The Politics of Critical Reception and the Marxist Feminist Sublime in Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux
“Fortunately, somewhere between chance and mystery lies imagination, the only thing that protects our freedom, despite the fact that people keep trying to reduce it or kill it off altogether.”
(Luis Buñuel 2013: 174)
I’m always attracted to films that cause an uproar, critical polarization, outrage, anger, dismissal, and confusion. Thus I was drawn to the Mexican film Post Tenebras Lux when I read about the decidedly mixed critical reaction it received at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival. It was loudly booed, some critics were openly hostile and dismissive towards it, and yet Carlos Reygadas, who directed the film, was awarded the Best Director Award at the same festival. Audiences at Cannes, though, have a history of booing films that are later hailed as masterworks. BAMcinétmatek recently ran a series of films that most agree are masterpieces, but were initially rejected and “booed” at Cannes. Films such as Buñuel’s El (This Strange Passion, 1953), Antonioni’s L’eclisse (Eclipse, 1962), Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964), Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), Bresson’s L’argent (1983) and Cronenberg’s Crash (1996) are among the list of films that were initially met with loud jeering, harsh criticism, and general incomprehension. I was lucky enough to be in New York City when Post Tenebras Lux was playing on the big screen at Film Forum, so I rushed to see it.
After a cursory glance at reviews, I fully expected an almost incomprehensible, dull, self-indulgent, inscrutable and difficult, if not impossible film. I figured I could always leave early if it was downright awful, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it might be quite the opposite, and my suspicions were more than confirmed. I am so thrilled that I was fortunate to see such a dazzling and beautiful film projected on the big screen. Where others found an overly “demanding” and “difficult” film, I felt Post Tenebras Lux was anything but “difficult.” I experienced the film as an exhilarating and sublime poetic examination of patriarchy and class wound into a liberating and absorbing dream-like narrative deliciously open to interpretation and openly imaginative.
Post Tenebras Lux is purposefully rendered precisely in the realm described in Buñuel’s words, “somewhere between chance and mystery.” Like Luis Buñuel, Carlos Reygadas values highly both freedom and imagination, and I find it very disturbing that so many critics, those whom should champion films that embrace the dream state between chance and mystery, reject the film as too difficult. Carlos Reygadas actively gives the gift of freedom of interpretation to the audience, but, unfortunately, many critics seem to reject that free space of imagination that Buñuel valued so highly. Ironically, “Post Tenebras Lux” translates from Latin into “Light After Darkness.” Perhaps if critics would return to the film for a second viewing, they may be lucky enough to experience that revealing glow and step out of the darkness into light.
I’d be dishonest if I said I completely understood Post Tenebras Lux after only one viewing. Even after several viewings I still find more to think about and actively interpret, but I love that experience, unlike many critics, sadly. My initial takeaway was that Reygadas likes to mix an unearthly “realism” with earthly fantasy. I suspect that it was the very things that drew me back to the film (the aspects I found full of sublime dream logic) that may have been the same things that turned off others. Where they found impossible nonlinearity, for example, I noted with delight that the director cuts freely among flashbacks and flash-forwards, in a way more akin to the dreamscapes of Luis Buñuel or experimental films. I’d just finished teaching a course in Buñuel and Latin American film directors, so I wasn’t in the least bit thrown by Reygadas’ approach to narrative. “Plot” matters less here, and audiences expecting a straightforward narrative might well feel confused and frustrated.
But isn’t it the job of the critic to prepare the viewer for a film that does not behave by the rules? It is hard enough to find wide distribution for better films. The more reviews I read, the more frustrated I became with the critical reception of Post Tenebras Lux and films like it. Nevertheless, it was quite clear to me, even on my initial viewing of the film, that Reygadas has significant things to say about patriarchy, capitalism, Mexico, the class system, sexuality, Marxist alienation, the perils of income disparity, the fleeting nature of life, the presence of evil in the mundane, and the sublime nature of simply being alive and perceptive, not to mention the breathtaking poetic beauty to be found in art and filmmaking.
