A summation with a light touch
Raúl Ruiz is the Chilean auteur known for Time Regained (a symphonic riff on Proust) and his lush recent miniseries Mysteries of Lisbon (but director of more than 100 films if we include shorts and documentaries). Though he lived in exile ever since the dictator Pinochet came into power in 1973, he was reportedly greeted affectionately on the street in Chile as “Don Raulito.” He died in France last year, shortly after his seventieth birthday, after a serious illness that had been temporarily reversed by a liver transplant, and after a celebrity funeral in Paris his body was returned home and a day of national mourning was declared. La noce de enfrente/Le nuit d’en face/Night Across the Street is an intentionally posthumous cinematic last testament. Ruiz told the younger crew members on the rapid shoot that it was his last film, but concealed this from friends and family and producer (and friend) François Margolin. The title could be translated as “the coming night” — as it is at a key point in the film’s English subtitles — and thus mean the oncoming darkness, the approach of death. Conversely it’s already being celebrated for its youthfulness, for being more like a first film than a final one. Indeed it is a lighthearted, amusing, playful and surreal film that slides around in time with a freedom that may baffle the first-timer. For that matter it may not be too clear on the fifth or sixth viewing — if you haven’t done your homework in between. This is a film for Ruiz aficionados and selected festival-goers.
But it’s not like the film itself is a total, baffling mystery. Ruiz himself provides an excellent Night Across the Street for Dummies in the form of a brief statement about the film. His starting point, he explains, is the Chilean writer Hernán del Solar (1900-1985), one of a group of Imagists who went against the naturalism that grew up in the Forties and Fifties. “In Del Solar’s works,” Ruiz writes, “daily life coexists with the dream world, with tenderness and cruelty, the literary evocations and the omnipresence of the universe of childhood.” That tells you also what to expect in his film. Two of Del Solar’s stories, Ruiz also tells us, are “Wooden Leg” and “The Night Across the Street.” “Wooden Leg” is derived from Long John Silver of R.L. Stevenson’s Treasure Island, of which Ruiz, whose father was a ship captain and who had a lifelong fascination with pirates, had done a screen adaptation. He’s a character in the film, this Wooden Leg (Pedro Villagra) , and so is Beethoven (Sergio Schmied), or a Chilean child’s imagined version of the German composer.
The film begins with an engaging scene of one Don Celso (Sergio Hernandez) sitting in a class taught by the writer Jean Giono (Christian Vadim), a provincial Frenchman whose daughter Ruiz, he tells us in his statement, once met. She told him how Giono, who feared even going to Paris, once announced to his family that he was going to move to Antofagasta, a port in the north of Chile, which he picked solely because he liked the name. In the film he is there, teaching a class in French literature in which he asks students to close their eyes and meditate on his words.
The story of the film, Ruiz tells us in his statement, takes place in Antofagista in the present time, and there are modern buildings, as well as ones from the past; but the characters don’t see the modern ones. The film, we could say, creates a limbo between past and present, real and fantasy, and lingers there, ready to shift back and forth at a moments notice.
Starting with the poetic classroom of Jean Giono, the film plays with various verbal motifs, particularly recurring to the word “rhododendron.” The little boy in the story, the young Celso (Santiago Figueroa), is sometimes known as “Rodo.” The old Don Celso works in an office and is about to retire; but the film often shows him in his imaginative boyhood, when he has conversations with Beethoven and Wooden Leg. Following what he considers an Imagist style worthy of Hernán del Solar, Ruiz imagines the mature Don Celso likewise having conversations with Jean Giono, even though Giono is also a writer working in France. And Don Celso is also in a rooming house, where he expects someone is going to come and kill him. As Ruiz puts it, “the horror of an impending crime grows in importance.” He also says this is “a weaving narrative, only half explicit, and a dark story of crime and treason.”
This threatening plot element serves as a thread pointing toward a definite finale (the “coming night”) and thus offsets the playful shifting back and forth between present and past, reality and fantasy, of the film’s minute-to-minute texture. It’s a Whodunit! Or almost. Several pistols are introduced, and they have to be used, except that we don’t ever literally see them used; we only view corpses, and figures with red bullet wounds, who are alive. In the context of this film “Imagist” evidently means “surreal,” and the mindset of Ruiz’s film is certainly more surrealist than super realist. The ghost of Jorge Luis Borges (perhaps due to the affection for Stevenson) seems to hover somewhere, even though Borges was from Argentina and not Chile. Borges’ dates are very close to Del Solars, 1899-1986.
Ruiz ends his film statement with a funny mistake — confusing two utterly different modern artists. The “possible world” of Giono in Antofagasta that threads through Night Across the Street contrasts with the “real” world of the modern town that the characters “ignore and refuse.” He says this is like the painting “of Matisse” that shows a pipe with underneath it the legend, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (“This is not a pipe”). He meant Magritte, of course. But who knows: perhaps in this kind of auteurist cinematic world, “Ceci N’Est Pas Une Pipe” was painted by Matisse!
Justin Chang’s Cannes review for Variety has a fine description of the film’s modality. Mentioning the director’s “smoothly panning camera movements and ingenious sense of staging” he goes on to say, “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.” Prepare not only for a head trip but a sweet and dreamy visual experience, which may remind you of recent films by the now 103-year-old Manoel de Oliveira.
Night Across the Street is the quintessential justifiable festival film, much more so than the mainstream release titles, Story of Pi, Flight, and Hyde Park on Hudson, shamelessly included in the Main Slate of this supposedly “elite” and “highly selective” festival to sell tickets, not to mention arty but drab and uninspired titles like Memories Look at Me, Araf, or Here and There. Richard Peña, the director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, has said that the New York Film Festival has chosen Ruiz films to be in the elite selection of its Main Slate, but never just any Ruiz film. This is hardly any Ruiz film, because though it may be hermetic and obscure it is also beautiful — its delicate images in a lovely haze created by the yellow filter — and as the final work of the great exiled Latin American auteur, it deserves a very special place. I didn’t really very much enjoy watching it but I enjoy thinking about it, and I would probably enjoy watching it again.
La noche de enfrente debuted in Cannes’ Director’s Fortnight in May and has continued to a number of festivals including Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver and New York. Watched at the NYFF press screenings for this review. It also opened in Paris in July receiving critical raves (Allocné 4.1).
Director: Raoul Ruiz
Writers: Raoul Ruiz, Hernán del Solar (original stories)
Stars: Christian Vadim, Sergio Hernández, Valentina Vargas
Runtime: 110 min
Country: Chile, France