Director/Screenwriter: Raul Rúiz
By Marilyn Ferdinand
The extraordinarily prolific experimental filmmaker Raul Rúiz did not know he would die only four months after completing Night Across the Street in 2011, but he had faced death only the year before, when the outcome of a life-saving liver transplant was still in doubt. Perhaps curiosity about his own final journey sent him from his adopted home in France back to Chile, his country of birth, to film Chilean writer Hernán del Solar’s most popular collection of children’s stories, Across the Night, which Rúiz certainly must have read in his youth. Night Across the Street, another of Rúiz’s many literary adaptations, happily intermingles Del Solar’s stories in a beautiful and bewildering free float through the end of the career and life of its main protagonist, Don Celso Barra (Sergio Hernández), who is vaguely a surrogate for Rúiz himself.
The credits roll over a panoramic shot of the ocean where it meets the sandstone cliffs that edge the coast of Chile. The action commences some time in the late 1940s or early 1950s on a character who is meant to be the real-life French writer Jean Giono (Christian Vadim) as he is instructing a class of boys and, incongruously, Don Celso, in French-to-Spanish translation, using Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past as a text; significantly, Rúiz met Giono, as well as adapted the Proust novel for his 1999 film Time Regained, signaling that we may be headed off into a reverie on Rúiz’s own life. During the class, an alarm clock rings, causing Don Celso to fumble to turn it off, shake a pill out of large bottle, and open a hip flask to wash the pill down with whatever liquid the flask contains. The bell signaling the end of class rings, and Don Celso and Giono walk together along the dock in Antofagasta, where we learn later in the film Giono moved because he liked the town’s name (supposedly, this also occurred in real life). Don Celso mentions a new translated novel he just read, and Giono neither confirms nor denies that he was the person who did the translation.
Don Celso goes to his office at the ship-building business where he is employed. His boss complains that Don Celso is not doing his best work, to which the elderly man says he has no more ideas; the assembled members of the office staff mention that his retirement is imminent that week. Don Celso and the staff recite strange poetry, and throughout the film, we will see a wide variety of wordplay among them, from pompous speeches to loose word association that introduces an adolescent sense of play to Don Celso’s latter years that helps us segue into his memories of his own boyhood.
When we meet Don Celso’s younger self (Santiago Figueroa), he is showing off his encyclopedic knowledge of many subjects, but particularly of classical music. His favorite composer, Beethoven (Sergio Schmeid), appears and accompanies the young Celso on his wanderings—to the movies, to an athletic field, and to a fireman’s funeral, with Celso explaining the scientific advances of the 20th century they come across. Young Celso also meets up with Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra), a reference not only to Rúiz’s film Treasure Island (1985) but also to Del Solar’s story “Pegleg.”
One of the stories, “Rhododendron,” is manifest as a magical name/word young Celso uses for himself and, later, the name the elderly Don Celso gives to a garishly painted plaque of a fish he has hanging on the wall of his room at Nigilda’s (Valentina Vargas) boarding house. Don Celso’s room is filled with toys, taxidermy animals, and posters more appropriate to a child’s room, reminding me of the anteroom of death in Rúiz’s biopic Klimt (1995). He also has a collection of ships in bottles he built, a fairly clear reference to Rúiz’s film output.
The most dramatic story to be told is of Don Celso’s premonition of death, which Rúiz shoots as a thriller/melodrama involving Nigilda and a young man named Rolo she says is her nephew, but treats far too familiarly for that. Don Celso calls him Rhododendron, certain that the man has come to kill him. Rolo and a young woman on a bicycle who appears to be his actual lover are, in fact, plotting to kill Don Celso and take a fortune he has hidden somewhere in the boarding house. Death becomes an overriding theme from this point onward, as the boarding house becomes a haunted house where seances are conducted. Don Celso walks down the barrel of a gun, which poetically has people inside it from its own memories, and into the light as the white cliffs of the Chilean coast bring us full circle.
The look of this film is lush and intriguing, and Rúiz’s slow horizontal pans constantly change the perspective and views, framing characters in doorways and moving them out of view again like a half-grasped memory. I have read complaints about the use of DCP video for this film, but I was enraptured by the slightly softer edges and almost 3D foreground of characters on detailed backgrounds. The period details are meticulously placed, and the environments, from the boarding house to the barrel of the gun, exert both a nostalgic and specific pull as we share in Don Celso’s memories and fantasies. However, Rúiz never forgets his source material, offering the solution of a radio show on which Don Celso reads stories to his audience to get us into some of the more outlandish situations he films.
There are moments of wonderful humor, particularly with regard to Don Celso’s retirement party. The company president makes an almost incomprehensible speech of appreciation, losing his train of thought in the middle, and Don Celso answers with a fairly incomprehensible thank-you speech that the office secretary Rosina (Chamila Rodríguez) transcribes in short, staccato bursts of the typewriter. He is presented with his retirement gift, an enormous plaster head that looks a bit like Tweedle Dee, and shows his pleasure by tipping his wine glass to its lips to get it to drink. He has to use a wheelbarrow to get it into his room at Nigilda’s. A slight political edge also creeps in as one Chilean asserts that the Yanks need to go, that Hitler was only trying to do right by his country and that Chile could do with a Hitler in charge. This short speech is shocking, but gives some clue as to how Pinochet’s military junta could eventually overwhelm the country, forcing Rúiz to emigrate to Paris.
Rúiz’s frequent musical collaborator Jorge Arriagada provides a haunting score, interspersed with romantic pop tunes of the 40s and 50s that forward the story and provide exceedingly pleasant pillows on which to rest from the confusion of the narrative. There is no question that Night Across the Street is a challenging film, but as its director’s final complete effort, it bids farewell to his career, his life, and his unique gifts in an extremely satisfying way.
Night Across the Street screens Monday, October 22, at 8:30 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21, 322 E. Illinois St., Chicago.
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