Post Tenebras Lux is a personal film, a political film, and a film that specifically ponders filmic narrative as both fantasy and reality. We do not have to choose if the things we are seeing are a dream or a reality. Reygadas, like Buñuel and many of the greatest directors, displaces the rather dated insistence that film is a device to merely “capture reality,” a notion Reygadas dismisses violently and repeatedly in his statements. It seems stunning that we are even still involved in such a tired debate in 2013, yet this seems to be one of the things critics complain about with regard to the film, that and the film’s supposed “nonlinearity.”
Like Buñuel and many Latin American auteurs, Carlos Reygadas frustrates those obtuse critics who insist that cinema must delineate carefully between scenes of “fantasy” and scenes of “reality.” Reygadas makes his intention evidently clear in an interview in Cineaste, “The film is about many things, including the perception of reality, of our dreams, fantasies, and in our direct experiences, and in the acknowledgement of the reality beyond what we see and hear” (my emphasis, Koehler 2013: 11).
Reygadas repeatedly states that cinema is a “reinterpretation of reality” as much as it is an embrace of fantasy. One feels an almost palpable sense of frustration in interviews with Reygadas when he is asked directly if a scene is “real” or “fantasy.” Often he simply replies, “who knows?” and leaves it open to interpretation. Perhaps to some extent, the rejection of Reygadas’ work is also related to cultural difference. As he told Dennis Lim, “Friends in Mexico who saw it didn’t think it would be so divisive. You know people here [at Cannes] are tired, they’re paid to judge, and they think they have to judge before they feel.” Mexican and Latin American writers and filmmakers have a long tradition of embracing the illogic and poetic freedom of the surreal and the dream state.
It is self-evident to me that Reygadas is almost obsessed with offering plenty of space for the audience to become active co-participants of meaning, to bring their own dreams and desires to the meaning of the film, rather than suppress the urge to negotiate meaning that comes from our own individual experiences and dreams. An exchange between Anna Bielak and Reygadas displays just how much respect Reygadas has for his audience. Bielak flatly asks, “While making a movie, are you ever concerned about the viewers?” Reygadas responds:
“The film may seem mysterious at first sight. But I really hope that by not giving you any simple answers, you eventually felt how much I respected you as a viewer […] every single person is different, is focused on other things, feels different emotions, and tries to find their way through the movie, and is able to find their own and unique interpretation of the story […] I truly appreciate the directors that don’t try to lead me by the hand through their stories. I want to be considered one of them.” (Bielak 2012)
Reygadas says in numerous interviews that he is most influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni, Andrei Tarkovsky and Carl Theodor Dreyer. Reygadas, despite his downbeat themes, comes off as a friendly and playful person. He often seems flummoxed by the demand for simplistic or reductionist explanations of his films. When Lim asks Reygadas if “perhaps the refusal to distinguish between fantasy and reality is what bothers some people about the film?” Reygadas responds:
“I’ve always thought that intelligent viewers don’t need to be led and will follow eventually. Something I find really strange is that the people who saw the film here last night [at the Cannes Festival] went to school, read books, and I say this not because I am comparing myself – but think of “The Metamorphosis” by Kafka, which was written almost a hundred years ago. Nobody knows if he really transforms into an insect or not, and there’s no explanation […] why can they read and accept these books, but why do they need explanations when they’re watching films?” (Lim 2012)
Clearly, then, Carlos Reygadas loves his audience; he respects us, he offers us choices. Above all Reygadas, like Buñuel, cherishes freedom and he always allows us ample room for our own interpretation. But almost as fascinating as the film itself is the critical reaction to the filmmaker (largely by English-speaking Westerners). I’m fascinated by the almost violent nature of the reaction against Reygadas, and I cannot help but think it has something to do with his Mexican ethnicity. Words used to describe him (or his films) such as “confrontation,” “divisive,” “baffling,” “calculated to confound,” “perplexing,” “maddeningly elusive,” “self-indulgent,” “smug,” “given to pretension and willful experimentation,” “radical,” and “difficult” typically have a rather positive connotation in the context of, say, an established critical darling auteur in the French cinema, but in the case of Reygadas, these words are used in a mean-spirited and harsh judgmental manner, essentially invoked to kill off the film, to attack a film that neither complies with Hollywood standards nor acceptable European art-house tropes.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the harshest criticism comes from The Hollywood Reporter writer Neil Young, who pronounces in his opening line that Reygadas is a Mexican director who throws away his career with Post Tenebras Lux. “Acclaimed Mexican auteur’s self-indulgent exercise in exquisite pseudo-profundity commits hara-kiri on his own reputation,” Young writes, finding the film a “patience-tester” with decidedly low box-office potential beyond the festival circuit. If “box-office potential” has become a reliable marker of aesthetic ambition, we are all in big trouble, but I do find it interesting that the writer continually refers to Reygadas’ ethnicity in his vicious screed against the film and its maker.
