“I have no more ideas,” mutters the elderly Don Celso (Sergio Hernández) early in Night Across the Street. It’s a seemingly throwaway line, but if the man represents an alter ego of filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, it’s one that’s tinged with an unmistakable sadness. Ruiz’s flamboyant and limitless imagination appeared to run on autopilot throughout his career; he deconstructed cinematic convention to create labyrinthine dreamscapes that frequently toyed with the malleability of time. Made while Ruiz was dying of liver cancer, the film is haunted by the specter of death, to such an extent that it becomes an unseen character itself. But even in the solemn face of real death, Ruiz’s legerdemain remains effortlessly spirited and ultimately proves Celso, and the filmmaker himself, wrong. Ruiz, in the unique position of having known that this film would likely be his last, crafted a chimeric valediction that isn’t a farewell to Ruiz the auteur, but to a type of cinema that will never grace the screen again.
After years of exile in France following the Pinochet regime, Ruiz returned to his native Chile to create his fable about a man who also sees himself approaching death. Lost in a typical Ruizian knot of dreams and fantasy cavorting with reality, the retirement-bound Celso looks back on his youth when he mingled with the likes of Long Jon Silver and Beethoven. To Ruiz, time isn’t broken into past, present, and future; it’s more or less one all-encompassing entity, where figures from the past literally come face to face with people from the present. This convergence of time is addressed even in the mixture of sequences set inside beautifully decadent parlors and scenes with actors superimposed onto decidedly artificial CGI backdrops. The film’s lavish, busily compelling compositions suggest a fugue state. Ruiz’s camera, so dependent on the locked-down tracking shot, often drifts away from the main focus of a scene to reveal a hidden character tending to some personal business as the main action progresses. These small moments give the feeling that the story of Don Celso’s life is just one of countless other tales within a vast and seemingly infinite universe. Ruiz appears to be emphasizing the many discoveries that have gone, and will continue to go, unnoticed by Celso—and, by definition, himself—in the short time that he’s inhabited the world.
Night Across the Street, which is littered with many references to Ruiz’s past works, also functions as a commentary on the director’s method of filmmaking. As Celso strolls with the French writer Jean Giono, they equate marbles to “little balls of time.” Films, essentially, are little balls of time, and the metaphor reads as if Ruiz is a child at heart out to play with his toys and imagination, which makes the appearance of Celso’s younger self become all the more relevant. If Ruiz had died halfway through making Night Across the Street, I’d like to think the film would’ve finished on its own.
Raúl Ruiz’s dreams never looked so sumptuous. Cinema Guild’s crisp transfer of the film’s HD photography is marked by bright yellows and whites, especially in the delicately balanced sunset scenes. The soundtrack is also nicely handled, clearly and fully conveying the sounds of flowing water, cars, and pedestrians as well as the film’s dialogue and score.
Graciously included, though largely inessential, is Ruiz’s 50-minute film Ballet Aquatique, completed just before he started work on Night Across the Street. An homage to the short science films of Jean Painlevé, marked by their turns into the surreal, Ballet Aquatique features Ruiz himself and would almost come off as completely Godardian if not for his trademark playfulness. The true highlight here is visual essayist par excellence Kevin B. Lee’s "Lasting Elements on the Last Horizon," which, in its all-too-short 10-minute running time, dives deep into the themes and context of Ruiz’s final film. Lee breaks down Ruiz’s cinematic tricks, and the result isn’t only enlightening, but quite entertaining. Also included is a trailer and a booklet featuring an essay by James Quandt.
Step into a beautiful world of dreams where the past and present freely mingle, with the mischievous Raúl Ruiz as your guide for the last time.