Raoul Ruiz – Les Trois couronnes du matelot AKA Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983)


In this classically surreal fantasy, a sailor, known for telling tales, sees a student killing his teacher and decides to spin a few yarns for him. He tells the boy of his many adventures in exotic South American ports where he visited opium dens and stayed in cathouses. In such dark, dreamlike places, the sailor meets many strange, mystical characters.” — Sandra Brennan, All Movie Guide

“Three Crowns of the Sailor stands in an ironic, undefined category of its own. The film elegantly plays with a bevy of traditional narrative structures – hence the pleasure and fascination it creates. Its apparent timelessness comes from its central trope: the immortal story, a self-generating fiction. This story reappears, with small variants, in different harbours all around the world throughout the centuries. Immortal stories seem to come out of nowhere (maybe the sea itself) and are repeated from sailor to sailor in dives, registration offices, brothels, and on the decks of their ships. The most famous immortal stories are those involving ghost ships, or the plight of an old man who pays a young sailor to make his wife pregnant. By the time immortal stories reach us, they are already palimpsests of multifarious artistic influences and references…

The ‘three crowns’ of the title are a mode of exchange between dead men. The sailor (Jean-Bernard Guillard) borrows them from his captain – a ghost – to give them to his symbolic ‘father’ – a black longshoreman met in Africa, about whom he’ll tell us later, ‘He had been dead many years before our encounter’. The student (Philippe Delplanche) has the coins in his pocket through the entire duration of the film because he has murdered another father figure, his benefactor; and the final exchange between the student and the sailor will cause the brutal killing of the latter. The sailor will become (like the others on the ship) a living-dead, a corpse pretending to be alive…

At one point, on the ship, the sailor sees a man jumping into the water; but the next day the same character is nonchalantly walking on the deck denying that anything had happened to him (‘It was the other…’). Later, the Funchaleuse, which had bravely resisted the worst tempests, sinks calmly on a fine day in full sight of the sailor, only to reappear in another harbour, under another name…

The final signifier that runs throughout the fiction, remaining potent in all the harbours and all the dives, which resists death and even gains greater currency from it, is money. And now, in the early years of the twenty-first century, this dimension seems prophetic. For we live in a world in which Borges, Welles, Courbet and Lacan have less importance than oil and money. In 1973, Allende was assassinated; in 1989, the Berlin Wall fell. Three Crowns of a Sailors emanated from a world defined by these two events, but it was also a harbinger of the world to come. A world where utopia, twice lost, keeps functioning as a provider of illusions no less fantastic than that experienced by the nameless sailor. A world about which Ruiz himself would write in Poetics of Cinema, developing ideas first sketched out at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Authorless and rootless, the immortal stories are what he called ‘stories for everyone’ which ‘don’t exist in any particular place: they are utopian. In order to manufacture such tales, we are inventing, manufacturing and experimenting with utopian images – placeless, rootless images’. (With uncanny prescience, Ruiz mentions ‘Professor Arnold Schwarzenegger’ as a provider/champion of this utopia. In California, 2003, the utopia became real – and also a nightmare.)

One version of this utopia mentioned by Ruiz involves ‘cabalistic players … engage[d] in a massive exchange of coded text. The winner takes away more than he can consume. The loser hands over what he never had.’ Ruiz also referred to glorified ‘bank clerks’ enacting the diktats (or marché de dupes) of late capitalism. Strangely enough – but nothing should surprise us aboard the Funchaleuse – this is also an excellent description of Three Crowns of the Sailor. – Bérénice Reynaud, Fuse


Subtitles:English, Spanish

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