An off-camera narrator is invited at the request of an unnamed art collector (Jean Rougeul) to study a series of seemingly innocuous paintings for which impeccably constructed tableaux vivants by an unremarkable nineteenth century artist named Frederic Tonnerre had once caused the artist to run afoul with French authorities. As the narrator critically surveys the six stylistically and thematically dissimilar paintings in search of potentially controversial characteristics that may have led to the exhibition’s notorious reception and premature closure (and to Tonnerre’s subsequent prosecution), the collector repeatedly interrupts the narrator’s train of thought by tersely, yet adamantly proposing that there are, in fact, seven paintings involved in the ill-fated exhibition. The collector then presents his elaborate case for the existence of the unseen, ‘stolen’ painting using Tonnerre’s similar media of artwork and tableaux vivants, as well as a salacious period novel to prove his own hypothesis, and examining several subtle, cursory details illustrated in the six extant paintings. Mapping an allusive (and invariably complex) trajectory through the unusual artistic embellishments within each painting, the collector contends that the curious details, in fact, provide visually associative cues that link the artworks together and point towards a sinister convergence – the depiction of various stages of a clandestine ceremony – a fragmentary window to a medieval ceremonial puzzle that has been deliberately left incomplete and indecipherable with the absence of serially critical missing link: the undefined (and indefinable) fourth painting.
Inspired by the idiosyncratic personality of author, theorist, and artist Pierre Klossowski whose densely cerebral erotic fiction was influenced by such notorious literary figures as the Marquis de Sade and the excommunicated surrealist Georges Bataille, as well as Klossowski’s final novel La Baphomet, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting is an indelibly haunting, endlessly fascinating, and maddeningly abstruse composition on Pirandellian ambiguity and the inherent subjectivity of perspective. Raoul Ruiz’s ingenious use of baroque, compositional tableaux vivants that intrinsically meld static art and corporeal physicality creates a blurred delineation between reality and fiction that, in turn, conflates the multi-layered existential relativity between subject and viewer, operating as both an aesthetic evaluation of the paintings and as a psychological portrait of the eccentric logic behind the conspiracy-obsessed collector. (Note a similar narrative permutation in Ruiz’s surreal whimsical fable, Love Torn in Dream.) Ruiz further fuses art and reality by visually creating an equally ominous atmosphere from the perspective of the collector (his perception of the existence of the covert medieval fraternity of the Order of the Knights Templar that was denounced during the Inquisition for charges of occultism and demonology) and the audience (the cognitive aberration implicit in the collector’s knowledgeable and articulate, but monomaniacal hypothesis) that is also manifested through the exquisitely formalized chiaroscuro lighting of both the collector’s residence and the tableaux vivants. Ostensibly presented through the conventional narrative framework of a complexly interwoven mystery, the film evolves into a sublime and intricate exposition on the reflexivity between art and life, the indefinable essence of artistic creativity, and the inexactness of personal interpretation.
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