“Without ideas, you’ll lose your youth,” a character remarks in “Night Across the Street,” and if Raul Ruiz’s pleasurably disorienting posthumous picture is any indication, the prolific Chilean auteur died, at 70, one of the youngest filmmakers on the planet. Drifting on a tide of gentle delirium through a man’s memories as he considers his own impending demise, this fond farewell is more nimble and mischievous than elegiac, although it attains a wry poignancy in light of its maker’s August passing. Results will be best appreciated by Ruiz’s hardcore devotees, primarily at festivals.
Loosely adapted from a novel by Hernan del Solar, Ruiz’s densely allusive, elliptical screenplay circles the life of Don Celso (Sergio Hernandez), a bespectacled office worker on the verge of retirement. A typically beguiling opening finds Celso sitting in a poetry class taught by French writer Jean Giono (Christian Vadim), who has his students close their eyes and listen to his recitations in meditative silence. The scene quickly establishes Ruiz’s love of language and his willingness to indulge all manner of strange wordplay, investing some key verbal motifs (“rhododendron”) with an almost incantatory quality the more they’re repeated throughout.
As Celso begins to regale Jean with tales of his childhood, the film slides gently into a free-associative register that slips effortlessly between past and present. As a young boy, Celso (Santiago Figueroa) has imaginary conversations with Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra) as well as a Chilean version of Beethoven (Sergio Schmied), whom he describes as his favorite historical figure. In some of the film’s loopier moments, Beethoven is seen crossing a modern-day soccer field and accompanying the lad to the cinema, where Celso pointedly notes, “We come to have fun, not to learn anything.”
This could just as well serve as a signpost to the viewer, who is advised to surrender any need for narrative logic or clarity, the better to be swept into Celso’s head-space by the director’s smoothly panning camera movements and ingenious sense of staging. Ruiz has a way of positioning the protagonist both within and outside his own recollections, as though observing and participating at the same time. The director’s frequent use of doorways and mirrors to frame and isolate his characters suggests many layers of (un)reality nestled within this curious dreamscape, whose transparent artifice is underscored by the film’s intense level of stylization, especially apparent in the gold-burnished tones of d.p. Inti Briones’ HD lensing.
Things take a morbid yet no less playful turn when Celso anticipates his own assassination by a mysterious visitor, at which point the film turns into a cheerfully deranged ghost story in which one can all but hear the filmmaker chuckling from beyond the grave. Among the memorably mordant sights here are a boarding-house massacre; a seance-within-a-seance that gets more surreal by the minute; and a portal between the lands of the living and the dead that resembles an enormous drainpipe, or perhaps the ultra-magnified barrel of a gun.
The recurring images of various ships in bottles underscore Ruiz’s casually profound understanding of life as a journey with an ultimately finite number of possibilities and destinations, few of which have been left unexplored over the course of the director’s 100-plus-film career. The valedictory sentiments at the heart of this mysterious experiment are conveyed with characteristically wry wit and great generosity of spirit, making “Night Across the Street” a fitting career-capper, although for the record, “The Lines of Wellington,” a star-studded historical epic that will reportedly be the director’s very final work, is being completed by his widow, Valeria Sarmiento.