Chilean director Raul Ruiz created a weird, wild, fantastic world with Three Lives and Only One Death. Marcello Mastroianni plays four different characters in as many different stories that at first seem completely separate, but by the film’s end are wholly intertwined. It is beautifully, almost mystically shot, effectively using shadows, light, and computer imagery to create painted-like images. It is a bit confusing, but a wholly satisfying film.
In the first story, Mastroianni plays a salesman who walked out on his wife (Marisa Paredes) twenty years ago. The wife has since found another husband (Feodor Atkine) and is living a seemingly happy life. For reasons left unexplained Mastroianni suddenly decides he wants his old life back. He catches the new husband, at a Tabac and offers to pay him 1,000 francs for an hour of his time.
What proceeds is an imaginative, fantastic tale of why Mastroianni has been gone for twenty years. It is far too complicated to explain here, but let’s say it involves a room with moving walls and tiny fairies who prefer to eat franc bills, but will settle for newspaper. The end of the story finds Mastroianni wanting to leave the second husband in the fantastic room, while he moves back in with his wife.
In the second story, Mastroianni plays a successful professor who, for reasons that are all his own, becomes a beggar, and a rather successful one at that. He befriends a prostitute (Anna Galiena), who he later finds out isn’t all she pretends to be, and whose husband (Jacques Pieiller)is something of a psychopath.
In the third story, a young couple (Chiara Mastroianni and Melvil Poupaud) find themselves being mysteriously supported by an unnamed friend. After months of finding 1,000 francs in their mailbox each week, they learn this mysterious stranger has died and left them his mansion. The catch is they must keep on a peculiar butler (Mastroianni of course) or lose everything.
The fourth story is really a means to tie all three stories together, and yes, it is weird. There is a lot is going on throughout the film. It is visually stunning, complex in story and a delight throughout. It is the type of film that really deserves a second, and third viewing to allow thoughtful absorption of the many details. In what was his second to last film before his death, Mastroianni does a masterful job playing these varied, and interesting characters.
It is a film not meant for everyone. The story is as weird and complex as anything put out by David Lynch. But for the lover of cinema, there is much to appease the appetite. It is a beautiful, layered, surreal film that is a true pleasure to watch.