THE word "dreamlike" is one of the most overused in film criticism, yet in the case of the late Chilean director Raul Ruiz, it's hard to avoid. Ruiz's films really are like dreams and present many of the same problems when it comes to recalling them afterwards, or describing them to a third party.
Take Three Lives and Only One Death (1996), greeted by one critic upon its release as "surprisingly accessible" by Ruizian standards.
As we might begin by saying, the film stars Marcello Mastroianni as a travelling salesman who has 20 years of his life stolen by fairies. But he also plays a professor who becomes a beggar, and then he's a butler trained to respond to the ringing of a bell.
These are all different stories, we explain, and yet somehow they're all parts of the same story. There's a man in a radio station who links everything together, and also a little boy who calls Mastroianni "darling" and could be another version of the same character. And we haven't mentioned the importance of Carlos Castaneda.
By this time, our listener is staring at us blankly. Oh well, we say. You'll just have to see it for yourself.
You'll get your chance at a mini-retrospective organised by the Melbourne Cinematheque in honour of Ruiz, who died last year at the age of 70. The program includes the Australian premiere of his final completed project, Night across the Street, with a lecture by film scholar Adrian Martin, a former reviewer at The Age.
Long before his death, Ruiz had become a figure of film-buff legend. He dreamt of filming Hamlet with a cast of vegetables. He denounced the strictures of American screenwriting manuals, especially their insistence on what he called "central conflict theory". He wrote 100 plays between the ages of 17 and 20, then set himself the goal of making 100 films - which he achieved, if shorts are included.
Working with minimal budgets at maximum speed, on the margins of the film industry in France and elsewhere, he created a cinema all his own, ever-changing yet marked by persistent obsessions: murderous children, secret societies, characters who replace one another or seem possessed by multiple selves at once.
For decades critics have competed to pin labels on Ruiz: surrealist, allegorist, postmodernist. Perhaps he's best described as a creator of fabulations - to borrow a term helpfully defined by the Encyclopaedia of Science Fiction as "a tale whose telling is foregrounded in a way which emphasises the inherent arbitrariness of the words we use, the stories we tell".
A foregrounding of the arbitrary quality of narration is constant in Ruiz's cinema - not just in his use of voiceover but in a literal, visual sense, with seemingly random details (say, a miniature statue, or a hand holding a cigarette) jutting out at the viewer from shot to shot.
This exaggerated B-movie style puts quotation marks around the very notion of significance. There is no evident reason Ruiz had to choose a particular extreme wide-angle lens, wacky camera set-up or vividly coloured filter - and, equally, we're made to feel the fiction might change its course at any time.
The approach leaves a great deal of room for outright silliness, of an almost Monty Python kind. In Three Crowns of the Sailor (1983) for instance, there's the character who keeps a little old lady in his cabin: "Everyone needs a mother, so he rented his."
Yet we're a long way from the kind of academic jokiness found, for example, in the work of Peter Greenaway or Guy Maddin. Alongside Ruiz the avant-garde prankster there's Ruiz the eternally boyish dreamer, enthralled by sinister mystery and exotic romance. Three Crowns of the Sailor is an amalgam of every sea story ever written, going back through Robert Louis Stevenson and Joseph Conrad to the legend of the Flying Dutchman and the tales of Sinbad in the Arabian Nights.
Ruiz is always playful but he is serious as well. His deliberately artificial procedures are underwritten by authentic fears, above all the fear of death.
Typically, the films are punctuated by sudden acts of violence (depicted in comically lurid fashion, with litres of fake blood) and unfold in a hothouse atmosphere of morbid yet indefinite eroticism.
Getting acquainted with Ruiz's cinema is like making a strange, brilliant and incorrigible friend - one you soon realise you'll never know in full. If there's a hidden centre to his work, it's scattered into fragments dispersed across countless films, many of them nearly impossible to see.
Spending much of his career in political exile, Ruiz no doubt had practical motives for not wanting to be pinned down.
But his aversion to fixed meaning is basically a temperamental one: one of his early successes, The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979), is a mock art history lecture that parodies the very notion of interpretation.
To go along with Ruiz you have to be ready for the uneasy pleasure of getting lost - for the disconcerting feeling that the artwork finally lacks any clear conceptual or even emotional logic.
While we're dreaming, we rarely question anything that happens to us, no matter how bizarre. There are at least two ways to account for this commonplace yet disturbing fact. When we go to sleep, does the reasoning part of the brain switch itself off? Or, conversely, is the dreamer capable of a form of understanding that eludes us in waking life?
Ruiz's cinema steers us towards the second possibility; it holds us in permanent suspense, awaiting the moment when the mysteries of the dream will at last be brought to light. A sentence comes to mind from an essay by another master fabulator, Jorge Luis Borges: "This imminence of a revelation which does not occur is, perhaps, the aesthetic phenomenon."
■Immortal Stories: The Living Cinema of Raul Ruiz screens at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image, October 3-17.