I’m not exactly stoked about the New York Film Critics Circle awards, given that I thought The Artist was kinda slight. No matter! One thing the NYFCC did right was extend a special award to Raoul Ruiz, who passed away in August. His last film, the epic Mysteries of Lisbon, is one of my favorite features of the year. Magnificent in scope and sporting some of the most stunning cinematography I have seen in ages, the near-6-hour epic is everything I love about ambitious narrative cinema. There are few directors as deserving of this sort of special recognition as Ruiz, and it gives us a great excuse to take a look at one of his early shorts.
From one angle, Colloque de chiens seems like a perfect example of the French New Wave’s influence on a younger generation of filmmakers. Ruiz arrived in Paris in 1973, after Augusto Pinochet’s US-backed coup in his native Chile, and by 1977 had made a number of films in France. This particular short is almost entirely made up of narration and still photographs, evocative of La jetée and other similarly experimental French films of the 1960s. Bourgeois characters find themselves in doomed relationships and meaningless affairs, the sort of characteristic malaise you’d find in Godard’s work. Yet by the late 1970s all of that was getting a bit old, and Ruiz is most certainly doing something new with this complex little film.
The story itself is the sort of long, sweeping drama one might find in a classic Hollywood women’s picture. A young girl discovers that her mother is actually not her mother, and that she was born an illegitimate child with no known father. Crippled by this information, she grows up and has a sordid series of relationships with older, wealthy men. Eventually she settles down to marry a high school sweetheart, but things inevitably turn to murder and increasingly complicated narrative twists.
However, all of this is distanced from the audience via voice-over narration and still photography. None of these characters get to speak, or even move. We are detached from the drama, granting us more freedom to reflect on how formulaic this kind of torrid storytelling can be. The violence, the sex and the manipulation seem like little more than basic pieces of any melodrama, no more organic than the blocky and uninspired creatures enacting them. Ruiz drives this point home even further with his occasional canine interjections, footage of dogs barking at each other with no further context. The conflict between these token bourgeois characters is little more than a colloque de chiens.
Yet I cannot shake the notion that Ruiz is also driving in other directions with this short. Certainly the critique of melodrama is there, effective and biting, but there are other elements that go beyond this singular purpose. Henri, the leading man in this tale, is played by a woman. Colloque de chiens is not a Douglas Sirk memoir so much as it is a forerunner of Pedro Almodóvar‘s remixing of the genre. The element of sexual similarity and eventual sex change, evocative of The Skin I Live In and Law of Desire, complicates matters. The very solid roles into which melodrama places men and women become nebulous and permeable.
I could easily continue raving about the subtle implications of Ruiz’s varied and fascinating directorial choices in this short. There’s some particularly creative work in the latter part of the film involving weapons as symbols. The short becomes both narratively and visually cyclical, perhaps to suggest that these stories are in a way self-fulfilling prophecies. There is so much packed into these twenty minutes, a reminder of how short film need not be as bite-sized in concept as in running-time.