“Illumination proves maddeningly elusive in Post Tenebras Lux, the eagerly awaited fourth feature by Mexico’s leading younger auteur Carlos Reygadas,” he writes. After criticizing the film’s “weirdness,” Young gripes that the film never builds up to a “satisfying emotional or intellectual finale.” Clearly, however, this is something Reygadas is not interested in; he wants the audience to do some of the work, a rather radical notion in the contemporary cinema landscape. Young concludes that “suspicions [are] that the critically-lauded, award-laden Mexican is, in artistic terms, an emperor clad in exquisitely invisible garments” and that “the ticket buying public is likely to dismiss it as a waste of time.” A chorus of similar screeds against both the film and the filmmaker echo Young’s remarks in the comments section after the review.
And yet Post Tenebras Lux seems almost entirely linear to me – indeed, it proceeds on a smooth, tragic trajectory from first frame to last. In the film’s stunning opening minutes, we view the dream of a very young girl (actually Reygadas’ daughter) who is seen wandering in a vast field populated by a herd of cows and a pack of dogs, as the sky darkens overhead, eventually erupting into a full-scale rainstorm. While some viewers have described the young girl as “lost” – she walks through the field murmuring “doggies” and “mommy” as the animals run past her – it seems to me that she is simply on her way home, albeit beset by the violence of nature. She seems in control of the situation, and unthreatened; she is just reacting to the world around her in a primal, childlike fashion. As the sky turns almost completely black, and lightning bolts erupt in the background, the film’s opening titles appear over the storm in striking contrasts of light and dark, one word at a time; “Post / Tenebras / Lux.” Then the film’s narrative begins again.
The second sequence is almost as stunning, if more disturbing and visually arresting. Reygadas cuts to the interior of her upper-class home, with the camera situated inside the home, as, unexpectedly, perhaps in another dream, the iridescent figure of a gleaming, bright red demon appears, complete with a workman’s toolbox. Just as it is not entirely clear (yet) if the opening hyperreal moments of the daughter wandering in the rain are dream or fantasy, the introduction of a devil-like figure, rendered in CGI, who features a tail, goat-like head, hooves, and rather large and prominent sexual organs, is at once very concrete and seemingly “real,” but just as equally fatalistic, and even surreal.
Reygadas’ visual and aesthetic flexibility, his nimble movement between what would usually be defined as either real or metaphysical, are not bound by conventional limits. He seems very uncomfortable with critics who try to pin him down as either a documentarist or a fantasist. He repeatedly has said that fantasy films are “one of the few genres I don’t like” (Koehler 2013: 12). In fact, the image of the demon combines elements from the real (the toolbox carried by the red demon is Reygadas’ father’s actual toolbox in real life) and a particular dream that Reygadas had of such a demon invading his home.
