A Posthumous Palindrome: Raúl Ruiz & Valeria Sarmiento’s The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror
Ruiz’s unfinished first feature becomes his second posthumously completed one through a spectral collaboration with his wife and chief editor Valeria Sarmiento.
Unfathomably prolific during his lifetime, Chilean auteur Raúl Ruiz has so far remained unstoppable in his afterlife. With The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror (2020), Ruiz’s unfinished first feature becomes his second posthumously completed one. While reconstructing Ruiz’s enchanting parody of telenovelas, The Wandering Soap Opera, in 2017, the filmmaker Valeria Sarmiento, Ruiz’s wife and chief editor, stumbled upon the 35mm negative of The Tango of the Widower (1967), his would-be debut. Ruiz had abandoned the project due to a lack of post-production funding and went on to direct Tres Tristes Tigres (1968), the film that would propel him to the forefront of the New Latin American Cinema. Following the overthrow of Allende’s government in 1973, Ruiz was forced into exile and left the unedited reels behind, until they were discovered in the basement of a Santiago movie theater.
The footage consisted of a bewildering jumble of fragments and oddly repetitious scenes. Additionally, there was no surviving screenplay, nor any production sound. With the exception of a few cryptic notes about the film left behind by Ruiz, Sarmiento had little to guide her. Deaf lip readers were enlisted to decipher what they could based on the actors’ dialogue and facial expressions, and this became the starting point for a reimagining of the narrative. Sarmiento and the playwright Omar Saavedra Santis wrote a new screenplay and contemporary actors were hired to dub the original actors’ lines (many of them had died in the intervening years). As such, the film is, in essence, a spectral collaboration across half a century between a dead and living filmmaker.
The film begins with a striking image: a man casually sips from a cup while gazing at the corpse of his dead wife through a bathroom doorway. We soon learn that she has committed suicide. The widower, Professor Clemente Iriarte, lives with his nephew in a cramped Santiago apartment. A flâneur, he walks the grimy streets, frequents cafes and bookstores, and meets up with his old college friend Silva. He encounters a widow, Lola, at one of Silva’s get-togethers and they strike up a friendship. A fetishist straight out of a Buñuel film, the professor fills empty wine bottles with a concoction made from his dead wife’s stockings infused in water, a process that he carefully documents with the help of his nephew. His wife’s ghost haunts the widower night and day: she appears in his dreams and nightmares, pops up from beneath a café table, casually knits in the corner of his room; her wigs scamper across the floor of his bedroom like mice; emerging from the shadows, she caresses him seductively, whispering sinister nothings in his ear. The border between dream and reality, life and death, becomes increasingly porous. Eventually the tormented professor, driven mad by guilt and desire, commits suicide himself.
However, midway through the film the professor lurches back to life, as the film pivots and we revisit the scenes of the first half in reverse. The dialogue is now different and some of it is played backwards (rendering it gibberish). The modified text alters the meaning of the narrative in both subtle and radical ways. A phantom now, the protagonist detachedly observes the events of his life. Bitterly, he recollects how quickly his friends forgot him after his burial. He confesses that his wife’s odor always annoyed him, whereas it clearly aroused him in the film’s first half. Played backwards, certain images take on other implications. In the first part, the professor pulls a wig off his wife’s head before she vanishes into thin air, dispelling his fantasy. In reverse, Iriarte places a wig on his wife’s head, summoning her into existence. The second half ends where the first began, with the image of the wife’s dead body. However, this time around it’s suggested that her suicide was actually a murder. Chillingly, Iriarte’s voiceover proclaims: “We murdered you because you were killing us.” But, who precisely are “we” and “us”? Is his dead wife a projection of the professor’s own madness and schizophrenia? Evoking Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) (another film divided into two radically distinct halves), the professor begins to resemble her. In the second part, we see him don one of her wigs while a mysterious figure dressed in black looks on. Who is this figure? Grinning, he walks up to Iriarte’s apartment in forward motion and kicks in the door just before the professor’s spectral resurrection (Iriarte’s suicide played in reverse). Is he the Devil welcoming the professor to Hell? An allegorical personification of Time itself?
Sarmiento’s conceptual coup realizes Ruiz’s long-held desire to make a palindrome film—one that would make sense when played both forwards and backwards, yet tell a different story each time. When I visited Ruiz’s class at Harvard many years ago, he had assigned a similar exercise to his film students. It’s thrilling to witness the earliest glimmers of Ruiz’s aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations: for the first time, we encounter his fascination with the coexistence of multiple levels of time and the notion that the self is divided or plural. From the outset of his career Ruiz depicts a world in which space and time are fundamentally out of joint. The restless, probing camera pans across claustrophobic rooms, tracing spirals that echo the looping narrative structure. Disquietingly close to people and things, it carves faces and bodies in odd and unpredictable ways. Objects suddenly jut into frame, rendering spaces illegible. Unusual angles abound, as well as disorienting upside-down shots. Scenes end abruptly, and there is little regard for spatiotemporal continuity.
Ruiz satirizes the quotidian gestures and speech patterns of this disaffected band of intellectuals. They gather in cramped apartments and shadowy cafes, their conversations a stream of non-sequiturs and oblique witticisms. Clemente and Lola commiserate about the bureaucratic formalities required to inter their spouses. Iriarte and his nephew hypothesize about the enigmatic activities of the unseen handyman, whose principal activity seems to be to “manufacture smoke.” Joaquin, the professor’s nephew, attempts to ease Iriarte’s insomnia by reading to him, yet only succeeds in annoying him with his remote-control toy cars, which scurry around the professor’s bed like the wigs in his visions. The dry humor anticipates Tres Tristes Tigres, with its absurdist take on realist drama. Darkly funny, the film is also genuinely terrifying in places, evoking the horror and fantasy films that Ruiz loved as an adolescent, as with the final images of a skeleton-like figure. Jorge Arriagada (Ruiz’s longtime musical collaborator) contributes an eerie yet lyrical score that incorporates theremin and handsaw and renders even the most mundane sequences uncanny.
Despite the title of the film, the second part is not merely a falsifying deformation of the truthful first. Rather, the two halves present contradictory, undecidable variations of the same events. As such, the film evokes the divergent simultaneous destinies depicted in Borges’s “The Garden of Forking Paths” (1941). Like mirrors placed face to face, the two parts reflect one another to infinity. Yet the echoes extend to Sarmiento’s own experience working on the project. In the press materials for the film, she talks about a parallel world she still inhabits with Ruiz, one in which she continues a dialogue with him:
I haven't stopped dreaming about him. Every time I close my eyes, I remain alert to signs of a parallel kind of life…And it's true: after Raúl’s death I continued my relationship with him in [my] dreams. Every time I delve into the endless notebooks, diaries, and the theater, opera, or film projects he left unfinished, or that remain as initial gestures of his creative power, this dialogue that I continue with him follows me into sleep.
The film’s narrative mirrors Sarmiento’s own situation. Like the professor haunted by his dead spouse, Sarmiento continues to commune with Ruiz’s spirit nearly a decade after his death, and The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror encompasses their shared reverie.