The first movie Shades of Caruso saw at the London Film Festival was Enter The Void way back in 2009, and even though I understand the argument that it is merely a hollow exercise in style over substance with nothing to say, to a certain extent it has haunted my experiences of the festival. Every film seen since then has had to live up to the overwhelming experience of watching that intentionally exasperating but technically peerless transgressive afterlife fantasy. Even when we saw Black Swan (my film of 2010), Darren Aronofsky namechecked Gaspar Noé’s movie and begged the audience to see it as soon as possible; aptly, considering how immersive and nightmarish both films are.
Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux was one of my wildcard movies for this year, a controversial and negatively critiqued anti-narrative movie with a distinct, experimental visual style; a description which brought back memories of Enter The Void. Like a junkie chasing the orgasmic feeling of that first high, I booked a ticket for this with absurdly high hopes. Long story short: this is not an intense visual trip designed to evoke an emotional response through a flow of imagery and sound, more a collection of vignettes that evoke a mood of gloom, obliquely hinting at a narrative either torn apart by random editing, or creating a narrative-by-inference through its seemingly fractured Expressionist structure which demands you engage with it intellectually.
So this is how this is going to go. I haven’t seen Reygadas’ other films yet, so have no frame of reference there. I’m not up on experimental film techniques, and couldn’t tell Stan Brakhage from Matthew Barney, so there’s very little I can say about Post Tenebras Lux in terms of how it fits in with contemporary art-house cinema, or Mexican culture, or pretty much anything, and attempts to do so will expose me as the terrible fraud I’ve tried to hard to hide from you, Dear Reader. All I can do is say what I think Reygadas’ lengthy crawl through atemporal context-less montage means. Because I’ve seen some say it makes little sense, but it seemed pretty straightforward to me, though in the most unstraightforward way imaginable. (Spoilers from here on, obvs.)
There are a few interpretations that occurred to me as my mind whirred throughout, but the thing that struck me quickly is that this jumble of imagery is intentionally structured no matter how perplexing it might seem, and though this might seem like an unimportant or mundane observation, it made me want to parse the movie instead of writing it off. After a recent frustrating experience with Alain Resnais’ You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet — which is similarly obscure but didn’t strike me as deserving of much interpretive effort — early on I suspected Post Tenebras Lux was within my grasp. A shot of lightning flashing above a field intercuts with light flashing in a room; one scene linked to another in an abstract manner. Order, of sorts. I can work with that.
First we see a young girl called Rut in a field with cows and dogs and horses (donkeys?); she splashes around in puddles, calling out names, her face framed by Reygadas’ PTL-Cam, as I’ve decided to call his 1:33 Academy aspect ratio imagery with its perplexing blurred edge which effectively shrinks the image down even further. The sky darkens and she remains there, alone, calling out for her mother, as a storm flickers on the horizon and thunder rumbles. From here we see the interior of a darkened house. A door opens, and a luminescent red “silhouette” of the Devil walks out, carrying a toolbox, his genitals visible as he paces through the house, into a room in which a man and a woman sleep. A young boy sees this, says nothing.
So we’ve got a religious reference, and we can see the movie through that frame, with Catholic/Christian imagery as a likely Rosetta Stone. From here much of the movie focuses on the family life of Juan and Natalia, and their children Rut and Eleazar (Reygadas’ real-life daughter and son), non-linearly following them as they live and play and argue. Natalia says very little, while Juan bosses adults around, viciously beats up one of his dogs, attends an AA-meeting held in the house of his handyman Seven, where he admits he’s addicted to internet pornography. He’s a vile human, to be honest. Seven isn’t much better; he admits to abusing his family while addicted to drugs; he is now an exile from them. So now we have isolation and warped masculinity.
