Review by Ian Johnston
Posted on 15 November 2006
Source Kino Video DVD
Raoul Ruiz has always been something of an impish old joker, one whose playfulness — as evidenced in the mid-nineties by Three Lives and Only One Death — has been rather on hold in recent years. His magnificent Proust adaptation Time Regained was no doubt constrained by its literary source, although it did leave room for Ruiz to pursue his baroque fascination with objets d’art, and there were also some splendid scenes of striking trompe l’oeil effects (think of the line of chairs mysteriously shifting during the concert performance). But Comedy of Innocence, in spite of its initial mysterious tone, turned out to be a straight crime mystery with a very down-to-earth solution (rather as if there were no ghost in The Sixth Sense after all). And in Les √Çmes Fortes Ruiz offered a straightforward adaptation of a minor mid-20th century literary novel.
With That Day however, Ruiz stages a comeback for his joker persona. Although it never runs very deep, it’s a witty jeu d’esprit which allows Ruiz to indulge his fascination with playing with narrative and image. Tongue set firmly in cheek, he calls this made-in-Switzerland film “un film helvétique,” and announces its verdant, bucolic setting as “Switzerland, in the near future.” Here, as the morning mists slowly rise, the film’s central character Livia sits by the side of a country road, writing in her diary, addressing a fallen leaf as “my sister” and a passer-by who falls from his bicycle as “my angel” (in Livia’s unique and personal mythology, falling is the sign of being an angel). “Tomorrow is the best day of my life,” she declares before a band of inmates from the nearby mental asylum cycle past. One of these inmates also falls from his bicycle, and he and Livia stare smilingly, innocently, guilelessly at each other. This man, Pointpoirot, will prove to be another angel for Livia.
For “tomorrow” is December 28, Livia’s birthday, and Livia is the unknowing centre of a family conspiracy. This “best day of my life” is the day Livia comes into her inheritance (from her mother) and the rest of the family, her own brothers included, under the directions of their authoritarian businessman father Harald, are all in on the plot to murder the “mad” Livia. This involves Warff, a mysterious agent of the Swiss state in cahoots with Harald, withdrawing the insulin from the diabetic serial killer Pointpoirot and sending him off to kill Livia in the conveniently deserted mansion.
Needless to say, things don’t proceed according to plan, for Livia and Pointpoirot are kindred spirits, both of whose perception of the world is out of joint with that of normal society, of all the other characters surrounding them. They live entirely in the present instant, innocent of cause and effect and innocent of the meaning of what is happening at a precise moment. Pointpoirot offers the murderous face of this childlike grasp on nothing more than the absolute “now”, as he stumbles from one killing to the next, each act forgotten as he concentrates on the next task that needs to be completed. Not that there is any plan to this murder spree, for each of his victims comes across his path purely by chance.
Livia is pure, guileless innocence. She’s unwitting of the machinations going on in the web of conspiracy that is spun around her, and she has a blithe disconnection from the string of murders that ultimately protect her. Not that there isn’t a darker side to this as well—she does after all unknowingly lure her angel from the day before over the estate wall to his death, killed with the hammer she carelessly tosses to the ground. But as she flits from one part of the house to another, or rushes outside to dance around a tree in joyful abandon, her cheerful innocence leads her to view any occurrence in the most positive light, bathing it in a beatific and benevolent optimism.
There’s a sense of randomness to the events of the story, of events spiraling out of control. Hence, the police chief and his sidekick Ritter sit out the whole story in the local café, having decided on doing absolutely nothing, before turning up in the final scene to tie up the one last loose thread, the one conspirator not yet dead. But Ruiz simultaneously offers a sense of absolute control through his characteristic style. There are his very deliberate sideways tracking shots that overtly call attention to themselves. Perhaps Ruiz himself is the God that so many characters make reference to but which the film otherwise gives no evidence of, sitting in the shadows, pulling the strings through the twists in his narrative and the movements of his camera. There are also his mock-Wellesian depth-of-field compositions with one object highlighted in the extreme foreground: the bloodied hammer in Livia’s hand; Pointporot’s blood sugar meter; diners’ forks held in the air when Harald has his conversation in the café with the police officers; the low-angle shot of the restaurant table with the out-of-focus billiard ball in extreme close-up on the floor, which a sudden rack-focus reveals as bearing the ominous number thirteen.
All of this adds to the film’s absurdism, sometimes teetering over into very dark black comedy, and reinforced by moments of exquisite surrealism, such as the dead bodies arrayed in chairs around the dining table, or when Livia dances with Pointpoirot holding a portrait in front of her face. In a film rich with incidental jokes, witticisms, and striking images, Ruiz even offers us the chance to take this to a more serious level. There are off-camera sounds of gunshots, shots of Army vehicles on the move, references to the darker forces of the Swiss state, and even jokes about globalisation. If you want, you could make That Day into a dark political parable. Or not. For the fascination of Ruiz at his most characteristic is his slipperiness, his ability to operate in contradictory modes simultaneously. This is all about control and order—or the lack of control and order. Of the triumph of good—or the persistence of evil. Of the workings of pure chance—or of fate. Of God—or of no God. It’s profoundly serious—or effervescently light. The delight of That Day is that it is all these things in an ever-shifting mix that never settles for anything final.