Up to his usual tricks, Raoul Ruiz spins another sly, spry intellectual game out of the compound costume adventures that comprise “Love Torn in Dream.” As evocative/inscrutable as its title, pic provides witty diversion for upscale auds at any given moment. But in pushing past the two-hour mark while staying on the same whimsical, labyrinth-to-nowhere plane, this elaborate in-joke will finally wear out all but the maestro’s dedicated fans. Lack of the interna-tional marquee stars who’ve participated in some of his other recent projects (e.g. “Geneologies of a Crime,” “Time Regained”) makes this a trickier prospect for arthouse export.
Rules of the game are laid out — complete with diagram and pointer — straight off, as a mock newsreel shows cast and crew arriving in Portugal for a shoot supposedly just post-WWII. We’re introduced en masse to the nine separate tales that will intersect in a mathematically exact pattern until only one is left.
These little fables, evocative of “The Arabian Nights” (but inspired by sources as various as Portuguese, Chilean and Jewish folklore, Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm), waste no time in blurring together, as nearly all are set in a vaguely 17th-18th century European milieu. (One, “The Prophetic Site,” has an up-to-the-moment urban setting — its protag discovers his fate is being foretold on the Internet — further differentiated by vid lensing.)
Each plays impishly with classic storytelling conventions, from hidden identities and magical interventions to the garage-sale of fateful talismans (a Maltese cross, “thieving” mirror, “healing” painting) that pop up throughout. Catholicism, burglary, philosophical debate, sensuous women of mystery (variously played by Elsa Zylberstein and Paula Pais), slapstick-combatative nuns, medical arcadia and narrow escapes are thematic motifs that dot the mazelike scenario like recurrent, teasing musical refrains.
Indeed, feature has the winsome, immaculately crafted yet feather-weight appeal of a minor Mozart piece — it’s an exercise with numerous small delights, but an exercise nonetheless, as self-conscious as it is skilled. There’s little sense that anything too important or pointed is going on beneath the complex ornamental surfaces Ruiz contrives here.
Nonetheless, pic’s playful, diverse yet cohesive gambits show Ruiz at top of his game, at least stylistically. Performers strike the right deadpan attitude, led by Melvil Poupaud as a bewildered hero for all seasons and stories. Lambert Wilson, Christian Vadim, Diogo Doria and Rogerio Samora are cast as numerous identity-shifting villains and rivals blocking his path.
Production design mixes storybook artifice and period realism to attractive, sometimes enchanting ends. Ruiz stages tableaux-like scenes in or around lovely historic Portuguese sites, while Acacio de Almedia’s exquisite color lensing takes its primary cue from surrounding verdant forestry. Occasional “magical” f/x are charmingly primitive, though Ruiz doesn’t exclude glossier tech devices, as in several dazzling tracking/crane shots. Jorge Arriagada’s score is a tongue-in-cheek lexicon of melodramatic cliches in itself.