European masters who cross over to the studio system may not always leave an indelible mark, or even furrowed brow, on American audiences, but they have a good record of causing us some confusion, within classical guidelines. When Jean-Luc Godard signed with Cannon Films to make King Lear, he put the received wisdoms of adapting for the screen in huge quotation marks, interpreting, interrupting, critiquing and modernizing his source in near simultaneity. But figures including Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Max Ophuls have made less remarkable departures, introducing bizarre tableaux, new locales or strangely twining movements, but basically playing the same ball game that we do.
About the same might be said for Shattered Image, the American debut of Raul Ruiz, a Chilean expatriate residing in France. Ruiz's reputation here has lagged behind long-standing proof of his scrupulous, elaborately surreal and genuinely hilarious talent, exhibited in films including Three Crowns of the Sailor (1982), On Top of the Whale (1983) and Three Lives and Only One Death (1996). After 30 years of directing, he deserves a shot at broad, stateside recognition, if he wants it. But Ruiz, often compared to Godard for his assaults on the medium's known limits, hasn't quite lived up to his iconoclastic standards with his new film. Intricately told, frequently dazzling, and containing solid performances, it's nevertheless all surface. To a viewer who doesn't know Ruiz's work, it could be mistaken as coming from a genre director with some style chops gamely tinkering with form, rather than from a philosophy pro weaving a magic spell that can pull us out of linear time.
The basic question of Shattered Image is who is dreaming who: Does meek, confused, wealthy inheritor Jessie (Anne Parillaud) make up a cold-blooded, femme fatale in her sleep-also named Jessie, and played by Parillaud-or, is the case exactly the other way around? Engagingly, Ruiz doesn't start us out with the 'good' Jessie, but first presents us with her badder, more fictive incarnation: a rape survivor, who's taking revenge for her attack by acting as a hitwoman for women with lethal gripes over men. While the placid Jessie-Jessie 2-sunbathes in Jamaica with her money-mad husband Brian (William Baldwin), Jessie 1 slinks through a steely metropolis on a new assignment. But as she pursues her target, without photographs to help her, she begins to fall for a man named Brian (also Baldwin). Gradually, evidence accumulates that these parallel worlds somewhere connect: Both women were once sexually assaulted, both Brians are not as sweet as they appear, the same beautiful blonde (Lisanne Falk) suspiciously keeps on the edges of each man's life, a lookalike stranger gives the two Jessies identical warnings, and the two moreover seem to know vital information about each other. Perhaps their cosmic meeting point is where the second Jessie faces herself every day: her bathroom mirror.
Like any Ruiz film, Shattered Image has a structure that's wickedly convoluted, yet not certifiably illogical. It's rather ironic that killer Jessie can move about freely in a confined city-which is made all the more claustrophobic by director of photography Robby Muller's omnipresent, chilling blue accents-while passive Jessie in wild, open Jamaica hardly ever steps out of her hotel room. And, quite ingeniously, the director never makes a transition between the two worlds the same way twice.
But much of the very point of Shattered Image is making virtuosic display, and its seedy playboy/amnesiac heiress story, so patently culled from a stock of '30s and '40s suspense movies, doesn't help to add depth to all the evident technique. It could be argued that the director regards the mystery and noir forms as play, and that playing with them is within his right. But Ruiz also gives up a lot of his creativity in making this mainstream bid. Normally a stranger to establishment shots, Ruiz in Shattered Image wholly embraces the master/close-up method of working. The best Ruiz films lead us astray inside their luxuriant labyrinths; this one doesn't. Shattered Image is a movie a little at odds with itself-finely executed, but too cutely clever for its own tough, gutsy material.