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Three Crowns of the Sailor

Three Crowns of the Sailor
Directed by Raúl Ruiz
Produced by Paulo Branco
Written by Raúl Ruiz
Emilio Del Solar
François Ede
Starring Jean-Bernard Guillard
Cinematography Sacha Vierny
Edited by Valeria Sarmiento
Release dates
  • 1983 (1983)
Running time
117 minutes
Country France
Language French

Three Crowns of the Sailor (French: Les Trois couronnes du matelot) is a 1983 French fantasy film directed by Raúl Ruiz.[1][2]



The film opens with a murder of a professor committed by his student in Warsaw. The black and white scene is alternately narrated by the protagonist of the film known simply as the "Sailor" and the student. The student walks through war torn Warsaw when he meets the Sailor, who offers him an escape from the country through a boat job. They enter a bar to negotiate the deal; the student agrees to listen to his story and give him 3 crowns.

The Sailor starts his story- depicted in colored film- with his departure from home, Valparaiso, where he leaves his sister and mother to work on the ship, the Fuchalense. this mysterious apparition of a ship contains even stranger inhabitants. The sailors who run the ship are tattooed with solitary letters and supposedly never defecate. On one occasion, the sailor claims to have been imprisoned in another sailor's body, and as he wanders around the boat in bewilderment, encounters multiple visions of himself from this different perspective.

The story continues to unfold through the sailor's multiple docking experiences. Among these, he encounters a porcelain doll loving prostitute, Maria; a young boy he feels paternal responsibility towards in Singapore; and the "Femme Fatale", Mathilde, a nude dancer who haunts his desires with her cutting words articulated from her solitary orifice.

The tale returns to the sailor and student, when the sailor demands his 3 Dutch crowns he owes to his Captain as a gambling debt. The inebriated pair return to the initial murder scene where the student retrieves the last Crown from his professor's deceased hand. They head to the dock where the Fuchalense awaits. The student demands his payment, and when the sailor tells him he hasn't earned the job, the student bludgeons the sailor to death. The sailor reappears on the boat as a phantom and the student understands the true price of the job. The film ends by concluding that there must be one live sailor among a boat of dead men.

Themes and motifs

The film employs various film filters to imply different cinematic states. The conversation framing the epic tale of the sailor's journey is mostly denoted by a black and white filter reminiscent of film noir, while the tale itself unfolds in color.

The film employs a wide variety of cinematic techniques ranging from deep-focus shots to vertigo shots. Various shots cast attention on background elements or subdue the essential subjects with focus on details and objects in the foreground. These various framing techniques often illustrate one of the "Six Processes" of composition referenced in Ruiz's later film meditation, "Poetics of Cinema."

The cinematic style of the film evokes Ruiz's meditations on the "image-situation" and the method of propagating thought through audiovisual schemas rather than through the transparent plots prescribed by Central Conflict Theory cinema. His varied shooting style illustrates the alternative evocative method mentioned in Poetics of Cinema:

"In all these projects I seek to move from one world into another, using a technique described in baroque Venice, "Il Ponte," a way of producing anamorphic agents to play with the four levels of medieval rhetoric: literal, allegorical, ethical, and anagogical... Except that instead of seeking to read all four levels at the same time, the aim is to skip constantly from one level to another. The jump is the element of surprise that not only procures a sudden illumination, but all the pleasure as well. Imagine a slalom skier propelled with each turn not just in another direction, but on to a completely different slope. In this way he manages to travel four different journeys at once, though the point is not in the journeys themselves but in the beauty of his leap from one world to the next."[3]

Thus, some understand these distinctive frames as "jumps" between the four levels of rhetoric, which simultaneously reminds the audience of vital diagetic and symbolic filmic elements and encourages the audience to make the critical interpretive connections these cognitive gaps generate.[3] One term for this mode of production is "visual polysemy."[3]

The Funchaleuse

The Funchaleuse, or the ghost ship in the film, becomes the nucleus of Ruiz's image-situation, as the film's diagetic elements collapse and converge at this point. The ship serves as the film's heterotopic imagination, a vessel of the dead crew and the live protagonist, the singular mind of our protagonist and the tenuous multiplicity of the many sailors, and the singular orifice of the mouth and the multiple holes bored by the worm infestation. This floating paradox and its blurring of multiple planes of possibility, can be understood as an example of Michael Foucault's heterotopia par excellence.

The Funchaleuse further exemplifies a heterotopia in the context of Ruiz's theoretical writings found in Poetics of Cinema. The various characters, objects, disease, and spaces frequented by the ship displays the rhetorical "leaps" of the image-situation, in which political or emotive charged objects are presented to the audience, but never entirely elaborated upon. The tension between the simultaneous intimacy and distance separating the spectator from the screen creates a cognitive space for the imagination to grasp at the multiple possibilities or visions of an alternate reality suspended between dystopia and utopia, making the Funchaleuse a curious heterotopic symbol.


  1. "Le Cinéma de Raoul Ruiz: Les Trois couronnes du matelot". Retrieved 2009-10-27. 
  2. Maslin, Janet. "NY Times: Les Trois couronnes du matelot". NY Retrieved 2009-10-27. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 Ruiz, Raoul. "Poetics of Cinema" Paris : Éditions Dis Voir, 1995.


  • Ruiz, Raoul. "Poetics of Cinema" Paris : Éditions Dis Voir, 1995.

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