroianni in the Bill Murray role, only as a number of characters at the mercy of the fates. Its unifying idea is that very French one of divertissement (even dérangement): sudden changes in circumstance precipitated by the slightest thing. As one of the twin Fates seen on screen (perhaps modelled on Ruiz and Bonitzer themselves) puts it: "Life never ceases to amaze". The two hours that follow set out to prove the point. In the opening section, a handyman (Feodor Atkine) pops out one morning to get aspirin for a headache, only to be accosted by a laughing oddball (Mastroianni) who claims to have been the first husband of the handyman's wife before he was held hostage by a radical group of fairies living under his kitchen table. While you're processing that, the whole film goes off with those self-same fairies. It's one of those tales of the unexpected where the twists and turns are best left unspoiled by any synopsis, though you'll get an early taster of what's to come from Atkine's shrugging reaction (sitting down to parse the newspaper!) after Mastroianni buries a hammer in his cranium. (Some headache cure, this.) 

Further leftfield developments follow - not least the murderous rampages prompted by the merest mention of the author Carlos Castaneda - as do surprising, even staggering images: a man caught in a giant mousetrap, a corpse surrounded by newly hatched chicks, wallpaper that comes to florid life. The one constant is Mastroianni, all clownish charm across a number of choice roles: leaving the oddball behind, he's transformed into a Sorbonne professor turned beach bum, then into a mute, intransigent butler making life hell for a young couple, then into a businessman whose little white lies take on a life of their own and threaten whatever he stands for. This fluidity - the sense the film might go in any direction at any moment - extends to Ruiz's casting. As signalled by a key place name (the rue du Maastricht), the film dates from a moment when European unions were being celebrated in both arthouse faves like the Three Colours trilogy as well as American indies like Barcelona and Before Sunrise; so it is that Italians (Mastroianni, Anna Galiena, Lou Castel as a stuttering pimp) rub up against Spaniards Atkine and Marisa Paredes, and Frenchies Arielle Dombasle and Melvil Poupaud, while overheard phone calls flip between French, Italian and German. The film knows no borders: the perimeters of the first Mastroianni's apartment advance and retreat at will (as they would in Ruiz's later Proust adaptation Time Regained), while a later episode depends on the thinness of a building's walls driving a couple into the arms of better insulated lovers. The action is so arbitrary it may have been made up on the spot, but there is a reason for that, and it generates an entertaining advert for a cracked, transnational, schizophrenic cinema, as opposed to the dull linearity and deadening logic of most monolingual mainstream entertainments: Ruiz, bouncing between genres like a South American jumping bean, is supremely alert to the medium's myriad possibilities, and how even the tiniest adjustment in camera focus, lighting or score can change everything, forever. A representative subtitle: "Like all thermodynamics students, Piotr is a sex maniac."

Three Lives and Only One Death is available to stream via YouTube.

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