The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting
(L’hypothèse du tableau volé)

Introduction by Simon Field
Directed by Raúl Ruiz.
With Jean Rougeul, Chantal Paley, Jean Raynaud.
France, 1978, DCP, black & white, 64 min.
French with English subtitles.
DCP source: Cinémathèque Française

A prodigious reader, the author of a rich collection of speculative writings around the poetics of cinema, Raúl Ruiz was the maker of over a hundred films in a myriad of formats and genres. Afterimage’s 1981 dossier was an early celebration of a filmmaker who, throughout his career, explored in both writings and films the exciting possibilities of a different cinema, a filmmaker who described the cinema as “an instrument of speculation and reflection, or a machine for travel through space and time.”

L’hypothèse du tableau volé is one of the most deliriously inventive—and beautiful—of a series of generous French TV commissions that were characteristic of the earlier years of Ruiz’s exile from Chile. It displays the cinematic magic and the spirit of exploration that were also about to be seen in his marvellous features Les trois couronnes du matelot / Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) and La ville des pirates / City of Pirates (1983). Proposed as a documentary portrait of the French philosopher and novelist Pierre Klossowski, Ruiz instead took some of Klossowski’s themes and fabricated this fictional portrait of an art collector. A droll, ironic parody of French cultural programming of the period, the film also offers a characteristic Ruizian meditation on cinema, on representation, on the relation between language and image.

The great cinematographer Sacha Vierny (who would become Peter Greenaway’s primary director of photography) creates glistening, smoky, black and white images and sensual camera movements to weave around the earnest collector and his offscreen interviewer. With the speculative seriousness of a Klossowski, the collector takes us through his rambling mansion while explaining the themes of his mysterious series of paintings by the 19th Century French painter Fredéric Tonnerre (a painter invented by Ruiz) and their connection via different “tableaux vivants” to a mysterious and cruel “ceremony.” Ever playful, Ruiz diverts us at one point from these frozen tableaux to take us into a vertiginous speculative narrative of different characters and situations, figures immobilised in what might be a murder mystery.

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Afterimage… For a New, Radical Cinema