DIRECTED BY: Raoul Ruiz
FEATURING: Sergio Hernández, Santiago Figueroa, Christian Vadim, Valentina Vargad, Chamila Rodriguez, Pedro Villagra, Sergio Schmied
PLOT: An old man recalls his childhood, when he used to carry on conversations with Long John Silver and Ludwig van Beethoven, as he waits in a boarding house for the man who will kill him to arrive.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: It’s a fine, absurd death movie. We suspect Ruiz has fielded better candidates to make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of all time, but this one carries an extra poignancy due to the fact that we are watching an artist sail into the sunset under his own power. Night Across the Street is Ruiz’ posthumous jibe at mortality.
COMMENTS: “Time seems to stumble here,” muses a character (amusingly, the line is delivered immediately following a jump cut). “The hours don’t follow one another.” Our main character, Don Celso, is talking to Jean Giono, a somewhat obscure French writer who died in 1970 but whom he meets in a translation seminar, presumably in the present day. Celso is used to chatting with such apparitions; as a child, he used to hold conversations with Beethoven (whom he takes to see a cowboy movie) and the fictional pirate Long John Silver (who predicts that someone close to the boy will die, only to find that every victim he suggests is already dead).
Night Across the Street‘s sense of being lost in a sea of memory where the distant past shares equal billing with the present should be familiar to anyone who has ever observed grandpa recalling his first kiss in the seventh grade as if it happened yesterday, while simultaneously forgetting where he put his keys and how to operate the remote control. The first forty minutes of the movie are full of flashbacks to Celso’s boyhood, leading us to fear that Night will one of those dull, reverential movies full of the bittersweet reminiscences of an old man reflecting back on a life speckled with triumphs and tragedies; but the last two-thirds of the film, dealing with the approach of death and its aftermath, prove far more interesting than the setup. The forcibly retired Celso is waiting for the man who will kill him to arrive, you see, and when the boarding house matron’s nephew, a poet, comes to stay, he thinks his killer has finally arrived. In a convoluted parody of drawing room murder mysteries and noirish twists, the nephew is planning to kill the old man for his money, while romancing his own aunt and a dancer/prostitute who also lives at the home. Meanwhile, Don Celso is trying to talk an assassin, who is a client of the dancer, out of killing the nephew.
It gets stranger from there, as rumors of murder start to fly and the movie’s dream sequences start having their own dream sequences. In the world of this movie, no distinction could be less important than the one between fantasy and reality (unless it is perhaps the one between past and present). Only the difference between life and death truly matters, but even that line proves difficult to draw. Different permutations of the story coexist, overlapped onscreen: it’s a surreally garbled tale of murder, a young boy’s ominous premonitions of the future, an old man’s dying dream, a self-conscious metafiction, and the memoirs of a ghost, all at the same time. It ends as a haunted house tale set in a cursed boarding house, a place where the ghosts are haunted by their own meta-ghosts. The movie sports a delightful sense of intellectual play, especially wordplay (the lectures on translation, poetry recitations, a running gag about a crossword clue, and the main character’s obsession with the word “rhododendron”). Nothing could be more absurd than death. With his extremely odd and dry sense of humor intact until the end, Ruiz laughs at death—not defiantly, but with genuine befuddled amusement.
Raoul Ruiz made over 100 movies in his lifetime, some in his native Chile and many in France where he lived in exile during the Pinochet regime. In 2010 he was diagnosed with cancer and received a successful liver transplant. He shot Night Across the Street in March of April of 2011; in August of that same year he died of a lung infection. He did preparatory work on one final movie, Linhas de Wellington (Lines of Wellington), a historical drama set in the Napoleonic Wars, which was completed by his widow Valeria Sarmiento.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“…suffused with the contrast between experience and memory, reality and surreality.”–Elizabeth Weitzman, New York Daily News (contemporaneous)
(This movie was nominated for review by Dwarf Oscar, who called it “a splendid and utterly weird movie, released after the filmmaker’s death, which brings a poignant resonance with the subjects tackled in the film.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)