Tadeusz, a theology student in a Polish port city in 1958, relates how he killed his mentor and met a sailor in the street while fleeing to the train station. The sailor (Jean Bernard Guillard) offers his job on a merchant ship in exchange for three Danish crowns. The sailor takes him to a dancing hall and tells Tadeusz his life story. The sailor becomes the narrator and the film switches to color (with effective use of 2-color polarisers by DP Sacha Vierny). The sailor's story links elements of fantasy, legend, myth and folklore with daily life. It's an episodic tale that opens in Valparaiso, Chile and travels to faraway places including Dakar and Singapore.

The premise and the tales-within-tales were inspired by the poem "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the novel "The Night in Lisbon" by Erich Maria Remarque and informed by stories by Stevenson, Kipling and friends of Ruiz's father, a sea captain. It's a wonderfully intoxicating mix created, as explained by Ruiz, "in the spirit of bricolage". The Three Crowns of the Sailor features all kinds of patterns and correspondences between the narrative threads within it. Equally striking are the formal elements, especially deep-focus photography with a third of the frame occupied by an object inches from the camera. It reminded me of some scenes in Orson Welles' pictures but Ruiz claims he was inspired by American cartoonist Milton Caniff ("Terry and the Pirates").