“You’ve been utterly incoherent recently,” a colleague remarks to Don Celso (Sergio Hernández) in Night Across the Street. “I’ve run out of ideas,” Don Celso, on the cusp of retirement and perhaps a greater nothingness, replies. This exchange about incoherence may be the most coherent one made in the last of Raúl Ruiz’s hundred-plus films. Proof that Ruiz was still teeming with ideas himself, Night is a characteristic work of surreal wit and circuitousness—and the filmmaker’s winking but mournful goodbye.
It’s tempting to look for more evidence of surrogacy in Don Celso, an aging worker in a generic office whose reminiscences and fantasies have begun to carry him away. Shot in the months before Ruiz’s 2011 death and with posterity heavily in mind, Night Across the Street is also a homecoming of sorts. Set in his native Chile (Ruiz fled Chile for France in the mid-1970s), the film interbreeds two stories by Hernán del Solar and the legend of fellow Chilean writer Jean Giono.
The multitudes Don Celso contains are glimpsed as pleasurably absurd fragments. Characters speak in extravagant metaphors and whispered lyrics, trading epigrams in lieu of conversation. Their encounters take place on Ruiz’s fluid spectrum of murky, modern spaces, flashbacks to a golden-toned, fantastical youth, and the slanted planes of the dreamscape that connects and finally overwhelms the two worlds. With his previous film, the 2010 period epic Mysteries of Lisbon, Ruiz got as close as he ever would to straight literary adaptation (of Camilo Castelo Branco’s 19th-century novel); Night Across the Street draws its meaning from free conflation. The result is as generous in spirit as it is rich with utter weirdness, seeking both to cast a spell and leave us with its antidote.
Ruiz’s antic sense of space holds this flyaway world together; a prowling camera revealing the silly or spooky punchline around each corner. A conversation over dominoes with Giono (Christian Vadim) at what appears to be a café ends with a pan to the right, where we see the alien figure of a woman under an enormous salon hairdryer in an adjoining room. People appear, disappear, and find new configurations in a single scene; time goes spongy, and space begins to fold in on itself.
In one of his memories, Don Celso’s childhood self (Santiago Figueroa) is asked to name his favorite historical figure. No sooner does little Don Celso name him than Beethoven (Sergio Schmied) appears, not with a cut or a poof of smoke but a gentle tilt and widening of the lens, as though Ruiz were revealing what was there all along. Once conjured, Beethoven lingers into later scenes, mostly keeping quiet. A field trip to the movies gets his biggest reaction: “How tall the people are!”
History and art mingle and materialize throughout Night Across the Street at such strange angles that it becomes impossible to do more than acknowledge and then live with them. As Don Celso’s retirement banquet approaches (where colleagues toast their “immobile voyager” and the “many busy years of doing nothing” that await him) the plotting of his murder begins to obsess him, and the story swerves into nutty melodrama. These are the dreams of a man stepping out of this world, perhaps never more lucid and full of life.