The three stories, consecutive at first but, in the end, tragically intermingled, of Mateo Strano, a traveling salesman who comes home to his wife Maria after a long absence... of Georges Vickers, a famous anthropology professor now reduced to begging and in love with Tania, a nightclub "hostess" from Pigalle... and of Luc Allamand, a powerful businessman ensnared by a gigantic lie that becomes reality. These three stories, part-nightmare, part-comedy, are but one, since the three men are in fact a single person who suffers from "multiple personality syndrome". And although he has at least three lives, he has only one death like any normal person. A tragic death in his case, since no one can live several lives with impunity.
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"(...) Mastroianni is back, thank God ! He's the joker in this multi-level tale, this absurd parable. Handsome, charming, warm-hearted and astute, he takes on different disguises, always different yet always himself. (...) The skill of Mastroianni's performance, in this procession of carnival figures, lies its sheer discretion in a situation where he could easily pull out all the stops. "Three Lives and Only One Death" reveals the imperial (imperialist ?) power of fiction. But it's the simple truth of its main actor that gives it its power and best moments."
(J-M Frodon - Le Monde)
In his second-to-last role, Marcello Mastroianni stars as a husband, a professor, a butler, and a businessman in Ruiz’s light-hearted, Borgesian salute to fantasy life and the telling of tales, arguably the director’s most accessible and commercially successful film involving the complete destruction of narrative. Here a radio announcer begins one story, which is then continued by another character, who begins to tell another tale, and so on, with each tale getting increasingly stranger and more delightful. Absent husbands, invalid mothers, professors of “negative anthropology,” good-hearted prostitutes, naïve young lovers, and random side-jokes abound (“Don’t let Carlos Castaneda come between us!” shouts one character, several times), but all are united by a ever-winking, liberated-looking Mastroianni and the surrealist trickery (both visual and narrative) of Ruiz, at the top of his game—and here, thanks to Mastroianni’s involvement, with a budget to match.
© Jason Sanders, bampfa.berkeley.edu