It’s fitting that the title of Raúl Ruiz’s latest, Nucingen House, should not place primacy on character, plot, or theme, but on the physical setting itself. A sprawling mansion isolated in 1920s rural Chile, the locale is fairly standard-issue as spooky cinematic chateaus go: long, lonely hallways, verdant gardens filled with ominous statues, and a dramatically winding master staircase. From these familiar spaces, however, Ruiz conjures a singular atmosphere of free-floating unease, pitched somewhere between feverish camp and deadpan surrealism. Long after Nucingen House’s riffs on identity displacement and the porous boundary between reality and dream-state dissipate from the mind, the sense of place that Ruiz evokes here—strange yet strangely complete in its nutso logic—lingers on, bubbling to the surface of your thoughts when you least expect it.
Much of this has to do with Ruiz’s entrancing use of the camera to explore space, whether in carefully composed, deep-space images or languorous pans and tracks around his characters and their milieu. There’s very little haunted-house atmospherics here; cinematographers Jacques Bouquin and Inti Briones DV camerawork gives the film a less-saturated color palette that deemphasizes spooky shadows. The unvarnished quality of the images—which, like those in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, play on the friction between their own sharp digital immediacy and the period mise-en-scène—proves crucial in establishing Nucingen House’s matter-of-fact eeriness. Within nondescript parlors and sunlit sitting rooms, the camera will casually capture a mysterious figure hovering in a distanced doorway or through an open window, undifferentiated from any other element of the frame. Ruiz doesn’t punctuate moments of creepiness so much as disseminate them throughout the narrative, draping them about the house like decorations, until the characters—and the audience—can hardly discern where normalcy ends and madness takes over.
The film’s value beyond this exquisite use of setting to craft mood, however, remains a dicier question. The plot, such as it is, is told primarily in flashback. The aging (and pointedly named) William Henry James III (Jean-Marc Barr) dines with an anonymous young woman at a restaurant, as other off-screen couples can be heard whispering about him and his past. We travel back years earlier, when he and nerve-wracked wife Anne-Marie (Elsa Zylberstein) arrive at the house after William wins it in a bet. They quickly become acquainted with the house’s bizarre inhabitants, including current overlord Bastien (Laurent Malet), flirty, unstable Lotte (Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre), and the ever-suspicious Dieter (Thomas Durand). Despite William’s claim on the property, the previous residents continue to live in the house, revealing bits of its haunted past to William and an increasingly distraught Anne-Marie. Most importantly, they talk of the death of the beautiful Léonore (Audrey Marnay), who nevertheless remains a menacing presence within the house.
What happens next is an odd, temporally ambiguous swirl of creeping psychosis, disembodied doll heads, bursts of screwy non sequiturs, fondled lamb’s brains, and the blurring of the self. Spiked with equal parts menace and lunacy, it’s Ruizian to the end, and perhaps to a fault. Which is to say, this is one of those movies where the impulse to simply write off its frayed—if not dead—ends to the director’s idiosyncratic vision can blind us to the fact that Nucingen House really doesn’t leave much of an impact once the credits roll. Ruiz juggles a lot here, and some of his motifs and pet obsessions prove quite enticing. (I particularly dug the way representations of human beings—statues, dolls—snake their way throughout the narrative, playfully pointing toward the film’s final vision of the body itself as a vessel for unruly spirits.)
Ultimately, though, there’s little to hold onto here besides the feeling of mischievous disquiet that Ruiz’s filmmaking stirs up inside you. Then again, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that this might be the point. Like its title suggests, Nucingen House is primarily a place to inhabit and experience, trumping whatever post-visit “interpretations” we might puzzle over on the ride back to reality.
Nucingen Housewill play on February 19 and 21 as part of this year’s Film Comment Selects series. To purchase tickets, click here.