From Rouge No. 2 (2004). — J.R.


The Roof of the Whale aka On Top of the Whale
(Hek dak van de Valvis/Le Toit de la baleine, Netherlands/France, 1981)


The Roof of the Whale – the film of Ruiz’s with the most pronounced ideological/political/polemical thrust – deals brilliantly with the plight of an anthropologist trying to learn the language of an obscure Patagonian Indian tribe whose last surviving members he has discovered. Beautifully and inventively shot in colour by Henri Alekan, the film proceeds less as narrative or as drama than as a prodigious stream of visual, verbal and conceptual ideas centring around this theme. The performances are either minimal to the point of indifference or deliberately curtailed (so that, for instance, Willeke van Ammelrooy, who plays the anthropologist’s wife, appears to have learned her speeches in English phonetically) and, despite periodic bursts of portentous music, suspense exists only on a purely formal level.The Roof of the Whale b&wTwo sample narrative ideas, neither of which lead anywhere in particular: in a weird parody of Lacanian psychoanalysis, the anthropologist’s child – a creature of indeterminate gender – becomes pregnant after gazing into a mirror; as an apparent gloss on this event, his or her mother remarks that poetry is dangerous because ‘metaphors become a religion, and religion is the opiate of the masses’. At another point, one of the Indians – who by this time are steeped in Western culture – argues with the other that the relative merits of Beethoven and Mozart are really a matter of which composer has the better album covers …TheRoofoftheWhale4At one level a parody of contemporary Western man’s remoteness from the pre-industrial Third World, the film is no less a comedy about the anthropological peculiarities of his own tribal customs, intellectual and otherwise. But this theme in turn is intermittently interrupted or at least complicated by purely visual explorations in colour, composition, perspective, texture and camera placement which pursue the language theme through formal metaphors. Putatively a science fiction film set in the future, the film is so blithely unconcerned with fulfilling any genre expectations in relation to this fact that yet another potential audience is summarily expelled, or at best ignored.

On Top of a Whale

© Jonathan Rosenbaum 1990. R

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