“The Blind Owl” - Raoul Ruiz (1987)



The Blind Owl (La Chouette Aveugle, 1987) is a French film by noted Chilean director Raoul Ruiz.  The prolific Ruiz (1941-2011), who directed more than 100 films in his career, fled Chile in 1973 after the coup d'état led by dictator Augusto Pinochet and settled in Paris, where he became something of a cult figure among the intellectual cineastes there.  Ruiz’s preference for making low-budget, but intellectually complicated and obscure, films suited their tastes, and in fact he once said that he liked to make films that
“would have to be seen many times, like objects in the house, like a painting. They have to have a minimum of complexity.” [1].
And certainly The Blind Owl is a good example of Ruiz’s penchant for obscurity. 

The film was loosely based on Sadegh Hedayat’s famous Iranian novella Boof-e Koor (The Blind Owl, 1936), which itself is dark and cryptic.  But Ruiz complicated things further by only adapting certain parts of Hedayat’s work and by also incorporating elements from the 1624 Spanish drama El Condenado por Desconfiado (Damned for Despair) by Tirso de Molina (Gabriel Téllez) and by introducing his own ambiguities.  The result is almost a game of complexity, and this will only appeal to the tastes of some viewers.  In fact noted French film critic Luc Moullet, who did like the film, remarked that
“I’ve now seen The Blind Owl seven times, and I know a little less about it with each viewing.” [2]
(There was an earlier, Iranian-made film of Hedayat’s novella that was directed by Kiumars Derambakhsh, Boof-e Koor (1975), and which was more faithful to Hedayat’s original text.  See also my review of another Iranian film based on a Hedayat story – Dash Akol (1971), directed by Masoud Kimiai. [3])

In fact I don’t believe that Ruiz’s film of the story even has a coherent plot, and instead it offers merely a sequence of suggestive fragments that were inspired by Hedayat and that point to the complexities of human experience at the existential level.  In this respect, even though the film only very loosely follows Hedayat’s novella, it might be best to begin our discussion there.

Hedayat’s work starts with what apparently is a horrific nightmare of a man who is visited one evening by a dark and beautiful woman.  She silently enters his room and gets into his bed, but before long the man notices that she is dead.  For obscure reasons he cuts her corpse up into pieces that he puts into a trunk and then meets an eery and repulsive old man who may be his uncle and who offers to help the man bury the trunk.  All of this is told by a narrator whose obsessive and repetitive phraseology suggest that he is insane.

In the second part of Hedayat’s work, the narrator, still obsessed but here immersed in an ordinary world, talks more about his tortured married life with a woman he loves but calls “the whore”.  She sleeps with a wide variety of lowlifes but won’t let him even kiss on her on the cheek. 

The weird and ambiguous plot elements of Hedayat’s Boof-e Koor have induced a wide variety of interpretations, some associated with social issues at the time (the novella was published in Bombay in 1936 when Hedayat spent a year there, and it was banned in Iran).  But I would say that the core themes underlying the tale are far more elemental and lie at the heart of human existence – inner guilt, fear of death, and loneliness.  Hedayat conjures up these feelings with constant references to acrid tastes and smells and repugnant images of decay and deterioration.  These innate concerns are overlain with the deep mysteries of life that are somehow mysteriously embodied by woman.  And this is all connected with the horror of having one’s core, essential personhood rejected (when the rejection is by a woman, the denial is more fundamental) and its associations with the fear of annihilation.  In short, there is a pervasive ambience of fear, anxiety, and depression, but also of a compulsive attraction (to the feminine mystery).  An example of Hedayat’s imagery concerning the feminine mystery is the following passage, which refers to the narrator’s mother [4]:
“They were slanting, Turkoman eyes of supernatural, intoxicating radiance which at once frightened and attracted, as though they had looked upon terrible, transcendental things which it was given to no one but her to see.  Her cheekbones were prominent and her forehead high. Her eyebrows were slender and met in the middle. Her lips were full and half-open as though they had broken away only a moment before from a long, passionate kiss and were not yet sated.  Her face, pale as the moon, was framed in the mass of her black, disheveled hair and one strand clung to her temple.  The fineness of her limbs and the ethereal unconstraint of her movements marked her as one who was not fated to live long in this world.  No one but a Hindu temple dancer could have possessed her harmonious grace of movement.”
Hedayat’s expression of these themes predate Sartre’s La Nausée (1939) and Camus’s L’Etranger (1942), but they lie at the core of Existentialist artistic concerns (and may have even directly inspired later authors).  Ruiz, I would say, drew inspiration from Hedayat’s existentialist themes and used his plot elements only as instruments to create his own cinematic form.

