One of contemporary cinema’s most elegant eccentrics is in a playful mood even by his standards in “That Day.” Raoul Ruiz’s macabre comedy is about angels and demons, greed and innocence, and the thin line separating madness from sanity. Played like an absurdist farce with infectious verve by a fine ensemble cast, the film’s theatricality nonetheless wears increasingly thin, bogging down especially during its plodding resolution. But while the operation is too rarefied for general arthouse palates, the comedy’s sardonic humor and impeccable craftsmanship should ensure continuing festival play.
Billed as “Un film helvetique de Raoul Ruiz,” the story’s setting in a tranquil village nestled in the manicured countryside of Capitalism Central, Switzerland — here crawling with the military — represents a wry backdrop for the writer-director’s scenario about a scheming family and a manipulative, avaricious State.
Setting the tone with a fanciful opening, Ruiz introduces Livia (Elsa Zylberstein), an heiress with a fragile grip on reality who sees an angel in every encounter. Using a complicated system involving runes, I-Ching, tarot and Aztec astrology, Livia has divined that tomorrow will be the best day of her life.
Meanwhile, psychopath Emil Pointpoirot (Bernard Girardeau) has escaped from the local asylum. The village police decide to defy expectations by appearing to do nothing, while working in the shadows.
But while the cops lie low, Pointpoirot descends on Livia at home, where her only marginally more normal family has been plotting to put her away and get their hands on the massive fortune she inherited from her mother. Most determined of all to get the loot is Livia’s bitter father (Michel Piccoli), whose business is about to go under.
Pointpoirot initially tries to kill Livia, but she fends him off with a hammer. As the two recognize they are kindred spirits, hapless family members one by one return home and bodies start piling up. Livia acquiesces in her own vague fashion as Pointpoirot pragmatically eliminates the intruders. He then props them up at the dinner table to continue his afternoon interlude with Livia, whose sweetness gradually extinguishes his urge to kill.
Ruiz creates a drolly black version of a vintage drawing-room mystery with an amusingly orchestrated killing spree, and peoples it with some delicious comic characters. Notable among them are Girardeau’s rapturous murderer, Helene Surgere’s imperious dowager, Edith Scob’s parched usurper of the matriarchal role and two cops with a unique handle on logic, played by Jean-Luc Bideau and Christian Vadim.
But the archness and artifice prove impossible to sustain, becoming increasingly precious as Ruiz’s script rather obviously uncovers the real forces targeting Livia and her fortune.
Edited and shot with extremely fluid grace and style, the film is full of witty Hitchcockian visual touches, foregrounding odd objects within the frame and creating a woozy visual effect and ambient noise to convey Pointpoirot’s altered state of mind. Jorge Arriagada’s classical score strikes an appropriate midpoint between whimsy and suspense.