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Life Is a Dream

A Feature film by Raoul Ruiz

Produced by Maison de la Culture du Havre, INA - Institut National de l'Audiovisuel

Production year : 1986

  • Contents

Actors (9)

Production and distribution


Prologue: the lights in the film theatre dim. Out of the darkness a voice speaks: ‘In early April 1974 a literature teacher, Ignacio Vega, had to learn the names of 15,000 anti-junta resisters. It took him only a week.’ Colour appears on the screen, a wavering greenness like luminous chiffon, over which the voice continues: ‘He had found a mnemonic.’ As a teenager he had once responded to a bet by learning off by heart the whole of Calderón’s seventeenth-century play Life Is a Dream. Later he uses the play as a mnemonic device for consigning to memory the 15,000 names: ‘Each line had a militant’s name, each metaphor an address, each stanza an armed operation.’ But shortly after this amazing feat he is caught and has to forget everything. With the loss of memory the screen goes black, a voice announces: ‘Ten years have passed. And our story begins.’


The Beginning: our hero has to remember: in order to remember the names he has to use the Calderón text, but in the process of forgetting the names he has also forgotten every word of the play. Groping for a way out of this amnesia, he recalls the cinema of his childhood where the programme would begin at 2.30 every day with Flash Gordon, followed by Zorro, Superman, Batman, Davy Crockett, Jungle Jim. He returns to this theatre where ‘Remarkably, the theatre shows the same movie as twenty years ago.’ The male narrating voice, over images of a toy train, located in some indeterminate spatial zone, tell us: ‘He suddenly remembers the opening of the play, linked with images of a pre-war British thriller.’ This male voice is displaced by a marvellously throaty female voice, speaking in French the fabulous opening lines of the play – ‘Violent hippogriff, vying with the wind.’ Thereafter, he goes to the cinema every day to reconstruct the play, image by image.

Ruiz tells how he made this film after reading Francis Yates’s book The Art of Memory, which traces the work of ‘artificial memory’ from its use by orators of antiquity, through Gothic transformations in the Middle Ages, to the occult forms it took in the Renaissance, and finally to its use in the seventeenth century by the scientific philosophers. ‘In the art of memory,’ says Ruiz, ‘you need a place that you know perfectly, it can be your body, your house, your town with your church. Then you need to put a sign there, particular and unforgettable images. I wanted to make a film about what happened in Chile without using Chilean elements.’
Memory, for Ruiz, is located in the cinema, in the cinephiliac imagination. But this imaginary is not simply ‘in’ the cinema; rather, the cinema provides the pretext for its staging. Moreover, while this cinema is situated historically, it also serves as an agency of dislocation. There is a peculiar discrepancy between the two ‘lost objects’, the immense list of names and the Calderón play; and this discrepancy elaborates a highly complex and slippery relation between the real and the realm of dreams, between memory and experience.

The next film is The Iron Mask, a movie he’s seen so many times he recognises the visuals, but feels he understands nothing. Déjà vu becomes never seen.

In this cinema, the sounds, images, colours are mercurial and nomadic; they migrate from one place to another, never settling, always resonant though in perverse and unexpected ways. On the screen we see fragments of films, evocative of a range of genres utterly familiar and alluringly exotic. Dialogic exchanges take place between characters in logically different spaces, on the screen and in the auditorium, for instance. Sigismundo, the hero of Life Is a Dream, shows up not only on the screen, but also in the intradiegetic theatre as a spectator; and the hero also projects his own images, fantasies, sense of history and memory, onto the screen. At one stage he appears in a theatre-cum-futuristic-nightclub where people are wearing battery-powered glasses that enable them to see others naked, but without nipples. Clopping hooves migrate from the loudspeakers to the theatre itself, sounds of torture, blood-curdling shrieks and moans emanate from behind the screen, a location whence people are intermittently dragged, struggling. Intimations of violence escape the screening process and infiltrate the spatial texture of ‘daily’ living. When the hero discovers that a police station is situated here, he realises that the uncanny feeling he is experiencing comes from ‘someone being beaten’.