Adding to these planks we get seemingly pointless cuts to a young team of English schoolboys preparing to play a rugby match, two old men argumentatively playing chess while two other men outside talk about bartering and doing work on a house, more dog abuse from a loathsome guy who hires Seven to cut down a huge tree to spite his sister, and most bizarrely, a wedding ceremony filled with pretentious chatter about literature which cuts to a bath-house in which a man is aggressively penetrated offscreen while a roomful of people dispassionately sit around. Juan and Natalia are there. They leave, find another room — named after Duchamp, though they first pass through Hegel — where Natalia has sex with a man while a naked woman strokes her head and talks to her about love and beauty.
Of all the peculiar associations from one scene to the next created by these juxtapositions, this blunt satirical dig at the pretensions of the wedding guests, civilised on the outside but animalistic, carnal and cruel on the inside, seemed the most obvious of them all. Reygadas has, to this point, been making clear points about the viciousness of humans, cruelly beating dogs, asserting dominance over other humans, fighting and fucking and hiding all of this behind a veneer of culture and ownership; desire mutated into voracious, soulless hunger. The adults are lost, miserable, alone. Only Rut and Eleazar are free and innocent, but their corruption is imminent, as the grandmother handing out money and urging boys to become businessmen shows. Adulthood is empty, a bleak journey to a dead end, a fate to be dreaded.
Commerce, bartering and organised dances of dominance and competition (sport as metaphor for the assertion of canine Alpha Male superiority) are the only ways in which the men in this world can communicate; even the discussion about literature comes down to a display of pompous brinkmanship. Nature is subjugated, ignored, treated like an inconvenience or a commodity, and civilisation is an pointless exercise in hiding our greedy nature, all interaction reduced to the owning of things or people. The men here are endlessly cruel, the women ignored or admired only for their beauty, denied agency by the controlling men. Juan tells his wife at one point that he will fuck her later; when she says she has an infection he replies, “That’s what the back door is for”. A human race led by bullying Alpha males; uncaring, ugly, incapable of empathy.
Reygadas has said this is semi-autobiographical, and I’d like to assume that the nastier elements of this are exaggerated expressions of self-loathing or horror at the worst excesses of masculine cruelty, taken as snapshots from moments in his life, or fictional representations set in the countries he has lived in; that macho hostility tainting his past like a spray-can adding graffiti to his memories. Without knowing more about him I can only go on suspicion of what his imagery is meant to symbolise; that the PTL-cam is meant to emphasise the loneliness of the characters, their dislocation from the world and people around them, or acting as a bubble that they are trapped inside, keeping them separate from the nature they were once a part of in their youth.
I also know nothing about Reygadas’ faith, but if a Devil is going to wander into the movie, glowing with crimson light like a stop sign, the Bible is obviously important. We start with a young girl naming animals, we get the sense that the characters here have been expelled from nature/paradise, and Juan seemingly resents his female counterpart for slights we do not understand; either “traditional” misogyny or the anger of Adam towards Eve. We see a tree (of knowledge) about to be cut down. We see a Devil in a house; a snake in a familial setting who will corrupt those he finds there. We see Sodom and Gomorrah in a bath-house, we repeatedly hear a coming storm (Juan’s rage perpetually on the horizon), and after Seven’s final crime we see rainfall almost as powerful as that during a flood.
We also see a man (Juan? It’s hard to tell) take his son and daughter on a boat-trip through reeds, conjuring up images of Moses as a child; once at their destination the man teaches the daughter how to shoot ducks, once more exerting deadly dominance over nature, teaching his offspring these cruel ways. Packs of dogs run throughout like something from The Omen. Flies crawl over the characters from time to time; the Devil is the Lord of Flies, after all. And at the end we see Juan shot by Seven (the number of God, if Frank Black and this Wikipedia page are anything to go by), then forced to convalesce, helpless in his bed, reliant on his family to support him and keep him occupied.
The terrible father, brutaliser of animals and heartless dominator of women, finally reflects on his life, and his dream is of his youth, when he loved “all the things”. He returns to a state of love and innocence, an epiphany brought on by his metaphorical death (I doubt that it is a real death even though his son says, in a subsequent scene, that he has died). Juan can only now understand love and the thought of companionship with his fellow man when he is threatened by its loss; he comes back to life after death, which is caused by the betrayal of a friend. So here is Juan is Jesus, betrayed by Seven / Judas, and not long after this the traitorous handyman takes his own life by pulling his own head off in one of the most mystifying moments in the whole film.
