by Matt Levine
"There is no story... It is the reverse of a story. Somebody kills somebody. All the elements of a story are there but they are used like a landscape, and the landscape is used like story."
In a 1991 interview with BOMB Magazine, the Chilean director Raúl Ruiz used these words to describe his feature debut, Three Sad Tigers (1968)—though it’s telling that this description applies equally well to his final film, Night Across the Street. Born in the southern Chilean seaport of Puerto Montt in 1941 to a ship’s captain and a schoolteacher, Ruiz gained his cinematic education in Chilean and Mexican television and at an Argentinian film school. Among his politically-inclined peers (including Miguel Littín and Patricio Guzmán), Ruiz soon distinguished himself with surrealistic, playfully complex experiments resembling the writing of Jorge Luis Borges: plots would double back on themselves in snakelike loops, characters would reappear in different guises, dreams and fantasies bubbled to the surface, playful puns and visual non-sequiturs were hidden within the frame.
Director: Raúl Ruiz
Producers: Christian Aspee, François Margolin
Writer: Raúl Ruiz, based on stories by Hernán del Solar
Cinematographer: Inti Briones
Editors: Raúl Ruiz, Valeria Sarmiento, Christian Aspee
Music: Jorge Arriagada
Cast: Sergio Hernández, Christian Vadim, Valentina Vargas, Santiago Figueroa, Chamila Rodríguez, Pedro Vicuña, Cristián Gajardo, Pedro Villagra
Premiere: May 19, 2012 – Cannes Film Festival
US Home Viewing Release: July 30, 2013
US Distributor: Cinema Guild
Years from now, I would guess that Ruiz’s 2010 masterpiece Mysteries of Lisbon (a 272-minute adaptation of Camilo Castelo Branco's 1854 novel) will be remembered as the director's final magnum opus, with Night Across the Street recalled as an unassuming coda. A mere 110 minutes in comparison to Mysteries of Lisbon’s four-plus hours, Night Across the Street uses the fanciful short stories of Chilean writer Hernán del Solar as a springboard (his "Rhododendron" makes an especially sly reappearance here). The film follows the final days of a clerk named Don Celso (Sergio Hernández), who spends his time taking translation classes, philosophizing about life and death with a French novelist (Christian Vadim) over chess games, and recalling discrete, ardent episodes from his childhood. Don Celso’s employers tell him that he’s becoming increasingly incoherent, but Ruiz sees incoherency as a triumph over cold logic: images, words, and narrative sequences favor warm, vexing spontaneity over the hegemony of rationalism.
Clearly, Don Celso is a stand-in for Ruiz: having made over a hundred films throughout his career (many of them in France after he emigrated from Chile once Pinochet came to power) and struggling with a terminal lung infection since 2010, Ruiz confronts mortality head-on with Night Across the Street, well aware that he’s reflecting upon a long life and career whose time may be up. Unsurprisingly, then, the tone of the film is pitched between bittersweet solemnity and playful innovation, as Ruiz smuggles a mournful autobiography into the trappings of surrealist abstraction. After a stranger shows up on Don Celso’s doorstep, the elderly clerk becomes convinced that he’s an assassin sent to exterminate him. Yet by the end of the film, an unexpected character ushers Don Celso into the eternal night of the title, where he meets an army of ghosts comprised of seemingly everyone he has ever known, loved, and even imagined. With a tantalizing obliqueness, Ruiz celebrates the lives of those who have died before him and comes to peace with the definitive fade-out that awaits him, envisioning cinema as a repository for memories and a metaphor for life itself (the world as “a theater of dark shadows,” as Don Celso calls it).
As in Three Sad Tigers, the story in Night Across the Street is a landscape, and the landscape is a story. Each dramatic episode, each circuitous conversation, is set dressing for what the movie is really “about”: the haunting inevitability of death, and humanity’s attempts to fathom it. The cast of characters and vibrant memories that drift through the screen comprise the mise-en-scène of Don Celso’s existence; all the world’s a movie screen. Conversely, the gorgeous scenery of the Chilean port town of Antofagasta (a name whose sublime auricular cadence is not lost on Ruiz) becomes a central character, as Ruiz pays homage to the homeland he repatriated only in the last decade of his life. The very first shot is a swooping airborne vista of Chile’s seaside cliffs, and the ingenious artificiality with which Ruiz renders Antofagasta emphasizes how central our physical settings—our cities and homelands—are in the lives we lead. A recurring aesthetic gimmick in the film has two or three actors conversing in front of blatant rear-projection; time is reversed in the background of the image, as waves crash towards the ocean and supporting characters impulsively begin moving backwards. This manipulation of time, moving forward and backwards at once, is beautifully “Ruizian”: the surrealist trick recognizes how malleable time is (especially as it’s perceived in the memories of a dying man), while it celebrates the marvelous plasticity of cinema—that art form that can vanquish logic and completely eviscerate our sense of linearity.
In a career that has treated international audiences to a number of opulent enigmas—in between Three Sad Tigers and Mysteries of Lisbon, there were also The Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (1979), Three Lives and Only One Death (1996, starring Marcello Mastroianni), Genealogies of a Crime (1997, with Catherine Deneuve), and the singularly epic Proust adaptation Time Regained (1999), among many others--Night Across the Street might be viewed as a minor follow-up, a finale that’s charming but slight. This might be true in some ways, but only with a director so ingenious could we call such a free-flowing, mind-bending, complex self-elegy “slight.” In its gently plaintive tone, Night Across the Street reminds me of the Alfred Lord Tennyson poem "Crossing the Bar," a sighing farewell to life as beautiful as it is melancholy: "Twilight and evening bell, and after that the dark! And may there be no sadness of farewell, when I embark." With its lively experimentation and graceful visuals, Ruiz’s final film transports us somewhere mysterious and infinite—though it remains unclear if the night that lingers so close by is a darkened movie theater or an eternal mortal blackness.