For me, it seems obvious that the demon is at once both Reygadas’ father, and a potent signifier of patriarchy and capitalism, the evils that define us all. But it is not so simple as that. As we will later learn, much evil lurks inside the adults under these institutions and only small children experience true joy and wonder in the universe. It would be a reductionist mistake to blame the dream demon for the catastrophically sad events that take place in the film, yet his more than prominent naked sexual organs seem connected to Juan, the main character, an abusive and wealthy porn addict.
In this fashion, Reygadas explains how dreams and fantasies are actually very realistic for him and he hopes, for the audience too. The stunning image of the fantastically real dream demon is punctuated by his rather heavy breathing in the quiet home as the family sleeps. It is very disturbing to hear the demon loudly clunking around the house on his hooves in an expressionist use of sound, but it should come as no surprise that Reygadas has spoken at length about his preference for expressionism. Koehler dubs Reygadas’ work as a bridge between “The Cinema of the Possible” and “The Cinema of the Impossible” (ibid.: 10), but I get the distinct feeling that Carlos Reygadas does not see any difference at all between these filmic spaces. He’s most eloquent on this when he tells Koehler that he is “interested in the acknowledgement of the reality beyond what we see and hear” (ibid.: 11, my emphasis).
For audiences who are accustomed to a clear explanation of all plot events and the distinction between fantasy and reality, Reygadas’ work can be frustrating, but to those who are more open to his Buñuelian gift of freedom of interpretation, Reygadas is very generous, even playfully so. Reygadas’ gift of uncertainty is his gift of freedom, but it still perplexes some critics. I find this very critical reaction more disturbing than the actual film, which is in a way a poetic and excruciating horror film about the destruction of two families, one very rich and one very poor.
The demon is as much a symbol of patriarchy and capitalism as it is a nod to Mexican belief in The Black Legend, which is a myth that goes back many centuries centering around the idea that most evil in Mexico comes from European influence and sees Mexicans of European descent as particularly cruel, evil, greedy, and prejudiced. Juan, the light skinned Mexican who is at the center of the film is a walking example of the evil of The Black Legend. Pagan ideas about the nature of evil and the nature of death are alive in Mexico as a result of syncretism, and Reygadas expects the audience to be able to hold conflicting views at one time with regard to many issues, particularly evil. Critic Anna Bielak fixates on the demon’s toolbox, for example, and tells Reygadas, “we will never know what’s hidden inside. I saw that kind of box in Belle de Jour as well and I still think about it.”
Reygadas’ response is interesting and very playful…
“So I would like to ask you why the hell you would like to know what’s hidden inside? Evil is a part of our lives. The film is about an ordinary life, the imagined future, fantasy, memory. All elements of pure naturalism! The red devil could be part of our dreams, so it’s as real as they are and as important as any other part of everyday life.”
Reygadas’ use of the word “naturalism” here to bring together many realms of experience is also key to an understanding of his approach to narrative and audience participation. In the same interview, Bielak asks Reygadas directly “what is the center of Post Tenebras Lux’s world?” He laughingly refuses to answer, “If I explained everything, the whole construction could fall apart. Your freedom would be destroyed. So you should be thankful for me not saying a word.” Again, like Buñuel, Reygadas values freedom, and the mystery of imagination, and most importantly, the freedom of imagination of his audience, over anything else.
Even before making Post Tenebras Lux, Reygadas was well known in Mexico for his attention to the “audience’s meaning-making process” (Aldama 2013: 16). As Frederick Luis Aldama writes in his book Mex-Ciné, “Reygadas’ rather open-ended blueprint leaves many gaps to fill. This is Reygadas’ trademark” (ibid.: 16). With this in mind, I’ll explore some elements of the plot and central themes of the film. Post Tenebras Lux is a film that is steeped in the study of wealth and materialism, Marxist ideas about familial alienation under the strain of capitalism, and it visits many of themes familiar to Mexican cinema: family, masculinity, sexuality, patriarchy, crime, alcoholism, the vast income disparity between the rich and the poor, and the clash between European Mexicans and indigenous peoples.
