MIFF 68½ – The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror (1967/2020)

Originally titled simply The Tango of the Widower, this was intended to be surrealist Chilean director Raúl Ruiz’s first feature film. After fleeing the Pinochet regime, Ruiz lacked the funds to complete the audio track, and the negative languished undiscovered among his belongings until several years after his death in 2011. In 2017 Ruiz’s widow, Valeria Sarmiento (a director with a lengthy career of her own), began to restore the film, recruiting lip-readers to decipher the dialogue and creating a new script which formed the basis of its new incarnation as The Tango of the Widower and Its Distorting Mirror [El Tango del Viudo y su Espejo Deformante].

I’ve had only a passing acquaintance with Ruiz’s work, discovering him when he took over the abortive A TV Dante (1990-91) project from Peter Greenaway. I have fond memories of his follow-up feature Dark at Noon [L’Œil qui ment] (1992), set in a Portuguese factory-town built on the manufacture of prosthetic limbs, a business which has been undermined by a spate of miraculous healings. The overworked priest is kept busy excommunicating the recipients of these miracles, which have not been authorised by the Catholic church, and an artist played by David Warner wanders around knocking people on the head with a shovel and attempting to bury them. The mixture of bizarre incidents and interpersonal interactions was well judged and I looked forward to seeing more.

Unfortunately, this was not the triumphal discovery of a lost gem that I’d hoped for. Flashes of Ruiz’s flair for surreal situations were present in the odd variety of hauntings experienced by the widower, whose wife’s suicide has been discovered in the opening shot of the film. She initially reappears in unexpected places making mischief – playing under the table while he tries to eat his lunch and tells her to stop throwing things around, poking her legs out from under the bed, appearing upside down in a doorway. This transitions into her wigs beginning to move around on their own like little furry pets, to the extent that a plate is left out to feed them, and he experiences what might be a nightmare in which his nephew extracts a similarly sized clump of hair from his chest beneath the covers and soaks it in runoff from the construction work overhead. As the middle of the film approaches, the widower begins to wear the wigs and dress as his wife, before building to his suicide and burial – at which point events freeze, then start to reverse in freeze-frame jumps, before the entire film begins to run backwards at normal speed. Somewhere in there is a weird cackling almost-negative-image figure who wouldn’t be out of place in a Lynch film. As the events unspool, the dialogue and sound are also reversed, with occasional interjections of new dialogue from the widower over the top and an ending which, by reversing the haunting sequence, recontextualises his wife’s suicide as a murder.

Looking back at that last paragraph reinforces the idea that this is just the sort of movie I’d expect to enjoy. Where it fell down for me was the connective tissue between these moments. Most of the movie came across to me a series of disconnected and irrelevant minimalist conversations whose relevance I struggled to determine while wondering why I was supposed to be interested. It’s difficult to determine whether something’s gone wrong in the adaptation of the original story, or whether this was a weakness that was always present. It’s entirely possible that I missed the point of these sections entirely and a more receptive viewer could gain more from the material, but I found myself struggling not to fall asleep at times and can only conclude that this one is not for me.

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