THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (Trois couronnes du matelot, Les)

(director/writer: Raul Ruiz; screenwriters: François Ede/ Emilio de Solar/from the novel “One Night In Lisbon” by Erich Maria Notices; cinematographer: Sacha Vierny; editors: Jacqueline Simoni-Adamus/Valeria Sarmiento/Janine Verneau/Pascale Sueur; music: Jorge Arriagada; cast: Jean-Bernard Guillard (Le matelot), Philippe Deplanche (student, Tadeusz), Jean Badin (Un officier), Nadège Clair (Maria/Virgin Mary), Lisa Lyon (Mathilde), Claude Derepp (Le capitaine), Franck Oger (L’aveugle); Runtime: 117; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paulo Branco; Facets Video; 1983-France-in French with English subtitles)

“The yarns are timeless and mystical.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Raul Ruiz (“The Golden Boat”/”Genealogies of a Crime”) is the prolific Chilean-born director living in Paris since 1973, who makes four feature films a year and has reportedly made some 100 films since his exile. In this low budget multi-layered off-beat drama, he explores in a rambling way the desire to ward off death and the desire to tell a story. The bizarre drama was produced for television and presented in Cannes, and was his first film to be given a world-wide release. It’s influenced by the novel “Die Nacht von Lissabon” (“One Night In Lisbon”) of Erich Maria Notices and follows along the lines of both Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner and the immortal legend of The Flying Dutchman (as presented before-and-after Wagner’s version).

The tale begins in an unnamed port town (maybe the Polish city of Gdansk) on July 25, 1958, with a student named Tadeusz (Philippe Deplanche) senselessly murdering his mentor (perhaps a father figure), an antique dealer, and taking nothing of value but three coins. The student is thinking of taking the train to Warsaw but in the evening fog, near the antique shop, the student meets a drunken sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard), also doubling as the film’s narrator, who takes him to a bar and insists on payment of three Danish coins before sunrise if the student listens to the story of his life and promises in return safe passage aboard a departing ship. The sailor wants to return the three crowns he loaned from his ghost captain to give to his symbolic “father”–a black longshoreman he met in Dakar who gave him valuable lessons on a missing text from the Bible that said the blacks were the chosen people. When the sailor begins his yarn, set in Valparaiso, Chile, the film turns from black-and-white to color. The stories cover such colorful tales that take the sailor away from his mother (writing a letter to her that says ”The stars are twinkling. I’m ready to forget the slaps at Christmas, the beating on my 10th birthday”) and across many continents where he sails on a cursed ship as the only living member (though the possibility exists that no one might be real in the movie) on a ghost ship. The sailor, in dream-like surreal stories that catch the mood of the “otherworld,” tells how after many years at sea he met many exotic characters, had adventures in brothels (meets a prostitute (Nad ege Clair) who thinks of herself as the Virgin Mary), found an opium den in a South American port, fell for a sophisticated exotic dancer named Mathilde (Lisa Lyon) who turns out not to be real and returned home to discover no one recognized him. It follows the line that no one can ever return to their place of birth and find it the same (which might be personal to Ruiz, who departed Chile after the military coup toppled Salvador Allende’s socialist regime and left Chile with the repressive Pinochet dictatorship). The film ends in the dawn when the student pays the sailor and then in a fit of anger kills him, and thereby takes his place on the cursed ship as the one living person. As the saying goes, for the story to be told “there always must be one living person on the ship.”

The challenging film remains seductive in all the possibilities it evokes telling about the human condition. Its pleasures are derived from the lyrical way it unfolds, and how it makes shadowy figures, ghosts and elusive tales come to life. The price we pay for hearing the stories is that we must let go of our limiting beliefs and let our imagination stretch out over the strange landscapes encountered in this fantastic voyage. The yarns are timeless and mystical, and through its rich characterizations it gives us another way to experience such a far-out narrative if we are willing to go along for the ride.