    Images err, stray from the screen, multiply and divide, conjuring up a scenario that is ‘logically impossible’ yet imaginatively true. The narrator tells us, ‘The film images generate others, those of his childhood, familiar objects, toys, story book images.’ Images from the screen are reflected back, superimposed over his face; childhood images (castles and toy trains) transform in an almost alchemical process into embodiments of desire. ‘He gets stuck at Act Three. The lines, linked with objects, remind him of long forgotten events that evoke forgotten movies suggesting strangers’ names, that conjure the face of a woman better forgotten.’ His attention is distracted from the film by a woman sitting in the audience. They strike up a conversation in which she tells him about her scars, some of which are hidden. He wants to see them, ‘if it’s no bother’.  

Men usually hate seeing scars.
It depends. I have some too.

Across time, over cinematic bodies, the scar is transferred.

One can well believe that the answers and methods for solving this primeval problem were not precisely gentle; perhaps indeed there was nothing more fearful and uncanny in the whole prehistory of man than his mnemotechnics: ‘If something is to stay in the memory it must be burned in: only that which never ceases to hurt stays in the memory.’
     – Nietzsche, The Genealogy of Morals

The ending is continuously deferred, as is the point of full recall, always arriving too early or too late. Remembering and forgetting stalk one another, circling, lying in wait. Our hero asks his childhood friend what he is waiting for, to which his friend, who turns out to be a traitor, responds: ‘For the film to end. I’ll kill you when they kiss. Love scenes bore me.’

Shots ring out; figures jump over seats, run down the aisles, dodging bullets which fly in all directions. Then, in the light of the projector, surrounded by a halo, our hero’s nemesis appears, his face all bloodied.

Will this bullet ever come?
Wanna read while you wait?
What’ve you got?
OK Magazine
Too Late
Lenin’s State and Revolution
Too Early
Here’s the bullet.

They disappear in billowing mists. And wake, with other recognisable figures from the film, though all are transformed by blood-streaked faces signifying their status as the living-dead. ‘Look, a real sunset!’ someone says, looking off screen. ‘That’s no sunset. It’s a nuclear war.’ Where? ‘Somewhere in Europe I guess.’ Over a backdrop of the ocean the hero and heroine kiss. At last we have the sense of an ending, but remember: the assassin waits until the kiss to fire his bullet. From the kiss there is a cut to a deep red which saturates the screen. The camera pans, the redness takes shape as a sunset, and out of the mists of the fog machine a castle materialises, a phantasmatic childhood landscape, over which the end credits begin to roll. But it could equally be the pretext for another beginning.

Although we witness the mobilisation of a mnemotechnics, a contemporary practice of the art of memory, Ruiz makes clear in this film that the relation between cinema and memory is not just or even primarily about seeing. In Ignacio’s childhood cinema, and by extension in our cinema, there is no exact fit between word and image; memories cannot be excavated as a series of intact entities, each in its proper place. Rather, memory is a process, a kind of textual inscription. So for Ruiz our memory works cinematically, is in a sense structured by the technological possibilities of cinema. Structured, yes, but not constrained or determined by technology. If the nightclub scene is vaguely futuristic, it is also curiously anachronistic, suggestive of 3D cinema and of all technological utopianism. The desire for transparency, to see through the world, always incorporates a blind spot, a kind of censoring. As one of the characters says concerning the absence of nipples: ‘That’s censorship!’ Screening always involves a projection of libidinal desire at that point where it intersects with technology and techniques of memory; screening always, as it invokes memory, also institutes forgetfulness and a screening out, be it of nipples or of the edges of the screen via panning and scanning, or of colour fading.

Even before the first images, we are remembering. But, no matter how much we remember, this is no safeguard against what we do not know. Your memories will not protect you from what you have never seen before. It might not be an image as such that is alarming. It might be, say, a configuration of colours, and sounds, where colours, at first formless, begin to figure out a menacingly inchoate cinematic substance.

© Lesley Stern,  adapted from passages in The Scorsese Connection (BFI, 1995)

Full credits (7)

Assistant Director :

Gérald Dumour

Screenwriter :

Raoul Ruiz

Sound Recordist :

Jean-Claude Brisson

Music Composer :

Jorge Arriagada

Author of original work :

Pedro Calderón de la Barca

Director of Photography :

Jacques Bouquin

Editors :

Martine Bouquin, Rodolfo Wedeles

Technical details

Feature film

Genres :


Sub-genre :

Literary adaptation

Production language :


Original French-language productions :


Nationality :

100% French

Production year :


French release :

Runtime :

1 h 40 min

Current status :


Approval :


Color type :


Audio format :