Post Tenebras Lux (Carlos Reygadas – Mexico/France/Netherlands/Germany) 115 minutes
As this year’s Cannes Film Festival unfolded, a largely forgotten prize-winner from last year made it to French screens, mostly unremarked. Mexican director Carlos Reygadas’ fourth film was a rather unpopular winner of the Best Director prize; in fact Reygadas’ films on the whole have so far fared far better with festival juries than they have with critics. Personally, I would side with the juries on this as the Mexican is one of the most interesting filmmakers going at the moment and one who never makes the same film twice, even if they are often far from perfect.
He was certainly setting himself up for a fall with the pretentious Latin title Post Tenebras Lux (Light after Darkness) and this recondite tale of a young bourgeois Mexican family pushes the envelope in enough ways for people to be tempted to call bullshit on it – the elliptical structure, with seemingly unrelated scenes shuffled about, a nocturnal appearance from a CGI’d luminous cartoon devil, digital photography in Academy ratio that is sharply focused at the centre of the frame and all blurry at the edges. That said, Post Tenebras Lux might be the formally most challenging of Reygadas’ work but, thematically it is probably the most accessible. Given that his previous films included a man who goes to a village in the Mexican mountains to die (Japón), a working class chauffeur who kidnaps a child to make a bit of money and whose sexual fantasies concerning his boss’ teenage daughter are played out for real on screen (Batalla en el cielo) and a portrait of a German-speaking Mexican Mennonite community (Silent Light), this might be a mercy of sorts.
The unnamed family live in a bucolic sustainable-living home somewhere in the Mexican countryside, designed by architect father Juan. The balm of the rural existence is spoiled early on by what appear to be nightmares had by the two young children Rut and Eleazar (played by Reygadas’ own children of the same name). It then becomes clear that Juan is addicted to internet porn, his workers are variously drug addicted and stealing from him, and his marriage therapy with his wife Natalia appears to consist of a trip to a wife-swapping hammam in France, where he watches her being penetrated by a stranger. There is no narrative to speak of, and it is not even clear if we are getting any particular deep insight into its character’s minds and feelings. The whole thing, however, works. It might be confusing, obscure but the sequences function so well as micro-stories, are so beautifully filmed, they needle the viewer’s interpretative faculties with their strange, off-kilter drama. When two sequences appear out of the blue of teenage boys at an English public school preparing for and taking part in a rugby match, the effect is jolting and bracing in its non sequitur detour. (It becomes less mysterious though when you learn that Reygadas was himself a pupil at the same school.)
There are people for whom Reygadas is an outright charlatan, whose cinema is self-indulgent nonsense. That’s fine by me – I think much the same of Guy Maddin, Reygadas’ compatriot Alejandro González Iñárritu or the recent work of Terrence Malick. They all have their fervent defenders. If anything, Reygadas makes the same type of cinema as Malick but far better, with a clearer focus on the contours of his drama, and less obfuscatory in its lyricism. Post Tenebras Lux doesn’t approach the majestic beauty of Silent Light’s unlikely adultery drama, which won Reygadas the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2007. It may even be ultimately unsubstantial but it is an open-ended film poem that gets you thinking and looks like little else in contemporary cinema.