Raúl Ruiz has always presented a unique challenge to traditional film scholarship. With a vast filmography that spans decades, working in multiple countries, and using every conceivable audio/visual format — large and small gauge film, video, television commissions, theater productions — Ruiz’s labyrinthine oeuvre is like a phantom history running parallel to our preconceived notions of European cinema. It’s fitting then that not even death has stopped him; since his passing in 2011, his widow, filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, has helped shepherd at least two presumed lost or otherwise rediscovered projects to completion. The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror is their latest posthumous collaboration, featuring footage shot in 1967 and abandoned after Ruiz fled Chile and the Pinochet regime in 1973.
Sarmiento has completed the film, adding music and reconstructing dialogue, and while it’s impossible to know exactly what Ruiz would have done with it, it seems safe to assume that Sarmiento has a special insight into Ruiz’s original intentions. It’s a modest film, barely an hour long, but indicates Ruiz’s already burgeoning fascination with specters and hauntings. An aged professor (Ruben Sotoconil) mourns the passing of his wife and is slowly overtaken by sinister dreams and visions of her ghost. Unable to go on, he kills himself, at which point the film begins to run in reverse, replaying the first half of the film backwards, now with mysterious commentary from what seems like a demon of sorts. Acts that were once mundane — meals with friends, browsing book stores, imbibing some home brewed alcohol — take on a bizarre, phantasmagorical quality. The Tango of the Widower… would represent one of Ruiz’s first sustained filmmaking efforts (writing way back in 1987, in his essential article Mapping the Territory of Raúl Ruiz, Jonathan Rosenbaum notes only that “he [Ruiz] attended film school in Santa Fé, Argentina, for a year… quitting in 1967 to embark on an ambitious feature in Buenos Aires, loosely inspired by a Daphne du Maurier novel, which was never finished. [Like many of Ruiz’s Chilean works, it is a lost work in more ways than one; the whereabouts of the only print are currently unknown].”
If it was lost in “more ways than one,” it also now exists in more ways than one, simultaneously Ruiz’s earliest known work and also his newest. It’s a fascinating contradiction, one that Ruiz, with his penchant for puzzles and games, would certainly appreciate. Formally, the first half of the film is interesting, if not exactly spectacular. Ruiz shoots in black and white, with a mobile camera that resembles Raoul Coutard’s work as the go-to cinematographer of the French New Wave. Ruiz freely mixes documentary-style street scenes with darker, expressionistic shadow work as Sotoconil becomes mired in depression. Taking a page from avant-garde of the 40s and 50s, Ruiz uses simple tricks to create a dark underworld of devils and ghosts, leading to a final image that is breathtakingly ominous, an obscured face glaring directly into the camera as it distorts into a diabolical rictus grin. By any measure, it’s no masterpiece, but is a welcome addition to the ongoing adventure that is Ruiz’s ever-expanding body of work.