From the eccentrically fantastic mind of France-based Chilean writer-director Raul Ruiz comes the strangely fascinating "The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting" (1979), a film unlike any other!
An art collector (Jean Rougeul), the only real character in the film is being interviewed by an off-screen narrator who could be an art aficionado or simply a person present there to humour the collector by expressing an interest in his passionate musings. The collector is obsessed with a series of six paintings created by a 19th century painter Tonnerre. Apparently, these paintings caused a scandal of sorts some 100 years ago, forcing authorities to intervene and Tonnerre to flee from the country! A subsequent ceremony that took place, resembling the depictions in the paintings, was raided by the authorities and force-stopped, for the message contained within the paintings had to be arrested before it spread to the rest of the country! Tonnerre would later plead innocence in a letter sent from Italy that no ceremony ever existed. What the authorities raided in fact was a display of the tableaux vivants (meaning, "living pictures"; live reproductions of paintings, consisting of actors posing with makeup and costumes along with theatrical lighting to replicate the artist's vision) of those paintings! Of course, hardly anyone believed that.
What was so scandalous about the seemingly innocuous series of paintings? The collector, via his extensive knowledge of art interpretation and years of research tries to deconstruct the paintings and unravel the mystery behind the uproar. He firmly believes, that when the paintings are collectively interpreted, in a particular series, one can conclusively deduce the scandalous nature of the secret message embedded within! But there's just one slight problem. There was a seventh painting that went missing, presumably stolen by the authorities themselves. The missing link would make it impossible to recreate the whole message, thereby managing to bury the secret for good!
And so the collector starts presenting his analysis to the interviewer and to us viewers as he tries to read into the paintings. He also takes us on a fantastical voyage across his property and various rooms of his large residence, where actual tableaux vivants of Tonnerre’s paintings are set up with actors. The collector claims to have made some pretty interesting and convincing deductions, and makes us sit up and take notice with his live demonstration of the connection between the first two paintings of the series, in a rather compelling manner! This initial revelation piques our interest and we applaud the collector’s astuteness, despite the esoteric nature of his ramblings in the initial few minutes, that are certain to flummox the uninitiated! It also makes us wonder about the collector's intentions. By creating these tableaux vivants, could it be that the collector is trying to recreate the ceremony himself?
As we dig deeper, the collector’s inferences do appear to make some sense on an abstract level, but do they lend complete satisfaction? It is noteworthy how Ruiz shows the collector, on one hand to be an intelligent man who knows his art, and on the other, just a senile old delusional fruitcake obsessed with a conspiracy theory. Sometimes the collector appears confused. "The paintings allude, they don’t show!" And later retracts, scratches his head, blurts out "The paintings show, they don’t allude". Later retracts yet again and tries to explain what he means by that!
Note how, in a subtly humourous scene, the collector gets exhausted and dozes off in the midst of explaining his theory, while the interviewer continues in whispers. Additionally, in explaining one of the paintings the collector goes way over the top and postulates that it relates it to an obscure novel he came across, making the painting a kind of storyboard for the novel! The interviewer mocks this development, but the collector keeps defending his discoveries and when it comes to the time to explain the loose ends, he blames the missing seventh painting (the existence of which the interviewer seemingly refuses to acknowledge), but claims to have a hypothesis on it!
It is very likely then, that the interviewer in Raul Ruiz's film is attacking the experience that is apophenia; i.e. finding meaningful patterns or connections in random or meaningless data. Maybe the interviewer doesn't believe the collector at all and is just getting the kicks out of grilling him; perhaps trying to even expose the collector's fake smugness, burst his bubble and point out that his theories mean nothing! It wouldn't be farfetched to think that Ruiz is alluding to the elitist film critics and analysts who swear by some seemingly meaningless art-house cinema and strongly believe that these films are masterpieces and make a lot of sense (yet when the time comes, they are unable to convincingly explain what they derived out of it)!
Whatever Ruiz's intentions, one can't disregard the magnitude of the efforts taken by art analysts such as the collector in the film to get to the bottom of something they believe in. The collector may or may not be on a wild goose chase, but his passion is applause-worthy. It is remarkable how he pays attention to the gestures of the characters in the paintings, their placements, their expressions, the lighting and most importantly the play between lighting and darkness appearing in sharp contrast, evident in the paintings.
To demonstrate these facets, and to mirror the use of lighting and shadows in the paintings, the man behind the camera, Sacha Vierny (also the cinematographer for Alan Resnais' "Last Year at Marienbad" (1961); the overall atmosphere being similar in both films), employs the Chiaroscuro technique and it serves as an important device to showcase the collector's findings. The use of such lighting in the baroque set design gives every frame an eerie look. The camera then glides across the spacious house through the light and the dark, passing the mirrors, the mannequins - some fake and some real ones, almost giving off the feel that it’s a haunted mansion we are sleepwalking through, in a dream-like state! This, along with the operatic, ethereal score gives the film an almost Gothic feel and it works to render the film a somewhat meditative tone despite the sporadic, elusive comic relief.
All the intellectual art jargon and heavy duty analysis notwithstanding, Raul Ruiz’s "The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting" is a captivating work of cinema that demands the viewer's undivided attention, and repeat viewings if possible to completely grasp the collector’s hypotheses. Apart from being a surrealistic psychological drama about an art fanatic's obsession, Ruiz’s film is an intellectual lesson in art analysis. Even if the collector's theories do not satisfy you, the film certainly will. Rest assured.
P.S. Watch out for an early appearance by famous actor Jean Reno ("Leon: The Professional") as one of the models in a tableaux vivant!