Post Tenebras Lux centers around two families, one a rather wealthy couple who are raising two children (the children are played by Reygadas’ own children, Rut and Eleazar). The other family is headed by a dirt-poor worker nicknamed “Seven” (Willebaldo Torres), who works for Juan, and admits that he regularly beats his wife Samanta. Seven spends all his hard earned money on prostitutes, leaving his children without food or clothing. His wife has reached her limits and eventually flees their rustic home with the children. Hers is the disillusioned face on the poster, yet she is not identified in the credits. Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) is a wealthy “European” Mexican, an architect by trade, and a porn addict. Juan and his wife, the beautiful if utterly miserable Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), live like wealthy drug lords in a large compound that is meant as a retreat, an Edenic place for the couple to raise their children. Instead, the architect’s own hands have built a doomed paradise.
Though there are moments of lightness and familial harmony, they exist only around the playful children, and we rapidly learn that Juan is a deeply troubled and doomed figure. Juan spends his time sadly pursuing sexual fulfillment online, while badgering his wife for sex, and admits to his “friend” Seven that he is addicted to internet pornography. He also tells Seven that he can no longer even perform sexually with his wife because of his porn addiction, which makes his constant pestering of her for sex seem particularly cruel and disturbing. Despite his wealth and privilege, like all addicts, Juan is completely lost in the world, but it is difficult to feel pathos for him when he cruelly and inexplicably beats one of his dogs barely off-screen.
He admits he hurts those he loves the most, as if he is in the grip of The Black Legend, but his evil comes from within in my opinion. He treats the workers and the locals very poorly, as if they are beasts as well, but his most vicious cruelty is reserved for his wife Natalia whom he treats as yet another worker who is only different from the maids in that she has sex with him and raises his children. Juan is classically alienated from other people in Marxist terms, by virtue of money and by being a Westernized lighter skinned Mexican, a cultural difference not lost on Latin and Mexican audiences.
As Reygadas notes, “on the subconscious level, being a Westerner implies separating within society that triggers a permanent feeling of judgment” (Bielak 2012). Juan doesn’t really look like the locals and this alienates him, not only from his wife, who is darker skinned, but almost completely from the people in the village. The suspicious locals cannot help but envy the vastly different lifestyle that Juan enjoys. In fact, the men he does befriend in the village, specifically Seven, hate him so much that they eventually rob him and kill him. This envy will also result in the suicide of Seven, who kills himself after his wife leaves him and he realizes he has murdered Juan in the robbery. Evil does not discriminate between the wealthy and the destitute and it is perpetuated by capitalism and class difference.
But at the beginning of the film we spend a lot of time trying to figure out the feelings and motivations of Juan’s wife Natalia, who behaves at times like a member of the female walking dead. She is often filmed while looking away from the camera, so that we cannot see her reactions. Is she crying, is she laughing, is she planning her escape? She performs the duties of wife, mother, and lover, but she rarely emotes much joy or passion. (Reygadas admits that the film is about patriarchy and violence.) Because she is so palpably seething with anger, I find myself more drawn to her as an active viewer. What drives this woman to cook for her children and make love to her husband? Is she as bored and miserable as she seems? Does she really enjoy going to a sex club and having sex with multiple partners as her husband watches? Is this event simply a fantasy, as Reygadas suggests in some interviews? We can only conclude that she is going through the motions that are demanded of her under patriarchal capitalism and cultural order, lacking any other consistent or obvious nods to her motivations. She may seem loving and docile, but one always wonders what lurks beneath her facade.
An argument that they have on a daily basis may provide some insight. Juan pesters her about some curtains he wants. She demurs and puts him off. He badgers her about their endless fighting and her constantly saying she intends to leave him. We never here her say this, we hear him throw it back in her face. But an alert viewer might notice that she is perhaps planning an escape, waiting for the right moment, like a prisoner. She and Seven’s wife may be of a different class, but they are both planning an escape from their abusive husbands. This is more evident with multiple viewings of the film, which can easily be seen as a feminist tract. Both women are at the end of their rope, and neither is really sweet and docile. They will both escape with their children. They are simply waiting for the right moment.
It takes a while for this to become clear, but a significant clue comes in the form of some seemingly unrelated sequences of British schoolboys being trained in sports. Critics signal out these shots as some of the more egregious examples of Reygadas’ supposed inscrutability and nonlinearity. But it seems terribly obvious, and terrifyingly obvious to me that these shots demonstrate exactly how masculinity and patriarchy are tied to sports, patriarchal mastery and brutal “learned” violence. Whether they are flashbacks of Juan or Reygadas or both seems pretty unimportant. They are a glimpse into the evil of patriarchy as it is inculcated in young boys like Juan in Westernized traditions, particularly organized violent sports.
As Aldama notes, “Reygadas has perfected a behaviorist cinema. He uses the camera only to show characters’ actions without giving the audience any clue about the mind-set behind such actions” (2013: 20). In reality, do we ever really know the motivation behind anyone’s behavior? But if your eyes are open, Reygadas does give plenty of clues to motivation. We can begin to figure out some of the motivations behind Natalia’s unusual behavior, for example. When Juan admits that he feels out of control and cannot stop hurting one particular dog, he begs for her help to be a better person, and she agrees, but she knows fully well that he can never change. She has the resolve of someone who will survive. She knows how to pretend to be present and in love with Juan, but she is so still because she is perhaps quietly making plans. Still, in her zombie-like performance, Nathalie Acevedo seems completely bored by her existence, slicing vegetables with the excitement and vibrancy we’d associate with Akerman’s title character in Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles (1975). When Juan wants to have sex after dinner, Natalia reminds him that she has an infection.
Instead of responding with nurturance, Juan suggests that they plan on anal sex instead. Natalia agrees with little, if any, enthusiasm. If anything, as a female viewer, it is obvious that she is barely sublimating a violent rage. Few have commented on her placid exterior, but since Reygadas’ work is so very open to interpretation, I think it is very likely that Natalia despises her husband and their upper-class life of bourgeois emptiness. Most of the criticism of the film centers around Juan, but I find Natalia much more interesting precisely because we spend a lot of time looking at her face, yet we get so little information about her from her face or from any filmic elements.
Am I the only viewer who notices that it is her behavior and choices that result in her husband’s death? In the car, as they leave the prison of their wealthy home, Juan leaves Natalia and the children and returns home to retrieve a forgotten piece of jewelry. There, he comes upon thieves who are ransacking his home. I note that it is possible that she is somehow involved in this robbery and his murder. I think it quite telling that Natalia insists on returning home after driving quite a lengthy distance from the home. It is only implied that the return home is to pick up a forgotten piece of jewelry. In the car, she whines in an almost childlike manner, “I did not do it on purpose,” somehow suggesting that she did leave it on purpose.
One of the thieves, Seven, turns out to be a close friend and worker for the family. Has Seven conspired with Natalia off-screen? In a long, uncomfortable, documentary-like sequence viewed from the edge of the compound, we hear Juan being beaten and stabbed. Am I the only person to wonder if it isn’t purely coincidence that Natalia and the children are safe and far away from the murder scene waiting at a restaurant for Juan to return? Why don’t they all go back home together in the car? Of course, my “reading” of this event could be entirely unsupportable, it could be wrongheaded, and it could certainly be outside the realm of authorial intent. But I think Reygadas would not dismiss my suspicions of Natalia. He is such a giving director that I think he would be open to my interpretation here. That’s a tribute to the high level of freedom of interpretation that he offers.
