It’s a pretty small category: films about death made by directors who knew they were dying. Until now, the genre has included a scant three movies that I know of: John Huston’s “The Dead” (1987), Derek Jarman’s “Blue” (1993), and Robert Altman’s “A Prairie Home Companion” (2006). The arrival of Raúl Ruiz’s final work, “Night Across the Street,” brings the total to four, an elegant, clear-eyed bridge game of artists playing their last trump cards.
Ruiz’s movies resist both categorization and star ratings, and “Night,” filmed while the director was battling liver cancer (he died in August 2011 of a lung infection), is no different. Nominally based on stories by the Chilean writer Hernán del Solar, it’s an exuberantly Ruizian meditation on a man’s final days, fondly surreal and lit with a life’s wisdom. The title character, Don Celso (Sergio Hernández), is a stand-in for the filmmaker, and he skips easily between childhood memories and a weary present tense.
Born in Chile but working in France from the Pinochet regime onward, Ruiz was many things: a writer of Chilean soap operas, a film theorist, director of over 100 movies and videos — he’s probably the most prolific director you never heard of. In theory and in practice, he avoided the “central conflict” approach that most dramas and Hollywood movies accept as a matter of course. Films like “Three Lives and Only One Death” (1996) and “Mysteries of Lisbon” (2010) are illogical on the surface yet graceful with dream logic beneath; they are to movies what the stories of Jorge Luis Borges are to literature, pocked with weird details that hint at vast and formless implications.
So the memory play of “Night Across the Street” is crisscrossed by such figures as Ludwig von Beethoven (Sergio Schmied; the young hero takes him to a Randolph Scott western, which promptly freaks the great composer out), French author Jean Giono (Christian Vadim), and Long John Silver (Pedro Villagra) of “Treasure Island.” The director indulges his love of pulp fiction with a murder subplot in which Don Celso is the intended victim but everyone else ends up dead. Perhaps the approach of death kills off the people we’ve known, or at least our memories of them.
Among many other things, “Night Across the Street” is a moviemaker’s farewell to movies — the Hollywood corn he loved as a child and the serenely strange inventions he put on film. Ruiz sees the camera as a metaphor for both a pistol and a mirror, “and tonight,” says Don Celso, “the mirrors show us whatever we like.” It’s probably not true that our lives flash before our eyes in the seconds before death. No matter: Ruiz has made a movie that did the job for him.