David Lynch, with a perspicacity conspicuously absent from his own films, described The Saragossa Manuscript as a set of Russian dolls: what begins as one story opens up into another, and then another, and then another. There are flashbacks within flashbacks and dreams within dreams until it becomes impossible to trace your footsteps back through the narrative maze and remember how the hell you got there.
Polish director Wojciech Has's arcane curio languished in obscurity for years and has at various points existed in three different versions. Grateful Dead leader Jerry Garcia, a man who knew a thing or two about fractured realities and altered states, offered to pay for its restoration, only to die the day after the wrong version of the film arrived at Berkeley's Pacific Film Archive in 1995. Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola, men who know a thing or two about the scope of visionary cinema, saw the restoration project through to its conclusion in 2001. Luis Buñuel loved it. Whatever else there is to be said about this epic exercise in tripped out storytelling, the film has friends in high places.
Opening with a series of Dali-esque illustrations uncannily suggestive of the Dead's own artwork, the film begins with Belgian officer Van Worden (Cybulski) fighting in rural Spain. There he stumbles across a mysterious but hypnotically compelling manuscript which tells the story of his own grandfather. This in turns brings Van Worden into contact with two seductive princesses who send him on a series of confounding adventures in order to prove his worth, after which he'll be allowed to marry them both. Or maybe he just dreamt that. Then come the kinkily masked Inquisitors, duels, gypsies, ghosts, cabalists, arguments about magic and poetry and so many other cheerfully obscure digressions that eventually Van Worden himself tries to stop the story to figure out what's going on.
"I've lost the feeling of where reality ends and fantasy takes over," Van Worden amiably admits, and there may be those who sympathise with him. "You meant to say poetry," says his companion, but whether she's suggesting he's mistaken poetry for reality or fantasy for poetry is teasingly ambiguous. (One can only speculate on what Jerry made of earlier, unauthorised edits of the film, which dispensed with up to an hour of the full 180 minute run time.)
Wojciech Has adapted the story from a novel by eighteenth century explorer and occultist Jan Potocki, and he preserves the book's puzzle format. Yet while The Saragossa Manuscript is certainly disorienting, it isn't entirely disordered; a dream-derived logic binds the strands together. El Topo, with all its psychedelic spectacle, is probably the film's closest contemporary, but it's tempting to wonder whether The Saragossa Manuscript might also have been on Terry Gilliam's mind when he embarked on the doomed Don Quixote project documented in Lost In La Mancha.
What makes the film so compelling - and so watchable four decades after it was made - is the speed with which it canters down each new path, the wit with which it addresses its arcane subject matter, and Has's acknowledgement of the artificiality of the enterprise. Author Potocki himself vies with Laurence Sterne as the founding father of post-modern writing, and Has's adaptation has the same playful tone as A Cock And Bull Story, Michael Winterbottom and Frank Cottrell Boyce's adaptation of Sterne's cunning 'Tristram Shandy'.
"Only an uneducated man who sees a thing every day thinks he understands it," says one character. "A true researcher proceeds among riddles. He errs, but he gets nearer every day." Riddling is precisely Has's methodology and his extraordinary, confounding but always entertaining film is a phantasmagorical assault on narrative convention which, to borrow a phrase from Garcia himself, continues to rank among cinema's longest, strangest trips.