Post Tenebras Lux (2012)
Dir. Carlos Reygadas
Essay for Paste Magazine
Only a dream
Just a memory
Without anywhere to stay"
-- Neil Young
Carlos Reygadas' fourth film "Post Tenebras Lux" begins with what, in retrospect, appear to be two dreams. They both become nightmares.
1. Rut, a toddler (played by the director's daughter), runs around a football pitch with cows, donkeys and her family's dogs. It is beautiful, verdant. A storm rolls in. She is alone in the dark. She calls for her brother, Eleazor. She calls for her mother. Lightning strikes.
2. Inside a house. A demon (Satan Himself?) enters. His junk dangles between his legs. He carries a toolbox, like he's just returned home from work. He walks down the hall to find a small boy out of bed, waiting. The demon walks into the boy's parents' room and shuts the door behind him.
On the surface, these are just a couple in a long line of scenes that do not particularly add up. Reygadas has no problem diving off into a new narrative strand, new characters, into the future, into the past, and even into a subconscious or two without notice or even cinematic inflection. Even as the reality of the film settles in -- an upperclass Mexican family, the father Juan's violent outbursts, his pornography addiction, his trip to an Alcoholics Anonymous-type meeting with a worker named Seven -- the entire thing still feels like a lucid dream. The film is not only shot in a boxed 4:3 format, but also uses a beveled lens that blurs the outer edges of the frame, restricting the audience's view to the small portion of the center image that is actually in focus. The effect is like that of having just woken up from one of these nightmares. The bad news: waking life may not feel much better, or make any more sense, or answer any of your questions.
To describe the plot and include the leaps forward through the lives -- and deaths -- of some of the characters would not necessarily spoil the film, because the truth, through Reygadas's lens, is peripheral. A character may be dead in the present and alive in the future, but these realities exist in tandem, like a dream or a world where one person's idea of their life is just as tangible (and by extension as meaningful) as the reality. This all sounds very heady, and on one hand it is -- there's the distinct intellectual quality of a Thomas Pynchon novel woven into the film -- but the root of its philosophical interest always leads back to the characters and their emotional states. Even the smallest side characters are vivid and beautiful, treated with a humor and care that deepen their inner lives on screen. These roots keep Reygadas from spiraling into a pretentious, esoteric “cinematic journey” of the worst kind. Call it ridiculous, call it indulgent – it clearly is – but it is so because Reygadas needs it to be. He needs to open himself up on screen, bluntly explore his filmmaking, leave himself completely open to ridicule in order to try to fully understand his characters. And this journey should be justifiable for any filmmaker willing to take that risk.
"Post Tenebras Lux" is palpably interested in cinematic theory (for God's sake just try to look at one of those blurred, condensed frames), but above all it is emotionally curious. It wonders about the emotional quality of a Neil Young song banged out on a piano, sung completely out of tune, at the edge of a deathbed. It wants to find out why, despite Juan's apparent love for his family and his pets, he cannot seem to connect his ideals with his reality. Juan's wife is gorgeous. Why is he addicted to pornography? Juan's dogs are very intelligent. Why must he beat the smartest nearly to death? It's not that the answers aren't clear. On the contrary, Reygadas shows us that the answers are present, numerous, multifaceted, subconscious, futuristic, fantastical -- all the things buzzing around each of our brains that are rarely verbalized, let alone put on screen as reality. Rut and her Spider-Man-obsessed older brother Eleazor are not only devastatingly cute, but Reygadas also manages to put us inside their brains so we can wander around their world and enjoy it as they do. A beach scene in particular is so evocative of childhood that it's hard not to feel the sand between your toes. And, if greeted with enough openness and interest, that seemingly incoherent string of scenes reveals itself as a carefully executed emotional structure that begs for, and rewards, repeated viewings.