Night Across the Street: “You Can’t Kill Yourself, Only Lend Yourself to Death”

02/06/2013 4:00 AM |

Night Across the Street
Directed by Raul Ruiz

There is a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment midway through this movie that ranks for me as one of the most wondrous in recent filmmaking. Elderly clerk Don Celso stares proudly at his handmade “impossible bottles”—miniature clipper ships encased in thin-necked glass, the sort of dusty, handmade curiosities that Ruiz has always viewed with a child’s sense of wonder. He runs his hand over each bottle, and we hear—thanks to some canny sound editing—the faint cawing of gulls and the crashing of waves. In a flash, Celso’s magic trick becomes Ruiz’s: the magic of cramming a world into a bottle replaced by the magic of bringing it to life.

Night Across the Street was the late Chilean filmmaker’s final work, and it plays like an impossible bottle itself: a lifetime’s worth of unfilmed stories, stray ideas, childhood memories, and verbal puns packed into two unhurried hours. In theory, Night cycles between Celso’s present musings and his imagined youth; in practice, it’s an especially loopy—and pleasurable—tour through Ruiz’s fertile imagination, stumbling repeatedly on certain games (mock-sparring, marbles, dominoes), words (“Rhododendron,” the director’s favorite, which ends up taking on more meanings than it has syllables), and places (drawing-rooms, cinemas, greenhouses, and docks, all seen through the yellow-orange haze of memory), with just enough time for a murder plot, too.

The film’s quietly triumphant ending only proves Celso’s maxim that “you can’t kill yourself, [only] lend yourself to death”—which for Ruiz meant lending himself to the movies. His wise, playful swan song is no monument or testament. It’s something much less showy and much more private: something of Ruiz himself, hosting radio shows, playing with marbles, and dreaming of Beethoven from beyond the grave, in the flickering light of the screen.

Opens February 8