Into the Wild
by Jeff Reichert
Post Tenebras Lux
Dir. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, Strand Releasing
[The following article contains what some may consider spoilers.]
The ecstatic cinematic rhapsody that is Post Tenebras Lux is not for everybody—but noting this is not to suggest that it couldn’t be. Though it scans like an impenetrable extended anti-narrative of non sequiturs peppered with visual tics and odd happenings, it’s also somehow the most human and approachable film Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas has yet made. This may seem like a perverse thing to say about a movie that twice features a glowing red horned Beelzebub with a prominent phallus and toolbox striding through an innocuous household in the middle of the night. But for all of this film’s mauling of traditional storytelling rules, unlike, while watching, say, Godard at his most difficult, you’ll never find yourself wishing for extensive footnotes or a bibliography to decode it. Though he has returned to the same preoccupations (Western vs. Non-Western Mexico, explicit sex enacted via “normal” bodies, the thrall of religion over the Mexican populace) time and again, sometimes with a singular obsession that grows tiresome, Reygadas here continually startles and delights. There’s an intuitive quality to the filmmaking: perspectives shift and move invisibly and fluidly, and time seems not a concern at all. Reygadas grounds his formal play in recognizable roman à clef elements, so that even when Post Tenebras Lux is at its most obtuse, it isn’t long before a pocket of relative lucidity arrives.
The film opens at purple twilight. A girl of two or three (Rut Reygadas, the director’s daughter) runs through a puddled field ringed by mountains as a nearby pack of barking dogs circles a group of wary cows. The camera floats low to the ground providing a child’s-eye view of the scene. More animals—horses and donkeys—run past, much to Rut’s delight. She seems to be enjoying her play, but the thunder and lightning in the distance, and the increasing howling of the dogs as the sun sets, suggest further menace. As the light dies away, the girl realizes just how alone she is and begins plaintively calling out for her father, mother, and someone named Eleazar. The final images of the sequence are enveloped in blackness, with the now more frequent lightning illuminating her tiny silhouette. The girl disappears entirely and the title flashes onto the screen one word at a time. Reygadas has never failed to grab his audience’s attention with his opening scenes (recall the lovely sunrise time lapse of Silent Light and the simulated blow-job of Battle in Heaven) and this lengthy, hypnotic sequence is no exception.
What follows is even wilder: the increased tempo of the lightning creates a strobe effect that intermingles the afterimage of the field with the interior of a home. After this oddly disconcerting “fade” completes, we can start to make out a couch, a lamp, the contours of a living room bathed in blue predawn light. This quotidian image might suggest for a moment that everything in the film thus far has been some kind of a dream, and that normalcy is about to intrude, but the arrival of the aforementioned devil throws that supposition into doubt. This stiff figure wanders throughout the home and is spotted by a young boy but enters what we assume is his parents’ bedroom instead and closes the door. Instead of following this strand further, Reygadas cuts to an impossibly beautiful shot of fogged mountains near dawn.
By this point in Post Tenebras Lux, you might have noticed at times a beveled edge to the tight 1.33:1 frame, a kind of haloed doubling around the sides of the image, the result of a technical error that Reygadas and his DP Alexis Zabe noticed when the shooting began and chose not to correct. Used only when the film moves outdoors, it pleasingly mars the crispness of the HD imagery with a sense of the tactile, and offers the feel of an iris-in stuck before it’s barely begun. For a while on first viewing at a festival screening, I wondered if this distortion was the result of a projector error, and I became anxious that my experience was being negatively affected. As the film wore on, I was worried it would go back to “looking normal,” so effective is this reorientation of our vision. Reygadas has never been a filmmaker interested in half measures and small gestures.
It’s still quite a bit of time before we meet the film’s main characters, bourgeois parents Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo). They are father and mother to Rut and her brother, Eleazar, and employ lower-class Siete (Willebaldo Torres) to work on their newly constructed home (Reygadas’s own), a cleanly modern wooden structure poking out from the overgrown lushness of the jungle around it. As the film progresses, and before its scant narrative thrust begins to make itself clear, we’re treated to home movie–esque images of their domestic life: the kids jumping on the parents in bed, arguments between them over buying curtains or whether or not to have sex. Unlike his previous films, in which nearly every moment is calibrated to make the world seem alien, these sequences feel shockingly banal, but even more unexpected is their charm and sweetness.
Reygadas hasn’t let his viewers off the hook, though. Scattered amongst these vignettes are a documentary-like stop at a rural village addiction meeting, where Juan admits to using internet pornography; a trip to a bathhouse sex club with room names like Hegel and Duchamp, where Natalia allows herself to be fucked by a stranger; and an inscrutable interaction about logging between Siete and a mysterious man. At one point early on, Juan beats one of the family’s many dogs to death for no apparent reason. Later, we see a massive gathering featuring a clearly older Natalia, Rut, Juan, and Eleazar, which might be a flash-forward, except that events later in the film strongly hint at Juan’s demise. Twice the film jumps to England to bear witness to a high-school rugby match that is never explicitly tied back into the main narrative. Once, at Juan’s request, Natalia belts out a lovingly tuneless rendition of Neil Young’s “It’s a Dream” at the piano (her tone deaf performance has an odd staying power). Late in the film, the devil returns for another nocturnal perambulation. Throughout, Reygadas shows approximately zero regard for navigable transitions between these scenes.