Other than Buñuel, there are very few auteurs who offer this kind of free interpretation; Lucrecia Martel also comes to mind. Reygadas emphatically states that the film works on a “micro and macro level” (Williams 2013). On the micro level, it is about the disintegration two marriages; the wounding and alienation of both the male and the female in the suffocating class system and in marriage. But it is easy to see it as an allegory about larger institutions: Mexico, capitalism, and patriarchy, which not only alienate individuals but destroy them, whether or not they are male or female, rich or destitute poor.
In one of the most bizarre moments of Post Tenebras Lux, near the conclusion of the film, Seven rips off his own head with his hands, thus beheading himself. Reygadas notes that both politically and in reality “it’s raining blood in Mexico and heads are being torn off” (Lim 2012), so this event makes far more sense within the context of contemporary Mexican society. With drug gangs marauding throughout the land, exacting violent retribution on all who would oppose them, beheading is becoming rather common in Mexico. It seems obvious to this viewer that with this scene, Reygadas is once again demonstrating that he is a fully engaged political filmmaker.
As he notes,
“I know that Mexicans will have very specific reactions to that scene, because of the fact that in Mexico people are really decapitated nowadays. They are punished now in the way that others have been punished centuries ago in European countries. So, that is an image which may haunt Mexicans’ dreams.” (Bielak 2012)
While the image of someone beheading himself may be read as political allegory, it also is a specific reaction to the end of the marriage between Seven and his wife. She has walked out on him and taken the children. He learns from Juan’s children that Juan died from wounds he sustained in the robbery at the hands of Seven.
Both men die, but Juan dies in his bed surrounded by family, while Seven, the lower classed of the two, uses the more brutally effective “way out” of suicide. The extended sequence of the wealthy Juan dying in his bed is very interesting from a feminist point of view. Natalia plays the piano as Juan dies, she sings a Neil Young song, “It’s Just a Dream.” She cries at the end of the song, knowing that her husband is dying, but one wonders if she is crying because of his death, or out of a sense of relief. She is finally free from her oppressor. And at the same time, the lyrics remind us that the entire film could all be a dream:
Only a dream
And it’s fading now
Only a dream
Just a memory without anywhere to stay
Their marriage may have begun in love, but it cannot survive the crushing burdens of the evil inside Juan anymore than it can survive the burdens of capitalism or patriarchy, or the enormous class differences on display in the film. Equally, Seven and his wife are driven apart by money and sex addiction. Reygadas’ view of the world is thus decidedly bleak, and even in this extended essay, I have only scratched the surface. There is also a strong indictment in the film about the treatment of the environment, for example. As Michael Fox aptly notes:
“My reading of [Post Tenebras Lux] is that our relationship with nature is perverted and out of whack, and given our selfishness and brutality it’s no wonder we have trouble maintaining relationships with other people over a length of time. The movie will no doubt speak to you differently. We can agree, however, that Carlos Reygadas deserves inclusion in the small circle of philosopher-filmmakers.” (Fox 2013)
Ultimately, Post Tenebras Lux feels like a haunting ghost fable for adults. It is politically charged, aesthetically original, and poetic. It is also charmingly lyrical in its look. It must be seen on the big screen in a darkened auditorium to fully engage in the transcendent visual look of the film. Reygadas’ extended scenes of nature, mountains, trees being slowly cut down, and gathering storm clouds are breathtaking. The cinematography is especially painterly, particularly in the stunning natural lighting that recalls European landscapes of earlier centuries. Reygadas prefers long, very quiet takes (and long shots) that are highlighted by a refracted lens largely used by the cinematographer, Alexis Zabe, in the exterior scenes. Reygadas wanted the edges of the frame to be out of focus, as in a dream, the way we see things slightly out of focus when looking through old window glass that is uneven.
