LIST CANDIDATE: THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (1983)

Les Trois Couronnes du Matelot

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Raoul Ruiz

FEATURING: Jean-Bernard Guillard, Philippe Deplanche

PLOT: A weary sailor promises a desperate student passage on a sailing ship, but first he

Still from Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983)

relates tales of his surreal adventures in ports around the world.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s easier to think of reasons Three Crowns of the Sailor should make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies than reasons it shouldn’t. It won’t make it on the first ballot because it lacks a “wow” factor; with its subtle, literary tone, it’s more of a slow burn movie, one that seems likely to grow in stature the more one thinks about it. Time will tell whether it will end up Listed among the best; in the meantime, director Raoul Ruiz has better known movies that may deserve Listing before this one.

COMMENTS: In the first post-credits sequence of Three Crowns of the Sailor, a student is discussing his crimes in the first person; as he wanders the streets in post-offense panic, he begins talking about himself in the third person. This is an appropriate digression, because in Crowns one character is always turning into another. Situations, dialogues and symbols recur with variations; one of the crew of the cursed ship Funchalese will often blame his actions on “the other,” some perpetual double always hiding out below decks. The film’s main themes are storytelling (stories are told inside of other stories), forgetfulness, otherness, and escape, and totems also show up across the seaman’s wandering tales, especially jewelry and money. The nameless sailor continually borrows money from his seafaring brethren, keeping himself in a constant state of debt that ties him to the ship. Each of the episodes the sailor relates are absurd—such as the time he fell for the exotic dancer with only one orifice, or when his shipmates give birth to worms through their boils—but they are also verbally and intellectually playful, inspired almost as much by Jorge Luis Borges as by Luis Buñuel. Each of the sailors is tattooed with a single letter, to stress that they are all individual elements that go together to form a sentence and eventually a story. Our old salt is rescued by a child who lives inside a vast house with edges he has never been able to locate in his explorations. The sailor tells him his life story, but the boy informs him that those anecdotes have already been told in the books that line the house’s infinite walls. Other memorable conceits include children chanting the 365 names of the male organ outside a bordello window, a sentence served in prison with a guru who teaches the inmates the basics of theology, and a second prophet, a black supremacist who requests three Danish crowns. The sailor’s bizarre tour of the world’s exotic ports plays with reality in a way that’s deliberately intended to confound; the framing story where he encounters the student adheres to a fantastical folktale logic that makes for a pleasing contrast. If you’re in the mood for literate confusion with a vein of humor as black and dry as gunpowder, you couldn’t do much better than Three Crowns of a Sailor.

Incredibly, Three Crowns of a Sailor was made for broadcast on French television. According to Ruiz the story was inspired by “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” and a Chilean legend about a ship of the dead.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…should delight students of semiotics and probably no one else.”–Janet Maslin, The New York Times (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by Irene, who explained it featured “a lot of mystic characters, events, Latin America ‘bordelieras’, beautiful ‘putas’, and when you see worms squeezed out of boils on a sailor’s chest, and later these worms metamorphosing into poisonous butterflies killing the birds who eat them, you understand that this movie is to be mentioned here.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

2 thoughts on “LIST CANDIDATE: THREE CROWNS OF THE SAILOR (1983)”

  1. Honestly, I forgot about this movie, and was pleasantly surprised to read the review. I hurried up to refresh it in my memory and my opinion of it has not changed. I love the film, and love the review. Thank you .

    By the way u put it just as LIST CANDIDATE.

    A Russian journalist, author and a critic Dmitry Volchek told a wonderful story of how he saw it first time, practically illegally at a the-then Leningrad underground theater, the film being borrowed from a French Cultural attache in 1984. You know such films were banned in the USSR. Later he met with Raoul Ruiz at a Rotterdam Film Festival. And the latter told him a story of its creation:

    “It was a single film of a serial that has survived . With it there was a danger of the other sort–it had too great success. And I was frightened, has tried to destroy this success and to make film which would please nobody.You know I hate to be popular. It was a false idea of the French leftists to make big, popular art. False because popularity is nothing. ‘ Popularity ‘ means, that all like film. And in fact it is awful.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *