"It was very autobiographical," said producer François Margolin of Raúl Ruiz's last film, Night Across the Street, after its New York Film Festival press screening. And that, said the producer, was odd, "because Raul was absolutely not a director that made anything that was autobiographical. It's as if he finished his career with his first film." The director of 115 films in just under 50 years, Ruiz was more than just fluent in the language of film; he was a poet of cinema. True to form, Night Across the Street rarely falters, maintaining its surrealistic deadpan as assuredly as it does its golden-brown palette. Yet it often drags, feeling longer at 110 minutes than Mysteries of Lisbon did at 272.
This visually elegant film toggles back and forth between the boyhood, late-middle-age, and post-death limbo of the story's protagonist: Don Celso, played by Sergio Hernández in old age and Santiago Figueroa in youth, when the character is known as Rodo. In a signature Ruiz shot, something often plays out in the foreground while a separate but related scene unfolds farther back, usually seen through an open door or window. Seeing Celso in one section of the frame while people plot against him in another makes the scene far more interesting, whether we're watching while Celso is being forced into early retirement or while a young man is talking about how to kill him. The layered visuals also rhyme with Ruiz's style of storytelling, which includes stories within stories, lots of shifting back and forth in time, and elliptical transitions from realism to surrealism.
As a boy, Celso dreams into being three imaginary friends—a language-loving French writer, an empathetic Ludwig von Beethoven, and a canny old pirate named Long John Silver—who keep him company all the way through to the afterlife. You'd think that might comfort him, but it only seems to piss him off. "Who do they think they are?" he sputters, when he sees the three conducting a séance together. "Don't they know I invented them?" Ruiz also has fun with a recurring metaphor about time. Celso and his imaginary friend Jean Giono (Christian Vadim) agree that time in the sleepy Chilean seaside town of the story passes not like a river flowing by but like marbles of differing sizes rolling past, and Ruiz amplifies that image with brief shots of cosmic marble games.
Night Across the Street too often degenerates into long perorations or overworked metaphors. Time and again, whatever momentum the story has gathered is lost as people gather in a room to listen dutifully as one or more of their number delivers a speech, and the alarm clocks that surround Celso are a much clunkier reminder than those marbles of the passage of time. A bit in which a sexy woman from Celso's office keeps wandering into the frame to ask for a four-letter word for her crossword puzzle is mildly funny at first, but winds up feeling like the too-long setup for a failed anecdote.
Yet there are moments of genuine mystery in this film, which often feels as if its come to us, as Margolin put it, "from somewhere that is not this life." When a young man asks Celso, after his death, about the "massacre" he survived at his boardinghouse before killing himself, Celso objects to the man's dramatic language. "They moved, that's all," he says of his dead neighbors, his words hinting at the kind of acceptance of death that may come only to those who know they are very near it. "They moved to another world."
The 50th New York Film festival runs from September 28 to October 14. For a complete schedule, including ticketing information, click here.