One of the most bizarre yet poignant moments in Night Across the Street shows a pair of shrunken men walking through the barrel of a gun. Both are dead, and the barrel is a passageway between life and death. Other characters make their way through, casually bumping into the men as if it were completely natural. None of this is played for melancholy but, instead, as a strange and exciting transition to the next world, worthy of celebration, not mourning.
Watching these images made me feel comfortable with the loss of filmmaker Raúl Ruiz, the Chilean experimental filmmaker who became one of the cornerstones of the avant-garde before passing away last year at the age of 70. To commemorate the filmmaker’s death, this year’s New York Film Festival has chosen not one but two Ruiz films, or at least one and a half, one might say. The previously-mentioned Night Across the Street is the final “Ruiz proper” (as a filmmaker obsessed with language and its inefficiencies, I’m sure Ruiz would find the distinction amusing), while the festival is also presenting Lines of Wellington, a film by Ruiz’s wife and longtime editor Valeria Sarmiento. Ruiz’s 1987 work The Blind Owl will also play in Views from the Avant-Garde.
Lines of Wellington, which originally began as Ruiz’s next project, is in many ways a spiritual sequel to his haunting masterpiece Mysteries of Lisbon. Sarmiento’s film, based on an original screenplay by Lisbon screenwriter Carlos Sobgada, is similarly obsessed with the aristocracy and all the melodrama that comes with it. But Lines of Wellington is much more melancholic; war has arrived in Portugal between the English and the French, the native land siding with the former. The plan to defeat the French is simple: Retreat back to a hill near Lisbon, where canons and forts are being built for the ultimate attack, the so-called “Lines of Wellington.” Wellington has no relation to Beef Wellington (that joke is made), but a General Wellington played by John Malkovich. His role in the film is brief—he appears in maybe 10 of the film’s 150 minutes—but essential, as he argues with a painter over his portrayal of the war (already being mythologized before its ending) to be less bloody and more majestic.
If those scenes don’t scream “look at the main theme of my film,” then I’m not sure what would, because Lines of Wellington is very much about perspectives on war. The film is built on a network narrative of melodrama—romance between soldiers and aristocrats, husbands looking for wives, a murderous gang of priests (an excellent band name!), and plenty of lost souls in need of redemption. Sobgada clearly enjoys crafting a good melodrama, a word which I use with full affection. There’s plenty of sex (much involving the doughy-eyed Victória Guerra), violence, and confrontation filled with screams and tears.
Sarmiento tries to capture the magical Ruiz touch by gliding her camera around a scene, but she’s much more capable with a shot-reverse shot, letting the period setting speak for itself. That’s quite fine for this narrative, but I found Sobgada’s stories hard to follow and overly tangential. Mysteries of Lisbon, with its magisterial command, flew by despite its four-plus hour running time because every story within a story was revealing and essential to its Matryoshka doll structure. Here, the film’s lack of a center makes it impossible to string the stories together with any sort of logic. As a title card announces the end of the war during the film’s last shot, I didn’t feel anger or even boredom. I didn’t feel anything.
If Lines of Wellington revealed what I missed about Ruiz, Night Across the Street reaffirmed my faith. The film has more in common with his avant-garde works, less familiar to fans of Lisbon and his Proust adaptation Time Regained than to those who have seen works like On Top of the Whale. And yet, the elegance of Ruiz’s camera ties his confounding themes together. The narrative, which more than in some of his other works is allegorically autobiographical, follows Don Celso, an elderly man who narrates radio stories of a young boy in Santiago, Chile and enjoys the company of Long John Silver and Beethoven. He also lives in a hotel where dead bodies seem to appear from nowhere and a man is planning to kill him; he gladly meets with another man who is selling the murder weapon, fully aware of its future use. There are discussions of nationalism, language and improper use of it, and man’s relationship to death. To take it all in with a single screening seems daunting, given the complexity, and to say it all congeals (both narratively as well as thematically) might be a stretch even within the Ruiz filmography.
But the images! The camera! Most avant-garde cinema is made to challenge the spectator’s relationship to the form. Instead, Ruiz warmly invites us in. Night Across the Street is luscious, funny, and daring. The camera often exposes things previously hidden as it glides across rooms, revealing characters in spaces we didn’t even see until the end of the shot. Expressive spaces such as hotel rooms are lit almost noir-like, while landscape shots of the city create an environment without limits. Ruiz’s camera works on a grand scale, yet he invites laughter in his films. Even when the images and themes seem discursive, and almost challenge the idea they could be understood, there’s a sense of comfort that doesn’t push us away but brings us more and more inside, building to a celebratory climax.
Perhaps that was the filmmaker’s great achievement over his astonishing career. Night Across the Street is a warm film that, though it ends with death, bills it as part of the next journey. Raúl Ruiz was a chameleon—he could do genre films, abstract works, or epics. And perhaps it’s fitting that Night will be his last film. It’s a little bit of all of them, and it’s also something more.
Night Across the Street, Lines of Wellington, and The Blind Owl screened as part of the 50th New York Film Festival.