In this film by Ruiz, there are also two parts, but their connectedness and coherence is even more mysterious than in Hedayat’s novella.  In particular Ruiz introduces and extends complications associated with the mixture of identities – sometimes the identities of separate characters in the story are merged or mixed.  Things are even more complicated by the fact that there is a mixture of multilingual and multicultural overlays involving French, Spanish, and Arab (hence Muslim) cultures. 

The first part of the film is directly inspired by the first part of Hedayat’s novella and involves a nondescript young Frenchman (whom, for brevity, we will refer to as the “hero”) getting a job as a projectionist at a Parisian movie theater that shows Arabic-language films.  He works with a mysterious and sullen co-projectionist, Kassem, who hides his disfigured face by always wearing a balaclava that covers everything but his eyes and mouth.  Both the hero and Kassem have boarding rooms at the cinema, so they spend much of their time there.  Kassem’s beautiful girlfriend, Fatima, is also shown, and she has some friendly interactions with the hero.

The hero almost never watches the Arabic language films that he projects, but on one occasion when he happens to glance at the screen, he becomes transfixed by the sight of a beautiful and scantily-clad court dancer.  This woman later emerges from the film and comes to the hero’s room, gets into his bed, and silently dies – similar to the sequence in Hedayat’s story.  Also gruesomely following Hedayat’s narrative, the hero cuts her body into pieces, and with the help of an old man who appears and claims to be his uncle, puts the body pieces into a trunk and looks for a way to bury the corpse.  They eventually manage to cast the trunk into the river, but there are later disturbing images of the girl’s body parts floating in the stream.

The second part of the film moves further towards an immersion into the Arabic films that are being projected at the theater and that are apparently set in Cordoba Spain. There are two intermingled narrative threads in this section – one concerning a man whose job it is to behead sinners (not a part of Hedayat's story), and another thread about twin brothers who are madly in love with the court dancer (this second thread is derived from Hedayat’s tale). 

As the story progresses, there is further mixing of the outer story and the film-within-a-film elements.  There are also further identity mergings and confusions:
  • Fatima and the court dancer seem to merge identities at some points
  • The hero,’s alleged nephew, whose identity also appears in the film-within-a-film, at times merges his identity with that of the hero.
  • The hero’s identity also sometimes merges with that of his nasty old uncle.
All of these identity interminglings may remind us that our personal identities are essentially known to us only by the narratives we naturally construct about our experiences during the course of our lives.  We also intuitively construct narratives about the people we encounter, and these identities are, since they are our own constructions, also secondary parts of our own identity.  So Ruiz seems to be suggesting that these identity constructions can sometimes be mixed and confused within us.  We never really know who we truly our, and we only cling to these self-constructed narrative fragments to identify ourselves and others. 

However, I don’t entirely go along with the above, somewhat intellectual, assessment.  I think we always have some existential (i.e. phenomenologically primordial) certainty about our own conscious identity and our sense of personal autonomy.  This sense of personal identity is more fundamental than the schemata we construct that structures what we know about ourselves.  Nevertheless, these narrative notions are tied to the film’s ultimate message or experience.

The fundamental problem with this film is that the overall narrative scheme is not compelling.  The individual narrative fragments, though sometimes bloody and gruesome, don’t come together  into an intuitive and unifying narrative journey.  This problem contrasts with Hedayat’s tale, which does have a hypnotic narrative continuity.  We enter into the narrator’s consciousness in Hedayat’s story, but we don’t get into a sympathetic or empathic relationship with Ruiz’s hero.  The hero in Ruiz’s film is relatively passive, and I was unable to develop any feeling for what the hero wanted – his external world is there, but his internal feelings, desires, and directions are blocked from  us.

There are scattered fascinating images, though, and these seemed to be enough for Luc Moullet [2]:
"And rarely has a film’s ending provided such a succession or simultaneity of contradictory elements – mixing the extremes of pessimism and joy – or a summit quite so bewitching and extravagant. This finale is part of what makes The Blind Owl French cinema’s most beautiful jewel of the past decade.”
Not having yet, myself, seen the film seven times, though, I have, despite its fascinating inspiration, much more moderate feelings about its overall virtues.
½

Notes:
  1. Carole Ann Klonarides, “Raul Ruiz”, BOMB Magazine (Winter, 1991).    
  2. Luc Moullet, “The Blind Owl”, (excerpted from Trafic, no. 18, Spring 1996), Rouge Press (English translation, 2004).   
  3. The Film Sufi, "’Dash Akol’ - Masoud Kimiai (1971)”, The Film Sufi, (12 April 2017).   
  4. Sadegh Hedayat, The Blind Owl (1937/1957), (English translation by D. P. Costello),  Grove Press, New York, pp. 26-27.

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