THREE LIVES AND ONLY ONE DEATH (Trois vies & une seule mort)

(director/writer: Raul Ruiz; screenwriter: Pascal Bonitzer; cinematographer: Laurent Machuel; editor: Rodolfo Wedeles; music: Jorge Arriagada; cast: Marcello Mastroianni (Mateo Strano, Georges Vickers, the Majordomo and Luc Allamand), Anna Galiena (Tania), Marisa Paredes (Maria, wife of Mateo), Melvil Poupaud (Martin), Chiara Mastroianni (Cecile, his daughter), Feodor Atkine (Andre, stranger at bistro), Jacques Pieillier (Tania’s Husband); Runtime: 123; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Paulo Branco; New Yorker Films; 1996-France-in French with English subtitles)

“There’s enough stuff crammed into the four stories to write a Ph.D thesis.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The title tells it all for the mystery created by Chilean-born but living in Paris since 1974 writer-director Raúl Ruiz’ (“Genealogies of a Crime”/”The Territory”) inventive experimental comedy/suspense story. This was the penultimate film for the 71-year-old Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni who died soon after the film’s release in 1996; in his last film in 1997, Mastroianni starred in Manoel de Oliveira’ Journey to the Beginning of the World. Mastroianni’s daughter, Chiara Mastroianni, from Catherine Deneuve, has a small part in the film. The famed actor shows his polished acting skills and special gift for comedy by carrying the surreal fable on his back, as he plays four different parts.

It’s set in Paris and tells four different stories that overlap in a puzzling manner until the climactic scene where it all comes together in what for Ruiz is about as logical a denouement as he ever gets. Two of the tales are based on Nathaniel Hawthorne stories, the others seem to be influenced by Buñuel and Borges.

The first story finds Mastroianni as traveling salesman Mateo Strano, who left his wife Maria (Marisa Paredes) twenty years ago when he went out for a pack of cigarettes and never returned. Twenty years later, at a bistro across the street from their old residence, Mateo forces himself on his former wife Maria’s (Marisa Paredes) polite husband of the last four years Andre (Feodor Atkine) and after buying him drinks to keep him company tells of hiding across the street during his long-time absence with supernatural beings.

In the second story Mastroianni is a world renown professor of Negative Anthropology named Georges Vickers, who lives with his invalid mother but chooses on the spur of the moment to desert his profession and become a homeless panhandler (making more money than he did as a teacher) on the streets of Paris. There he’s saved from an attack by local thugs by street prostitute Tania (Anna Galiena) and brought to her residence where he is surprised that she also runs a large corporation, went into prostitution on the urgings of her perverted twitchy white suited hubby (Jacques Pieillier) and is an ardent admirer of the writings of psychedelic author Carlos Castaneda.

The third tale is about a young bohemian couple Cecile and Martin (Chiara Mastroianni and Melvil Poupaud) who inherit a huge mansion on the condition that they keep the somnambulistic butler (Mastroianni); it slowly becomes revealed that he’s Cecile’s father.

The final story is about an industrialist tycoon named Luc, again played by Mastroianni, who is experiencing memory loss and hallucinations and is startled to find that he’s actually visited by an imaginary family that he invented.

It’s wide open as to what it all means (narrative gaps and empty spaces are the norm in Ruiz’s storytelling, where the story becomes secondary to such things as visuals and endless possibilities). The easiest explanation of the central theme might be that the main point made came about through a dreamlike examination of one charismatic character played deliciously by Mastroianni to show mankind’s ability to have many identities and be able to role-play many different parts. From thereon there’s enough stuff crammed into the four stories to write a Ph.D thesis. Ruiz is a clever, capable, droll humorist and original filmmaker, whose intense work gives way to a playfulness over reality as really reality. This unpredictable story, not depending on conflict to reach a conclusion, gave me an existential literary type of buzz over the fractured way the dramatics unfolded, but it also left me unfulfilled wanting something more than so much absurdity to delve into.