ONE OF THE WORLD’S most prolific filmmakers, the late, great Raúl Ruiz is on view again at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, which is presenting part two of the retrospective it began in December 2016, one of the highlights of the year. This round offers such rarities as The Insomniac on the Bridge (1985), The Blind Owl (1987), Comedy of Innocence (2000), and Mammame (1986)—a film record of Jean-Claude Gallotta’s nine-person dance performance. It also includes Night Across the Street (2012), Ruiz’s final film, and a weeklong run of Time Regained (1999), his adaptation of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Not to be overlooked is The Wandering Soap Opera (1990/2017), a hilarious spoof on Chile’s sociopolitical scene, comprising a series of acting workshops filmed by Ruiz, which have only recently been edited by his widow, Valeria Sarmiento.
Night Across the Street (2012) is one of the gems, a charming riff on some of the Chilean director’s favorite subjects—time, memory, language, and death—and among his most inventive works. The credits indicate that the film was “freely inspired” by the stories of Hernán del Solar (not a novel, as the English translation states) under the title La noche de enfrente (1952). Del Solar was a literary critic and poet who won the Chilean National Prize for Literature in 1968. Although the book does not appear to be available in English, the introduction to the Spanish text identifies del Solar—who was born in 1901—as a modernist, describing him as the “critic as narrator,” a fusion also applicable to Ruiz, whose reflexive aesthetics and insatiable appetite for storytelling are both evident here.
Before the opening scene, a literature teacher reads from a book, the subject of his translation lesson. He reads the first sentence in French and the second in Spanish, a key to the lesson to follow as well as a reminder of Ruiz’s facility with both languages. The teacher (Christian Vadim)—who may or may not be the novelist Jean Giono—discusses time with his pupil Celso Roble (Sergio Hernández). Time doesn’t really pass, they agree, but is made up of marbles, which might be strung together as a necklace that one might play with—the very thing Ruiz does in his film via a fluid style that reflects the narrative’s comfortable transitions between present and past.
The ostensible narrative is slight: Celso Roble, an office clerk about to retire, reflects nostalgically on the past while voicing odd premonitions of the future. These reflections are enactments of young Celso’s (Santiago Figueroa) childhood. His astonishing grasp of cultural and historical facts goes unappreciated by family and teachers, but his sense of adventure and love of art are embodied in the figures of Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra) and Ludwig von Beethoven (Sergio Schmied), and he chats amiably with both on a daily basis. In one episode, he invites Beethoven to the movies, which young Celso describes as the greatest invention of our time. As signs of their continued significance in Celso’s adult life, each historical figure is symbolized in the mise-en-scène of the present—Silver via ships in bottles and references to the sea, Beethoven by a bust and portraits peppered throughout the film.
These time shifts are elegantly mirrored by Ruiz’s graceful tracking camera. Moving gently across the actors, he reveals a space in which a figure or a situation peripheral to the one in the foreground subtly comments on the latter or places it within a larger context. Cuts are reserved for more literal shifts between past and present.
Ruiz avoids melodrama, except to draw attention to its mawkish insincerity or expose it as a suspect vehicle of bankrupt ideas—as, indeed, The Wandering Soap Opera cleverly demonstrates. So if Celso’s life never turned out as brilliantly as the gifted, visionary child imagined it might, the point is not belabored. Nor is Celso’s response to Giono that the reason he had not retired earlier is that he is waiting for the man destined to murder him. We are more engaged with distracting sidebars and self-conscious commentaries that characterize everyday existence, like the repeated requests of a secretary for four-letter words to complete her crossword puzzles. Even Celso’s fate is treated with Ruiz’s typical irony and resignation.
It’s tempting to read a great artist’s final work autobiographically, as if he or she were fully aware that it was in fact the last. We tend to see certain last films—Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Bresson’s L’Argent (1983)—as summations of the forms and themes that preoccupied the artists. What of Ruiz? Is Celso’s remark that he’s a “port without seagulls” a hint that the filmmaker felt he had run out of ideas? Should the character’s retirement and death—comically foreshadowed by the alarm clock that interrupts scenes to remind him to take his meds—be understood in terms of Ruiz’s encroaching illness and farewell to cinema? Perhaps. But there is some consolation in thinking that Celso speaks for Ruiz when he says, “We only lend ourselves to death,” which is, after all, in the neighborhood—just across the street.