Entrancingly beautiful and calculated to confound, Carlos Reygadas’s first feature since Silent Light (07), is as beguiling a cinematic object as one is likely to encounter this year. Met with boos following its premiere at Cannes last year (although it went on to win the Best Director prize), Post Tenebras Lux represents Reygadas’s attempt to make a personal work in which autobiographical content is lyrically transfigured and elevated to cosmic heights.
Every component of the film affirms its lofty artiness, leaving little doubt that Reygadas is intent on crafting a cinema whose metaphysical explorations are as revelatory as those of his forebears: Dreyer, Tarkovsky, late Godard, etc. While this might suggest that Post Tenebras Lux is irritatingly grandiose, through its weirdo plasticity and viscous materiality the film manages to be at once fully cognizant of its cinematic lineage and altogether different from its predecessors. Echoes of Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Dreyer’s Ordet, and even Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees resonate throughout but always with a wholly singular timbre.
The narrative revolves around Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro, sporting a multitude of hairdos and levels of stubble), a moneyed, middle-aged man living with his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo, whose courageous performance is capped by a wonderfully awful rendition of Neil Young’s “It’s a Dream”) and their young children, Rut and Eleazar (played by Reygadas’s own progeny). The family resides in a large modern house (Reygadas’s actual residence) incongruously situated in rural Mexico. The opening sequence points the way to the ravishing confusion to come: Rut runs wild among a pack of dogs and several horses on a water-logged soccer pitch as the magic hour fades into night; the darting camera and staccato cutting yield a frenetic image of bodies in motion. Far more invested in the audiovisual rendering of physicality than in narrative, Reygadas aims to evoke pure sensation.
In interviews, Reygadas has been reluctant to sort out the scrambled chronology of Post Tenebras Lux or to explain how certain ostensibly unconnected scenes—a red rotoscoped Lucifer figure making two housecalls, toolbox in hand; English adolescents playing rugby in school; a visit to a French bathhouse sex club with rooms named after Hegel and Duchamp—fit together with the main action, or what they mean. He has elaborated on the film’s signature formal device: a blurring distortion at the edges of almost all exterior shots that causes figures to take on a ghostly aspect as they fall out of focus and sometimes become doubled. For Reygadas this technique approximates the experience of looking through an imperfect pane of glass, and the distorted images express the way in which visual perception is informed by a host of desires, however unconscious. Setting aside the symbolic dimension, the results are, more often than not, gorgeous.
Post Tenebras Lux is a film rich with sheer material presence, making good on Reygadas’s apparent intention to make the viewer truly feel the audible and the visible, but his pictorial gimmickry can only do so much aesthetic heavy-lifting. In the end this is a painterly meditation on the interplay of vision, memory and imagination, and a quasi-diaristic account of the impressions that set the imagination to work. It amounts to watching the dissolution of the boundary between life and art, through a glass darkly.
Cannes Review: Carlos Reygadas’ 'Post Tenebras Lux' Is Singularly Strange, But Not Especially Impressive
When discussing Carlos Reygadas’ “Post Tenebras Lux,” comparisons to “The Tree of Life” come easily, though Reygadas’s film is as far from a paean to God as it gets. In fact, while Malick’s movie has a sweeping, hands-on perspective on enlightenment and God, Reygadas’ (“Silent Light,” “Battle in Heaven”) has a brazen, ostentatiously alienating and mostly detached view of redemption and Satan.
That’s right, “Post Tenebras Lux” concerns man’s ability to resist temptation and stop himself from sinning. And it’s literally sometimes told from the perspective of Satan, whose subjective point-of-view perspective shots feature two blurry concentric circles (imagine watching a film through Beer Goggles and you’re almost there). These POV shots are ambiguously peppered throughout the film, and are never explicitly attributed to a single character. But considering that these POV shots flit about innocent children and adults talking about sin, over-indulgence and violence, and the Devil is literally shown stalking around in the film’s first post-opening credits scene, it’s safe to assume that Reygadas is showing us the world through the Devil’s ambivalent eyes. To wit, “Post Tenebras Lux” is singularly strange, though never thoughtful or especially impressive.
“Post Tenebras Lux” doesn’t really have a traditionally linear plot but it does concern the consequences of a successive series of events and conversations. Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) has a massive country home and has hired a number of workers, including Seven (Willebaldo Torres), to take care of his palatial country estate. Juan also appears to be a member of a cult that has massive orgies that take place in a multi-room sauna. He also likes Tolstoy, alluding at one point to a passage from “War and Peace” where Pierre achieves a state of grace after accepting his own powerlessness.
In a similar vein, Reygadas’ latest is consistently both obtuse and blunt in establishing its thematic ambitions. As in “Battle in Heaven,” which is immediately about a kidnapping and then ultimately about class warfare and embattled religious politics in Mexico, “Post Tenebras Lux” concerns tension between Juan, Seven and Satan. There is no God in the film, an absence that is best expressed when one character says that he tends to lose at checkers because he’s weaker than his opponent, not because his opponent is especially strong. So to succeed in their trials, Seven and Juan have to learn how to stop trying to control everything and accept their own powerlessness. Or something.
That vague, wishy-washy philosophy is ironic considering that Reygadas’ approach to his latest idiosyncratically deranged theological drama is often oppressively heavy-handed. Throughout “Post Tenebras Lux,” Juan and Seven both try not to give in to their worse impulses. This is more thoughtful in theory than it is in practice. Seven tells us about his violent past during an anger management class while Juan confesses to his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) that he needs to control his temper better after telling her he wants to sodomize her. (Spoiler alert) The latter scene is also after an earlier scene where Juan beats one of his dogs to a pulp when it misbehaves. Juan’s post-sodomy proposition scene is several scenes before one character rips his or her head off with his or her own hands. These scenes make sense within the context of the film’s discussion but even then, they’re pretty damn obnoxious, and more than a little ridiculous.
“Post Tenebras Lux” is certainly unique, but Reygadas is often intensely more interested in provoking his audience than actually fleshing out his heady ideas. Even when “Post Tenebras Lux” is not aggressively flamboyant and obnoxious, as during the orgy scene where sweaty, engorged flesh flops in viewers’ faces in extreme close-up, it’s seriously trying. For example, in one scene Juan relates a major epiphany in a speech that never seems to end, while in another scene, Seven, who is earlier shown cutting down trees with a chainsaw, watches as the trees mysteriously fell themselves. These scenes are as provocative as “Post Tenebras Lux” gets and even then they’re more tedious than they are striking.
But at the same time, Reygadas’ film is as involving as it is because its half-baked ideas are interesting. Where else can you see Satan, depicted as a slender, naked, glowing, orange-red CGI monster with a steer’s head, stealing into a child’s room in the middle of the night for no apparent reason? More importantly, where else could such a scene make sense in light of an untenably fatalistic ideology? “Post Tenebras Lux” is not a “good movie” in the classical sense of the term. But it sure is something else. [C+]