Saturday, June 29, 2013

Post Tenebras Lux (2013) A Film by Carlos Reygadas

If I needed any further proving that the rowdy, sleepless Cannes Film Festival atmosphere is no place for properly digesting challenging, multilayered art cinema, revisiting some of the 2012 festival's best international films as they've slowly trickled into American theaters in 2013 has more than done the trick. First up was Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love, the slippery surfaces and deceptively controlled structure of which struck me as intriguingly baffling at the decorated world premiere, only to make absolute, rewarding sense in the comfort of my normal routine with the luxury of much-needed time for contemplation. Holy Motors continued to be a beautifully wild, extraterrestrial object, albeit one whose layers of human sadness felt all the more acute. Now I find myself a week removed from a second screening of Carlos Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux, the closest thing to the main competition's obligatory provocation, and the seemingly punkish assaults on viewer complacency and fiercely non-conformist gestures that gave me such a queasy feeling in the Grand Théâtre Lumière have now congealed into a cogent, expressive whole. The film still has its tangents that feel fundamentally irresolvable, but it now seems less exhibitionist in its abstraction, and more like a unit of ideas and feelings that can only be captured and arranged in this particular serpentine manner.

Reygadas is a director whose highbrow influences tend to announce themselves with regrettable bluntness, and if Silent Light was his Dreyer pastiche, Post Tenebras Lux seems a tenuous attempt at a Mexican rendition of Tarkovsky's Mirror. But like Silent Light, which was far more interesting in its departures from the Danes' tics than in its devotional quotations, Post Tenebras Lux grows more singular as the distinctive preoccupations of its maker allow surface abnormalities to protrude from an impressionistic, Mirror-like foundation (after all, Tarkovsky's inextricably autobiographical cine-poem fundamentally defies duplication). Some of Tarkovsky's main ingredients are here – a house in the middle of the forest with dark wood interiors, a dying man who is in some warped sense the protagonist, unannounced detours to the past and future, a visual appreciation of nature for its own sake – but by the time Reygadas is done with them, they produce a flavor that is nearly unrecognizable from its source.

Reprising Battle in Heaven's emphasis on class distinctions, Post Tenebras Lux flips that film's arrangement to prioritize not the Mexican working-class type but rather the wealthy, Westernized Mexican, a decision that generates an immediate critical distance. The film focuses on Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), a casually manipulative, sexually frustrated architect living in the mountainous woodlands of Mexico with his acquiescent wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and their two spirited toddlers (played by Reygadas' own children Eleazar and Rut). At the core of the film is a domestic melodrama that nearly balloons later into a class thriller, but Reygadas is much less concerned with the particulars of Juan's life than he is with his internal world, which, in a recent Cineaste interview, he admits to sympathizing with.
Western Mexicans tend to have chronic dissatisfaction and see life from a disconnected point of view...It's the reality that many people are divided in their minds between their will and action. Few people can accomplish their will. So the film is autobiographical in that sense, too, in the way that I wrote about my feelings, and it came out in an automatic and instinctive way.
-Cineaste, Summer 2013
Now, one can never be entirely certain that Reygadas doesn't beat his dogs, talk down to his underpaid laborers, and stay up all night ogling internet pornography while his wife snoozes in the adjacent room (all of which are Juan's conspicuous character flaws), but the assumption here is that thought and action have been consciously separated. The autobiographical dimension relates to Juan's psychological profile as a man disembodied from his own surroundings, longing for a simpler time free of adult obligations. His morally questionable behavior, meanwhile, suggests the troubling realities of a divided Mexico, where significant socioeconomic gaps inspire a nagging feeling of unrest, which, for Juan, leads to violence and vice. Again, the assumption is that Reygadas is critical of this behavior, but at the same time, it can be difficult to justify the film's worst, most tasteless scene, in which a Kubrickian skyward close-up frames Juan as he kneels over to pummel his disabled labrador, whose harrowing squeals "suggestively" stand in for his presence offscreen. (As an owner of a dog with a terminal impairment, there's just no excuse, aesthetic or otherwise, for this garbage.)