The edges of this fantastic reality are deliberately not sharp, but instead dreamy, ethereal, and better inform our inquisitive and dreamlike posture as an audience/participant. Characters are sometimes out of focus or their figures are slightly duplicated in a hallucinatory manner that suggests our dual nature as humankind. To experience the film is to experience a humbling sense of heightened perception. This, for me is the light (lux) of the film, as much, or even more than the brief experience of the value of life that Juan experiences briefly before his death. I leave many plot lines deliberately unfinished, or not included here. To try to summarize Post Tenebras Lux is both impossible and unnecessary. The entire point of the film is not to come away with a nice, neat, finished takeaway fast-food narrative. We are challenged to return to the film and freely reinterpret what we have witnessed again. Not all critics miss the point of the film though. For Hans Morgenstern, “Post Tenebras Lux is a darkly poetic wake-up call about people who have lost their humanity and could very well continue to lose it should they allow themselves to succumb to complacent entitlement.”
It strikes me as fascinating that Reygadas left a career as a lawyer specializing in armed-conflict resolution, and he turned to film out of an inspiration by the work of Andrei Tarkovsky and Michelangelo Antonioni, because in a way, class war is the most prominent “character” in Post Tenebras Lux. Juan is as much “damned” by his internal evil as his brutal behavior towards women and especially the lower classes. Ultimately, his beating of his own dogs is an outlet for his inability to resolve his own conflicts to any resolution point. To my mind, perhaps, too much has been made of the autobiographical elements of Post Tenebras Lux. Though it was written in the house that Reygadas built and eventually shot there as well, and his children act in the film, it’s presumptuous to draw parallels directly between Juan and the director. Carlos Reygadas is not afraid of the dark, he is not afraid of his own demons as a man of privilege and wealth, but he is a man in love with great art and great cinema.
In interviews, Reygadas effusively praises the work of other filmmakers. “What beauty! I couldn’t believe my eyes!” he says of Béla Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies (Castillo 2010). But Reygadas expresses dislike for films that display elitism. “I don’t like some of Godard’s more famous films. I appreciate his daring, but I don’t like the demonstrational quality of his films, their didacticism, theoretical approach, and filmic reference,” he told José Castillo, but he does take pleasure in plenty of things. He lists them excitedly for Castillo:
“I take pleasure in small things: feeding my dogs, walking around, feeling the sheets of my bed on my body, using my chainsaw, listening to Glenn Gould’s super slow 1983 recordings of the Goldberg Variations. I can have a great time having any artistic experiences per se or simply talking with my wife or a friend […] ultimately, I really enjoy making films.”
Critics would do better to encourage audiences to spend time with filmmakers like Carlos Reygadas, whose Post Tenebras Lux is one of the brightest moments of twenty-first century cinema. While Reygadas admits he “has a brutal ambition to materialize my vision, so I can share it with others, I wouldn’t make films otherwise” (Castillo 2010). He also admits that it does not matter to him “if there’s one person or 3,000 who like what they see” (ibid.). Still, he deserves a very wide audience and far better distribution and critics who dismiss his work don’t help matters. In closing, I should mention the advanced sound editing work by Gilles Laurent and again praise the remarkable cinematography of Alexis Zabe. Their ability to capture and render light and sound is integral to the film’s greatness. Post Tenebras Lux truly is a remarkable achievement. Like Juan, in his dying moments, the film leaves us with a celebratory and life-affirming moment, or as Juan notes, “how everything is alive, shining, all the time.”
Gwendolyn Audrey Foster is Professor of Film Studies in the Department of English, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, and an Editor of the journal Quarterly Review of Film and Video. Her books include 21st Century Hollywood: Movies in the Era of Transformation (2011) and the second, revised edition of A Short History of Film (2013), both co-authored with Wheeler Winston Dixon; as well as Class-Passing: Social Mobility in Film and Popular Culture (2005), Identity and Memory: The Films of Chantal Akerman (2003), and Women Filmmakers of the African and Asian Diaspora: Decolonizing the Gaze, Locating Subjectivity (1997).
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