As in Japón and Battle in Heaven, the class differences of Reygadas’s characters are crucial, yet this is also the basis of the narrative’s least interesting turn. When Juan returns to the house one day and finds Siete and a friend thieving the home’s electronics on a tray (earlier Siete admitted to a spotted past), he attacks the two thieves and winds up shot, underlining an unfortunate crudeness to Reygadas’s approach to his “big themes” (good/evil and high/low). The sequence reads as heavy statement-making in a film in which it’s generally hard to know how to locate and categorize anything we’ve seen. Siete, who escaped the run-in with Juan without being spotted, returns later to investigate the fallout, and Rut calmly announces, “Daddy’s dead.” This suggests the causally based narrative closure we expect from cinema—but not long after this encounter, the man wanders off into a field and pulls off his own head, the spurt of blood from his neck causing a deluge of red from the sky.
Given all this mayhem, it is worth asking, as J. Hoberman has so eloquently queried in two pieces discussing the film somewhat harshly, “WTF”? My own assessment of the big bag of stuff that is Post Tenebras Lux is more generous, but it’s worth remarking that it is difficult to write positively about films that many will find utterly baffling without sounding condescending to those viewers who don’t fall under the same sway. One must tread lightly so as not to suggest that its detractors might enjoy the film more if only they watched it “better,” or differently, or with another knowledge set (like, say, that of a semi-regular film critic). There’s a thin but worthwhile distinction between that position and another in which the critic acts not as a lecturer, but as intermediary, helping an audience find foothold in a work that resists easy explanation and leaving them to choose to enjoy the experience or not. If all viewers were invited in to Post Tenebras Lux carrying the expectation of watching a free-flowing semi-autobiographical exploration of the life of a family interlaced with fantastical manifestations of everyday fears, triumphs, and desires, would that make for more relaxed viewing?
What’s easier, and more common in the critical discourse around Post Tenebras Lux, and other films like it, is lobbing charges of indulgence and wandering on to the next film. It’s an understandable, though not entirely forgivable reaction: the film is, to be sure, abstract and strange, and knowing that it bears more than a whiff of the autobiographical (apparently Reygadas is a big rugby fan and went to school in England, and that is his house and children we see onscreen) only further points towards that easy assessment. Some recent interviews with the filmmaker don’t really cast the execution of his intentions in a particularly positive light either. But if we’re talking about indulgence, the same could be applied for pretty much all of art. There’s no place to draw a line, so why the rush to try? Post Tenebras Lux is a frustrating work, but I was excited as it washed over me, as the contradictions of the interplaying scenes accrued and smashed up against each other. Its interest in inner essences and the natural sublime makes it a kissing cousin to the much more linear and readable The Tree of Life, and its detours and disregard for niceties of realism place it in the same freewheeling headspace as Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives. And even though I can’t fully reconcile all of the film’s strands at this point, it feels more immediately, organically whole and certainly more human than that recent celebrated experiment in narrative scrambling, Shane Carruth’s Upstream Color.
In the wake of Post Tenebras Lux, the explicit sexuality, 360-degree pans, crude juxtapositions, and in-your-face inscrutability of Japón and Battle in Heaven seem the work of a brawling enfant terrible, hollering for attention in an international art scene crowded with extremity; the sedate, sublime course correction of Silent Light was an acknowledgement of the limits of shit-stirring as an aesthetic raison d’être. More relaxed and comfortable in its own skin, Post Tenebras Lux feels a kind of summation. Its ambiguous closing lines, uttered by a young rugby player: “Let’s not let them get the better of us. We can beat this team. They’ve got individuals; we’ve got a team. So come on, let’s go.” a rallying cry, perhaps for a divided Mexico, perhaps for Reygadas’s family, perhaps for a new kind of transgressive art cinema community that bands together around immersive storytelling and mythmaking. At this point in his career, Reygadas still hasn’t crafted much in the way of memorable characterizations, and his class and nationalist obsessions might needlessly weigh down the image poetry and narrative play in which he seems truly interested. Those he puts in front of his camera have not yet equaled in interest the filmmaking that captures them, and this is still true in Post Tenebras Lux. As it has been in his first three features, Reygadas himself is the star, for better and for worse. This exciting leap into more directly emotional and deeply felt terrain portends a potentially fascinating new chapter of his art. More than likely, though, he’ll be off again in another direction entirely, but for now Post Tenebras Lux is here, daring us, but also desperately wanting us, to come in for a spell.