Three Lives and Only One Death

Rating: **1/2 (out of ****)

Chilean-born director Raoul Ruíz has directed at least 65 movies, according to his IMDb filmography, and I've been encountering his name ever since I began paying attention to world cinema a decade ago, but Three Lives and Only One Death is the first film he's made that's managed to land a distributor in the U.S. -- probably because this one stars Marcello Mastroianni and features a marketable gimmick. Consequently, it's the first one I've had an opportunity to see, and so while more knowledgeable critics pontificate about how Three Lives fits into the sizable Ruíz oeuvre, I can merely report from the relative discomfort of my own cultural vacuum. I was not blown away. The gimmick I mentioned just now is that Mastroianni plays four different characters in the film, in four separate tales, who are all facets of the same man; the stories seem unrelated at first, but by the time the third one rolls around, they've started to converge, with events and characters from the earlier tales popping up unexpectedly in the later ones. Just typing that précis makes me salivate, but the result is curiously unaffecting. The individual stories, which are variations on classic legends and tall tales -- man goes out for cigarettes and never returns; wealthy, successful guy suddenly forgoes all worldly possessions and becomes a beggar -- are less than enthralling, making the first half of the film a bit tedious. Once the circular structure kicks in, and the film turns into an intellectual exercise, it's vastly more entertaining...but while it's as clever as all get-out, that's all it has to offer; it features neither the fetishistic visual splendor of Peter Greenaway's elaborate, obsessive puzzles nor the emotional anguish of Atom Egoyan's oblique narrative labyrinths. There are repetitions and allusions and connections and revelations galore, but all are disappointingly empty -- none makes you reconsider anything you saw before, or clarifies something which had previously been tantalizingly ambiguous. Example: Mastroianni, as one character, takes an object from Story #3, and then, as a different character, hands it to some folks who we know from Story #1 -- but all this elicits from the audience is a shrug: "Oh, okay, that's where that came from." It doesn't mean anything, whereas the overlapping tales in films like Pulp Fiction and Before the Rain converge to create a whole greater than the sum of its individual narrative parts. Three Lives isn't too clever -- there's no such thing, as far as I'm concerned -- but it's merely clever, which is what people mean when they say "too clever" (or, in British parlance, "clever clever"). Marcello is pretty much Marcello, which suits the role(s) fine; Chiara Mastroianni, his daughter with Catherine Denueve, who seems to have a small role in just about every recent French film, has a medium-sized role in this one.