I enjoyed Carlos Reygadas’ last film, Luz Silenciosa (Silent Light), though much more in the week following its screening than in the theatre itself. With hindsight, I believe I judged it harshly in my review.
I wonder whether I’m about to do the same thing again.
Reygadas’ output is industrial-strength art-house: You need to pack a soft cushion, an imaginative frame of mind, and to have put your disbelief in colloidal suspension. You must stand ready to invent, apply and discard as many narrative hypotheses as it takes to find one which will help you make sense of what you’re seeing.
With Luz Silenciosa, a film about a love triangle in a Mennonite community, I found one, if late in the piece: the idea that the camera itself is an intruder in the private world of the drama, necessarily intervening with what goes on. This was conveyed through continual reminders of the presence of a lens throughout the film, through rain-spots, sun flares, window frames and, on one occasion during a highway storm seen through a windscreen, all three.
The very act of observation irreparably changes the dynamic of the situation: only when someone is there to hear it, does a tree falling in a forest make a sound.
In Post Tenebras Lux (After Shadows, Light) we are, again, permanently aware of the camera, this time because Reygadas has, selected an almost insolently square aspect ratio and applied a lens which refracts, blurs and distorts the fringes of the picture. We feel as if we are inside a box brownie, or perhaps inside a dream.
A dream: Now there’s a narrative hypothesis that might help.
A fashionable term for this screenplay is non-linear; another way of describing it is all over the place. We open with a toddler happily chasing cows and dogs around a wet football field at dusk as a brutal storm rolls in. It is quite an opening scene (as striking as, yet as different as could possibly be from, the sublime opener of Luz Silenciosa). The film principally concerns a couple and their two children, Rut and Eleazar (played by Reygadas’ own children), whom we meet at several points during their childhood. Much of it is spent in remote Mexican woodland country, where the family has an uneasy relationship with each other, their animals, and labourers who steal, drink, smoke pot, vandalise trees and convene AA meetings in a corrugated iron shed.
Wait – falling trees! As if to validate my tentative theory, we see labourers maliciously sabotaging trees, deep in the Mexican rainforest, hacking part way through their trunks, only for them to fall, later, when no-one but the all-seeing, fish-eyed camera lens is there. It sees, and hears, so we do. We change everything. George Berkeley would be pleased.
Beyond the Mexican bush, the scenes seem wilfully disconnected. Wealthy city folk at a Christmas party argue the toss between Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. At a distance, the family gambols in the surf, and mid-scene, the children regress ten years to toddlers. A couple of scenes take place, apropos absolutely nothing, on a rugby field in England. There is a long orgy scene in a French Sauna which manages to be faintly comical and decidedly menacing at the same time.
I don’t pretend to have fathomed this film at all. But some impressions are forming, and by the end of the week I might have a theory about it. For the time being these ideas coalesce, like dream sequences in a box brownie:
There are threats all around us, natural, man-made and self-made. They thunder from the heavens and rise up from the ground. They emanate equally from our servants and our masters. Our own view is necessarily purblind; we are boxed in, constrained to see the world in terms dictated by our biology and our own distorted preconceptions. Yet, amongst all this, we remain exuberant, and confident, and out of angst, pain and loss comes vitality, love and advancement. Even as it ends, life goes on.
This may all be summarised in a passage from War and Peace, quoted rather obnoxiously at that dinner party:
"Pierre had learned, not with his mind, but with his whole being, his life, that man is created for happiness, that happiness is within him, in the satisfying of natural human needs, and that all unhappiness comes not from lack, but from superfluity."
I’m not sure. This time next week, I may have figured it all out.