You don’t get booed at Cannes for nothing. Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’ visual iconoclasm continues to advance the bounds of cinema as art, but some people prefer to cling to the old narrative forms. In Reygadas’ progression through what is commonly referred to as auteur cinema, it has become increasing clear that he’s taking it forward with him. His debut feature Japan (2002) showcased the loneliness of a man who seeks refuge in a remote mountain village. It was followed by Heaven (2005), which strove to uncover the moral blight of the urban landscape, but by moving away from the rural he lost his idyllic aesthetic. To correct this this, Reygadas returned to a bucolic setting in Silent Light (2007), following a Mennonite community where a father’s faith is tested when he falls in love with a new woman.
In Reygadas’ new feature, Post Tenebras Lux, he allows us into the deep recesses of his dreams. It is a visually stunning work that begs to be seen on the big screen and proved to be one of the most cerebral, reflective, and daring films I’ve seen this year. The film, which premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival where it won the Best Direction award, takes its title from the Latin phase meaning “light after darkness.” Though it has been described as non-narrative drama, it does follow a clear story, if through a somewhat oblique pattern. It is a semiautobiographical drama that meditates on family life and Mexican class divisions, with added elements that include a trip to a European sex bathhouse, an English rugby game and a home invasion from a CGI devil.
Reygadas has stated that the film may seem mysterious at first sight. Certainly, the film is a patchwork of narrative fragments. What hold them together are clear patterns of diffused geography and psychology. While comparisons could be made to Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, Post Tenebras Lux deals with a highly specific and personal evocation of Mexico. The film concerns a middle class Mexican couple living in a remote village. Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro), a spoiled, smug patriarch and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), a victim of Juan’s emotional badgering, live a cultured life of privilege in an earthy, photogenic landscape with their two seemingly happy toddlers. However, all is not well — Juan has a violent temper which he takes out on the family dog, and Satan creeps around the house late at night with a toolbox. But more often, the images of the lush landscape help to calm the strangeness.
There are 23 segments in the film. The exceedingly beautiful fifteen-minute prologue where a young child wanders about a field climaxes with bursts of apocalyptic thunderstorms. In the next segment, a glowing Satan enters the house. He is bathed in a pink glow and glides through the rooms effortlessly. However, only Juan’s son sees him. In the third sequence we meet a local laborer, Seven (perhaps named for the seven deadly sins), as he chops down trees. Only afterward are we introduced to Juan’s family and the narrative of familial life comes into focus. What begins as a joyous morning turns hideous when Juan beats a family dog mercilessly. Perhaps the devil is still present.
Later in a flashback to a French sex sauna, Natalia has a pleasurable encounter while Juan looks on. Is Reygadas blurring the lines between reality and fantasy? He has said that scene shows that certain people are capable of trespassing certain limits, which makes them more special. But he doesn’t seem to admire his characters. In a post-Cannes interview, he claims “the values of the people in the film are not mine.” Without narrative guideposts, it’s often hard to grasp why an artist is showing us what we see. Reygadas’ evocation of danger within settings of safety, like the verdant countryside or the stable family home, is unmistakably unsettling. But without a linear storyline, he’s able to complicate a simplistic takeaway. He brings both the beauty and the evil of the world into focus, modulating their time at the forefront with the skill of someone adept not just at art, but at life.
The film was shot in a boxy 1:33 aspect radio with blurred, drunken edges which gives the viewer the sensation of looking in through an old window. The effect is luminous and dreamlike once one gets used to it. Its effects are exhilarating. Reygadas defends his choice to use such esoteric lensing by claiming that “aesthetics are in the end a reinterpretation of the world.” Even the aesthetic choice of supposedly naturalistic, familiar cinematography is a heavy reinterpretation of the world. Reygadas flouts the cinematic regime that says the screen can only reflect the world in a highly structured and specific way. Instead, he disregards the distinction between fantasy and reality by showing how life is an intertwining of the two. Juan’s fantasy constructs his reality — he admits to a late-night porn addiction at a local AA meeting — and his reality constructs his fantasies. Why should a fantastic succession of still images flickering over a projector act as if fantasies didn’t have real effects in the world?
Reygadas presents us with a drama that like life is at times simultaneously complex and banal; where human conflict can lead to life-altering tension, while at other times we are simply shown the beauty of wind caressing the tops of the tress. This is a film of images, and it finds profound visual beauty in the everyday. It’s hypnotic for those who prize the power and art of the moving image over classically constructed narrative. For those who can accept a lack of narrative hand holding, you will be rewarded. In its deviations from traditional storytelling tropes, Post Tenebras Lux achieves a much richer evocation of life itself.
At the end of the film we see a spirited rugby match. At Cannes, Reygadas remarked that “Rugby’s a good fit for the film: the physicality of it matches the violence of the land, of nature, of life, but at the same time there’s love.” The young male players roughly run and stomp at the earth just as the film began with the cows in a field — man and animal perhaps indistinguishable. And yet only one of them can make art.
The Upside: For those who can accept a lack of narrative hand holding, you will be rewarded. In its deviations from traditional storytelling tropes, Post Tenebras Lux achieves a much richer evocation of life itself.
The Downside: This is capital “A” arthouse fare. Make your box office purchase accordingly.
On The Side: All of Carlos Reygadas’ films have premiered at Cannes.