L’hypothèse du tableau volé

“People love mystery, and that is why they love my paintings.”–

“Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?”–William Butler Yeats

Must See


FEATURING: Jean Rougeul

PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.

Still from The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)


  • Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
  • Cinematographer Sacha Vierny had an equally distinguished career that spanned five decades. Especially known for his collaborations with and , he lensed the Certified Weird films Last Year at Marienbad (1961), Belle de Jour (1967), The Cook the Thief His Wife & Her Lover (1989), Prospero’s Books (1991), and The Pillow Book (1996).
  • Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
  • Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.

Opening of The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting

COMMENTS: The ultimate question Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting appears to pose is: is art a mystery to enjoy, or a riddle to be solved? Both? Sometimes one, and sometimes the other? The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting begins by suggesting a root mystery: why did an exhibition of the paintings of Frédéric Tonnerre cause a scandal in Paris in the 1900s? But in the process of answering this question, Hypothesis keeps raising others: is our guide through the world of the paintings, the Collector, correct that Tonnerre intended these paintings to be read as a series that reveals an esoteric deeper meaning? Is he correct in deducing that one of the paintings must be missing? Is he correct in his ultimate explanation of Tonnerre’s intent? Does Tonnerre’s riddle hold any significance for us today? Why should we care? What is the purpose of art? What is the purpose of this movie about the purpose of art? (And those are only the general questions, apart from the more specific mysteries in the paintings, such as: why does one of them show two sources of light beaming in from opposite windows, as if it was set on a world with two suns?)

Our guide through these tableaux, he Collector is the kind of obsessive interpreter who would create elaborate graphs (maybe even using different colored pencils to denote separate plotlines) in order to figure out the plots of Donnie Darko (2001) or Mulholland Drive (2001). In fact, in Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting he executes this kind of analysis on an even grander scale: he hires dozens of living actors—who live with him in his chateau, posing in silent stillness and never breaking character except to blink or stifle a sniffle—to recreate each of Tonnerre’s six canvases (seven, if you count the stolen one). As literally as possible, the Collector lives with these paintings, walking through them to examine each detail and to better understand the spatial relations between the elements. He has obviously thought about these paintings more than any of us ever would, or would care to. We first understand the depths of his obsession when he pulls out a pair of binoculars and stares into his own garden, where he has hired a group of actors to dress in Grecian tunics and stand around in the precise positions seen in Tonerre’s “Diana and Acteon” beside a fake lake: the huntress with a broken bow, the slaughtered deer, the curious youth spying the goddess, and a mysterious figure holding a mirror. The mirror, we are told, would have presumably been used to blind prey; but the Collector sees a deeper significance. He traces the rays of the sun reflected by the mirror and concludes they provide the unseen source of light seen in the next painting in the series. He walks into the tableaux vivant he has arranged of that painting to find the clue that will lead him to the next one. Gradually, bringing in evidence from an obscure roman à clef, he uncovers—or constructs—an elaborate and bizarre explanation for the paintings which incorporates a tangled net of secret lusts, duels, and a secret cult… but one painting in the series, he claims, is missing.

Ruiz is playing narrative games with the audience—leading us down questionable paths, all while warning us of “snares” set by Tonnerre to hide his true meaning, traps which would more accurately said to be placed by Ruiz himself. In a movie about painting, he also plays games with the form of the film. There are only two characters here, both of whom serve as narrators. The Collector presents himself as the authority and clearly has more firsthand knowledge about the paintings in question than any other living person. But the other narrator is disembodied, like the narrator of a documentary, and therefore is more of the stand-in for the actual author of this piece. The unseen narrator defers to the Collector’s expertise, but he also gently disagrees with the guide, and sows ironic doubt. Besides the issue of which narrator to pay attention to, the Collector’s technique fosters some discomfort. By recreating the canvases as three-dimensional tableux vivants, he expands the paintings so he can see them better—but no matter how faithfully he recreates them, is he not necessarily changing them in this process, introducing new elements? Isn’t he recreating and adapting them to suit his own purposes, rather than simply viewing them as they were intended to be seen? Further, it is deliberately odd that a movie about paintings is shot in… black and white. (My God, what if the color of a belt had been a crucial clue to the meaning of one of the canvases?) Is this Ruiz’s idea of a joke—a way to point out that we are already viewing the art through a particular, deficient lens? Of suggesting that, in the Collector’s dusty world, the color has been metaphorically drained from these pieces?

Your interpretation of what Ruiz is saying about how we should approach a work of art will depend on how you respond to the Collector. Perhaps there are some people who trust him, who eagerly follow his quest to decipher the secrets behind the paintings. But I believe that the Collector is meant to be a figure of mockery. We frequently see him holding his head in his hands, rubbing his temples, and we feel the headache the strain of interpreting the paintings is bringing upon him. Annoyed by alternate theories, he interrupts the unseen narrator’s musings: “Certainly not! That is not the way to look at this painting.” At one point, he briefly falls asleep during his lecture (the narrator carries on, whispering so as not to awake him), reminding us of his advanced age. The Collector’s reasoning—the very hypothesis of the title, that there is one picture missing from a series—may be suspect; and if so, everything he has told us about the paintings falls apart. Still, his overall thesis about the artwork, while almost unaccountably bizarre, is persuasive. But for what? All of his obsessing about the canvases brings him no pleasure. In the end, he confesses, “I wonder if the effort had been worthwhile. The enigma has been solved… but I am not satisfied.” Ruiz has pretty good credentials as a Surrealist, and we might guess that he would be skeptical of the Collector’s analytical approach to art, his obsessive need to demystify. The Collector, the critic, has bled all of the mystery out of the story and made himself melancholy and dissatisfied. His quest to understand, rather than to enjoy, the artwork has made him miserable.