Aside from this stray moment (which appears to be driven by little more than Reygadas' compulsion towards provocation), Juan's actions throughout the course of the film form a plausibly contradictory individual torn by boundless love for his family and ugly entitlement. The film is smart enough to avoid suggesting that Juan is simplistically redeemed by his familial devotion or, on the contrary, that his sins taint his human potential; instead, Reygadas sidesteps the level of judgment entirely by evading the shackles of A-B narrative structure and inhabiting the schizophrenic consciousness of his lead character. The logic behind Post Tenebras Lux's grab-bag assemblage is never announced. Past, present, future, reality, and dreams are intermingled without regard for literal causation, and it's impossible to say with authority if anything onscreen at a given moment can be traced to a verifiable, diegetic source; everything is vulnerable to the faulty, distorting filter of subjectivity. There are no familiar signs of a scene's beginning and end, and no fluid transitions from scene to scene. It's like reading an essay in which there are no thesis statements or transition sentences. New ideas just arrive, unannounced and uninvited.

That's the thinking behind the film's formidable teaser, a surreal episode of Eleazar scurrying in a muddy field with horses and dogs as the woozy, distracted camerawork approximates the girl's untutored vision. Later, this scene is offhandedly justified as a dream sequence, but, with the exception of the blurry vignette which frames the shot, Reygadas' way of presenting the action avoids the usual markers of "dream language." The sounds of the animals are mixed with an almost terrifying clarity, and natural elements – wind, water, mud, and, as the scene quickly descends to night, thunder and darkness – feel tactile. This hyperrealist approach, with its emphasis on heightening the lived experience of the character and his/her physical environment, remains Reygadas' default mode even as fantastical objects and scenarios – a conspicuously unreal animated devil figure entering the family's country home in the middle of the night, a man tearing his own head off like it's a weed that needs picking – figure their way into the film.

The "WTF" moments that are scattered throughout Post Tenebras Lux arrive within longer stretches of emotional and narrative directness. They are tied, more often that not, to feelings that are genuine and visceral for the film's characters. The devil seems a byproduct of the family's wavering religious faith, as well as an omen of the troubling plot progressions to come for Juan. A (possibly metaphorical) extended sequence at a clammy French brothel – filled with the kind of unpleasant sex Reygadas' is suspiciously attracted to – stems from Juan and Natalia's admitted problems in bed and ostensible insecurity. Repeated sojourns to a seemingly arbitrary British rugby match comment obliquely on the many wars being acted out in the narrative proper (between Western and Non-Western Mexico, upper-class and lower-class, brothers and sisters, and fathers and mothers); the film's final line, spoken by one of these players, is an oddly poignant gesture of optimism amidst so much prior unrest. Although these rugby scenes in particular have become a red flag for those eager to call Reygadas' out on the possibly dubious extent to which he is willing to stretch his associative montage, the results, to me at least, always feel right. The film's editing is off-kilter and strange, but rarely knotty for its own sake.

If there's anything close to a built-in retort to viewers frustrated by Post Tenebras Lux for its obscure, dawdling nature, it's Natalia's impromptu, tone-deaf version of Neil Young's "It's a Dream," which she performs on the family's out-of-tune piano at the request of her husband as he ails in bed from a violent tiff with his down-and-out employee. As this excessively civil wife tends to do, Natalia heeds Juan without question, but her ensuing performance is much more than just a half-hearted compliance with her husband's demands; it's also a headfirst dive into the bittersweet emotionality of the song's lyrics, and her eventual tears reveal a complex mixture of regret and anger over Juan's hasty decisions as well as a sincere affection for him. Only a rock could watch this and be unmoved. It's this kind of delicate, tender moment that Reygadas tends to use to bring into sharp focus the themes and emotional subtexts of a given film, and here it's pregnant with the many levels on which this chronologically jumbled, possibly liminal movie exists: the mysterious, distorted realms of dreams and the past, the fractured present, and the imposing future. As Natalia croons "it's a dream / only a dream / and it's fading now / fading away / just a memory without anywhere to stay," I found myself sharing in her sense of wistful loss – a feeling directed not towards the impending dissolution of a family and a relationship, but towards the film itself.

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