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Transparency never was Raul Ruiz's strong side and his Treasure Island very vaguely based on Robert Louis Stevenson's novel is especially opaque. As in the novel everything happening is seen with the eyes of a boy time is now and to a small tourist hotel comes some captain as a lodger, there also are some crazy blind man presenting everybody with glass eyes, strange writer writing some obscure adventure novel and an old cook named Long John Silver who can cook nothing but omelets. And every one of them including the boy is reading Treasure Island novel trying to find out through it where the treasure is hidden. Then they all sail away to some especially bizarre finish.
While this film is related to the Robert Louis Stevenson book of the
same title, it certainly doesn't resemble a traditional adaptation. The
entire film is about the relationship between people and works of
fiction. Treasure Island is the most important and notable of these
works, but it isn't the only one. A substantial part of the plot is
about a group of people who attempt to reenact Treasure Island each
year; they get so caught up being their characters that they sometimes
forget they are just acting and none of them seem surprised when the
bodies start piling up.
We see all this through the eyes of Johnathan, a young man whose only education is the one he has gotten from voyeuristically observing the adults at the hotel his parents own. As a result of his spying, he tends to view everything as a detached, neutral observer. Indeed, he sometimes mixes up reality with the things he sees on TV or attempts to use his favorite show as a key to unlock the mysteries of the actions of those around him. With this character Ruiz manages to simultaneously suggest the sense of wonder and powerlessness that accompanies late childhood/early adolescence and the passive role of the viewer of a film/reader of a novel.
In some ways this film was rather similar to Ruiz's earlier City of Pirates. Some of the locations seem to be the same but more importantly Ruiz uses some of the same types of shots. In both films he tends to favor shots from below, sometimes even from ground level looking straight up at his characters. He also tends to place things in between the camera and the action which results in some interesting (and occasionally breathtaking) juxtapositions. As unusual and striking as these shots are, I felt that they lost some of their impact from frequent use. If I hadn't already seen City of Pirates this would probably not have been an issue. I also feel I should mention the many comic moments in this film, many of which arise as a result of the blending of the film's reality and the various fictions.
It's a bit hard for me to judge this film's quality at this stage; it isn't an easy film to follow and the transfer I saw of it was pretty rough. The film was in English for the most part but it was obvious that some of it was dubbed into English and some of it wasn't dubbed at all. Further, there was a loud, high pitched hiss present throughout about 90% of the film. Finally, the film had no English subs, only Spanish hard subs. One character was French and his lines weren't dubbed into English so I was only able to use my rudimentary Spanish skills to figure out the general gist of what he was saying. I would like to rewatch this film on a better print.
A pure masterpiece! Undoubtedly Ruiz's best! Treasure island belongs to this category of films that is devoted to express the realm of childhood, with all its delighted charm, and also its perverted games. This film is not merely an adaptation of Stevenson's famous work ; it tells the story of a child that is gradually brought into a sort of game orchestrated by adults, a game which recreates the childlike universe of Stevenson's Treasure Island. And gradually too, this child happens to merge (but it would be hard to explain) into the figure of the author, played by Jean-Pierre Léaud, whose off-voice relates in French the memories of the child himself. A jigsaw-like film, that is worth to be seen a lot of consecutive times, without its delightful treasures being completely revealed. >
More yet than you go to find Treasure Island, Treasure Island comes to find you. The fatherless Jim is visited at the original book's beginning by figures in a confusing death pursuit who wrench him out of his bleak but quiet childhood. In this movie, Jim is not fatherless but his father is deep in the pursuit from the beginning; never was there any other way. Childhood is a lengthy phantasmagoria, and both the boy hero and the viewer may feel relieved to finally set sail with some kind of idea, however imperfect, as to who is who and as to what the objective is. This modernization is certainly no movie with which to introduce the tale to a youngster-- or to anyone else. You need a prior familiarity with the book, you need a tolerance for red herrings and ambiguity, and at least for the English-dubbed version you need to be willing to suffer dialogue that is not merely unrealistic but downright awkward. If you can get past all that, you can enjoy a combination of surrealism, allegory, and straight-faced B-movie absurdity that will have you shaking your head and wondering what gullible pockets ever supplied the budget.
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