A director probably more written about than watched nowadays, the Chilean Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011) was one of the great auteurs of the second half of the 20th century. The Tango of the Widower and its Distorting Mirror (1967) was one of Ruiz’s earliest films and it does feel like a young man’s apprenticeship piece. Abandoned when Ruiz went into exile when General Pinochet came to power in 1973, Ruiz’s own widow Valerie Sarmiento (who was also his long-time editor) sought to reconstruct the remaining fragments into what is currently being shown at the Melbourne International Film Festival.
In many ways a spiritual successor to Luis Buñuel, the themes of Ruiz’s best work are already on display here: the subconscious, frustrated desire, the limits of language, love and its discontents. Tango is brimming with visionary ambition, even though it doesn’t always quite come off. The arresting imagery and the emotional elusiveness that was to mark the rest of his work is also in evidence, though the films’ limited budget would have curtailed Ruiz’s imaginative wiles considerably. The anchor we hold onto is Iriarte, a grousing, ageing professor. We first see him in his dingy quarters ploughing through laundry. Iriarte is a widower we discover; no doubt the washing-away of his deceased wife’s presence is a symbolic act. Hazy photos are fingered curiously. An elegant hotel collapses in an earthquake. An ad in a newspaper announces the end of the world. He’s haunted by intrusive, repetitive dreams with the “images always in the same order”. Most disturbingly, his wife’s wig gains a nocturnal existence, stirring around the floor.
As with so much within the Surrealist idiom, women are relegated to roles. To be desirable, she must be either a fantastical sex nymph, or a subservient and silent muse-goddess. Whenever the wife’s ghost appears, it’s clear she’s neither. In one scene, he can be seen yelling at her to leave him alone. She looks over her glasses and keeps on sewing serenely. She lurks in the closet, behind his rack of identical suits ― the woman as a burdensome nightmare. As if to counteract the trope, his friend’s wife says wearily: “We women aren’t sleeping pills”. Suspicion concerning his wife’s death arises, especially when Iriarte exclaims that “thinking too much is bad. So bad that it made me lose my wife”.
Shot in black and white, the cinematography is loose, woozy, and non-committal. It conjures up the familiar mixture of movement and stasis that define our own dreamscapes. The soundtrack is also a beautiful evocation of the eerily recalled ― operatics, piping siren song and a syrupy accordion. The dialogue is marked by banal chatter, often to no one in particular; whistling, snatches of song. However, I fear I make Tango sound more interesting than it actually is. More often than not, it is punishingly dull, especially in the second half when most of the scenes are made up of previous shots played backwards (hence, the distorting mirror of the title).
This technique was an attempt to be ‘uncanny’ but was soon made superfluous by the fact it didn’t bring anything new to the narrative (except perhaps aesthetic trickery for its own sake). I was reminded of the following anecdote: Degas complained about how he wished he was able to write poetry, as he had so many ideas. Mallarmé’s succinct response was: “My dear Degas, poems are not made out of ideas. They’re made out of words.” This is precisely what makes Tango an intriguing but clumsy work. A film cannot merely be a sum of ideas; rather it ought to be smoothed and moulded into a concise whole.
I wondered if it should have been left alone as a curiosity piece, with its photography stills to be shown in a future book or exhibition. With a filmography as long and accomplished as Ruiz’s, it’s not as if it was a necessary addition. There are still some standout scenes, but these loose gossamer threads make more of a cinépoem and a passion project for completionists than a satisfying experience for the uninitiated film viewer. Still, it feels churlish to criticise a novice work too harshly, especially as it was a passion project for Ruiz’s wife. Instead, it should be seen as a precursor to the later bejewelled confections that were to come: Mysteries of Lisbon (2010), Genealogies of a Crime (1997), Three Lives and Only One Death (1996), Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983), and On Top of the Whale (1982), among so many others.
The Tango of the Widower and its Distorted screens as part of the 2020 Melbourne International Film Festival from 6–23 August.
Matilda Alexander is an emerging arts critic (and wonders how much longer she can use the term ’emerging’.) She majored in History and Philosophy at the University of Sydney, and has just begun her Masters in Film Media. She can be found tweeting into the void on Twitter: @silkteagown