An off-screen narrator conducts an interview with an unnamed on-screen art collector in the collector’s old Parisian mansion; the subject of the interview is not the collector himself, but a series of paintings he possesses by the unremarkable (and fictional) 19th century painter Tonnere. Six paintings, diverse, uniformly trite in style and composition and thematically questionable—and forming the subject of a single exhibition in which they were accompanied by a series of tableaux vivants—are the peculiar subjects of this documentary. However, the collector has spent a lifetime studying and forming ideas about them, whole and sundry, and has a few homespun hypotheses to press. Not clear is whether the interviewer is irked or fascinated by the collector’s unexpected digressions.
Essentially the collector believes the disparate paintings are lent a coherence by obscure details, the convergence of which reveals the steps to a forbidden ritual observance or an occult ceremony. He proffers this as the reason the exhibition was pulled down in such haste and Tonnere forced to flee from inevitable prosecution, a political scandal, says the collector, long forgotten and seemingly irreconcilable with such an innocuous exhibition. Also, the hypothesis hinges on the existence of a seventh painting, either stolen by the authorities or perhaps by Tonnere himself, which our collector believes holds the key to understanding the full meaning of the exhibition. To make his argument more palatable the collector employs a series of tableaux vivants similar to the ones Tonnere himself used; real actors and real sets all within the confines of the mansion that illustrate the salient details that weave each painting together. If the dramatic thesis or the intellectual preoccupations of the film don’t initially grip you, these adventures into the lives of the paintings certainly will.
The first is perhaps the single most fascinating: a forest scene, the only with an obviously Romanesque theme, depicting a bow-equipped youth meeting Diana the Huntress in a clearing. The collector points out a curious third figure in the background, a boy carelessly holding a mirror. The boy and the mirror don’t look as if they belong in the composition at all, neither the hunter nor his mythic counterpart sense the boy’s presence, but the mirror itself reflects the sun in broad strokes through the center of the painting, twaining the mythic action. The collector postulates that the sun, reflected here in the first painting, continues its course into the second painting of the seven, a basement scene where two Knights Templar are involved in a game of chess. The basement has two windows facing one another on opposite sides of the room with sunlight queerly flowing from each. So this argument is logical and compelling and at this point the collector has our full attention. The presence of another character in this painting, a youth who at first glance appears to be pouting but is actually grinning maliciously toward the viewer and away from the chess-players, the collector believes is a red herring and not a signifier in the ongoing series. There will be more of these.
On to the rest of the house. Sacha Vierny’s camera has a magisterial air as it floats its way through the collector’s abode of unguessed magnitude (as it earlier had in Last Year at Marienbad) and his lighting choices are so cerebral that together conveyance and light lend a ghostly ambiance that perfectly suits the collector’s tenor. Film compositions and lighting often play off of the variegated styles of the paintings. Use of chiaroscuro in particular becomes an important part of the collector’s developing argument, just as it’s an important purveyor of tone for Ruiz’s purposes within the film proper. As the tableaux vivant are conducted entirely within the Paris apartment, each in different rooms, the hypothesized seventh painting too has its room, but because it is only a conjecture it is empty save for a mask on the wall, and the collector believes the mask to be the token that connects this painting with the one adjacent. Set design is to be applauded here as elsewhere for its restraint as well as its dynamic use of space.
It continues in this manner. The collector’s theories become increasingly entwined or else tangents arcing into abstraction and sometimes he simply loses his place or even falls asleep. The collector is a wizened fruit and discussing his theories seems to be his sole pleasure. Yet, this erudite little man eventually has us wrapped around his finger. We allow, or rather Ruiz forces us to endure, his leaps of imagination; one of these leaps has one of the paintings imagined as a storyboard to an obscure 18th century novel of no immediate or remote relevance to the exhibit as a whole. The final known painting is demonstrated to be a recapitulation of all the themes apparent in the others. Faces and gestures reappear. Symbols multiply. The ritual and thus the impetus behind the scandal unravel. Or do they?
The film pleads with us to contemplate artistic value, and thus is self-critical. So the film may be stimulating in its cleverness and self-reflexivity, but is it valuable as cinema? Our humble collector contemplates Tonnere’s intentions and finds merit, but the artworks themselves are wanting and he admits as much to himself. Is our enjoyment of the film predicated upon our identification with its maker and the understanding of his conceit as a critical exercise? The collector warns his interviewer and us that looking too closely, seeking too many answers will result in an absurd reduction; we will see only the gestures of the figures and forget their dress, their life and their mythic identity.
Many will see this as lifeless or even a denial of life. It remains rich in ideas of art, authorship, religion, myth, iconography and intrigue, so L’hypothèse du tableau volé may be valuable in the way that good literature is—say the libraries of the mind evoked by Borges—or modern theater, but not necessarily cinema. So what does it matter if it’s cinema or something else? That’s a conundrum against which the film constantly wages battle, but also lampoons with actors who don’t act, an interviewer who doesn’t interview and a host who is part genius, part delusional. And Ruiz does seem to have an aberrant way of getting to comedy. Perhaps his (e)motionless actors are on the verge of a grin the entire time. I know I was.