Art is itself a mystery. Why does complex art, the kind we don’t comprehend on a single viewing, move us? Part of the reason must be that we believe that the artist is trying to communicate something to us, and we feel called to understand his message. But it can’t be the message itself that moves us. If so, the artist would have stated his meaning plainly and satisfied us, rather hiding his purpose under layers of symbolism. Art is more than just conveying information—the appeal must lie in the process of understanding. But then, is art appreciation nothing more than the act of solving elaborate riddles? What happens when something is missing, one painting in the series, a key, has been lost or taken away that would lead us to a complete understanding of his meaning? Even worse, what becomes of us when the artist’s meaning is ultimately disappointing—a monument to long dead beliefs no one holds anymore—as the Collector determines in Hypothesis? Tonnerre’s paintings are still beautiful and intriguing, even if the meaning behind them is irrelevant to us. It is possible that Hypothesis is—on one level, at least—an explication of Klossowski’s interpretation of Nietzsche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence (therefore the circular series of paintings that might begin at any point, and the “revelation” that the painted figures pointing fingers trace a circle). And perhaps Ruiz is taking us on a tour of critical theories, examining, then rejecting, various approaches such as formalism and historicism before settling into a postmodern cynicism about the entire quest for meaning.

Or perhaps we are on the wrong track altogether in searching for the artist’s intent. This discussion will inevitably lead us to ask whether, through the act of trying to interpret Ruiz’s Hypothesis, we fall into the trap the author has set for us. The demonstration here mocks the search for answers, suggesting that interpretation leads to disillusionment. The word “disillusionment” means the loss of illusion—as if the illusion is what we cherish. The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting operates as a question-generating machine: like images infinitely reflected in a mirror, the more we look at it, the more we see, and the further we get away from its reality. We may have better off before we followed that pallid, despondent little Collector down the first corridor in his labyrinth.


“… like a haunted-house occult whodunit in suspended animation. A bumbling collector of pictures takes us on a guided tour of his Tonnerre collection – not the canvases, but their weird compositions re-enacted as tableaux vivants in a mansion and its gardens.”–Time Out London

“…an indelibly haunting, endlessly fascinating, and maddeningly abstruse composition on Pirandellian ambiguity and the inherent subjectivity of perspective.”–Acquarello, Strictly Film School

“Obviously, not for all tastes, but if you enjoy a film that is a pure mind trip then this one should take you there … or, at least, it will try to take you there if you are not bored out of your mind by the journey.”–Dennis Schwartz, Ozus’ World Film Reviews

IMDB LINK: The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1978)


The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting – Essay by Thomas Elsaesser, originally printed in Monthly Film Bulletin (December 1984)

Siren Song: The Narrating Voice in Two Films by Raúl Ruiz– Academic article from David Heinemann, originally published in “Cinema Caparat/ive Cinema 1, no. 3 (2013),” examining the role of the narrator in Hypothesis and Ruiz’s short “Ice Stories”

HOME VIDEO INFO: Facets Video released The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting on DVD (buy) as part of the “Blaq Out Collection.” Although Facets releases have often been based on poor quality prints (although, in the company’s defense, they are often the best-available versions of rare films), I am pleased to report that Hypothesis looks good, allowing the viewer to appreciate Sacha Vierny‘s crucial monochrome lighting schemes. (The image is a bit soft and even misty, but that is likely intentional.) Since Hypothesis is just over an hour, Facets fills out the disc with a second Ruiz feature from 1978, The Suspended Vocation (also a Klossowski adaptation, but one so rooted in intricate Catholic doctrines that it baffles most viewers). A pleasant 30-minute interview with Ruiz provides detail and insight into his life and work in this period.

For a premium, this disc is also available in a 2007 release bundled with the surreal and recommended Three Crowns of the Sailor (buy), although it may actually be cheaper to buy the single disc versions of Crowns and Hypothesis/Vocation separately.

The film is not currently available on Blu-ray or streaming services.

2 thoughts on “325. THE HYPOTHESIS OF THE STOLEN PAINTING (1978)”

  1. Holy Smoke, if ever there were a Peter Greenaway movie not made by that director, this would be it.

    For a similar experience hewing closer to the “documentary” side of things, I recommend Greenaway’s “Rembrandt’s J’Accuse” (the companion piece to his bio-pic of said painter, “Nightwatching”). One gets to hear a lot of Greenaway theorizing and even see him interrogate 17th-century witnesses…

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