But is Reygadas linking religion (the Roman Catholicism of his native Mexico) with subjugation of women, the oblivious and misogynist rule of the patriarchy, the death or corruption of the human soul, the loss of innocence and the terrible loneliness of life badly lived? It’s one thing to make a movie criticising masculine cruelty, but adding religious imagery (a masculine Devil) inevitably links the two. Is this why the movie is such a perplexing jumble of meaning? Can he only rage against these things through some coded message for fear of angering his countrymen or clergy? Have I been reading too many Dan Brown novels? Or is the movie intentionally vague to create some kind of universality, a collage of painful moments that will chime with a larger number of audience members?
Or is Seven the Devil? He’s a handyman, and the Devil who creeps through the house is carrying a toolbox; a detail I didn’t spot until chatting with two complete strangers after the screening. Are the falling trees prior to Seven’s suicide a sexual reference? Is his head coming off in an orgasmic splurt of blood a reference to ejaculation? Why are there so many references to cultural artifacts (Spider-Man, R2D2, Buzz Lightyear, etc.), none of which are from Mexico? Is this a dig at cultural imperialism? How much of this is a cry of rage directed outwards, not inwards? What significance does the inclusion of Neil Young’s “It’s A Dream” have, other than the obvious meaning? Is Juan and Natalia’s awful singing intentional? And did so many dogs have to suffer?
I’m going to have to go back to this, a lot. This is a more precise movie than even Reygadas will accept, I’m sure of it. The fact that it’s about the cruelty and ignorance of men, and the animal nature of humans which roils beneath a ridiculous facade seems bluntly obvious, but whether this goes further to be a veiled comment on the influence of religion, or the corruption of Godly purity by the brutality and desperation of men fighting for supremacy over each other is something I can only suspect. And there are other interpretations; ecological collapse caused by our hubris (the shot of Frederic Edwin Church’s painting ”Floating Iceberg” hints at this), cultural invasion, a wish for a return to innocence expressed by creating a work as mystifying as the world seems to a child.
I also wondered if this is a retelling of the Bible itself, beginning with the naming of the animals in Genesis, ending with a flood representing the disasters that will destroy the world a la Revelations, and even featuring an epilogue in which the young proclaim that they must team up to win, which could refer to the armies of God who will battle Satan’s forces after the Rapture. The knotted chronology — which could be Reygadas re-ordering his life to match the Bible’s order — also made me think of Philip K Dick’s Exegesis and the idea that The Empire Never Ended, that time stopped 2000 years ago and we are still living under the rule of the Roman Empire, trapped in a futile, desperate cycle of cruelty. Or maybe this is me running past Reygadas’ point at light speed.
Beyond my clumsy attempt at deciphering the text, does Post Tenebras Lux even have any worth as a movie? If you’re here for uplift, as suggested by the title (Latin for “After Darkness, Light), it’s in short supply. The jumbled timeline suggests that perhaps Juan’s near-death experience has softened him, but who knows how much of this is meant to be real. There is none of the immersive flow of Enter The Void; I had hoped to sink into a state of hypnotised pleasure like I did with Noé’s film, but that’s my problem. It has aesthetic merit but little emotional connection, and for much of its running time it’s an angry yell at human nature and the forces that distort our better selves; The Tree of Life stripped of Terrence Malick’s optimism, or his time-spanning vision, or his belief that love is the prime mover in our universe.
Maybe this is Reygadas’ riposte to Malick’s movie, removing the notes of redemption and replacing them with pessimism. If this is meant to be semi-autobiographical, then it’s depressing to see Reygadas so despairing that he negates himself, either through narrative death, mundane rebirth, or relentless flagellation. But being a bit of a downer is no mark against it, and it is so bold, so formally abstract, that it fascinated me. It might work for others, as long as the viewer is willing to meet it on its own terms. Post Tenebras Lux may not slide satisfyingly into place in the imagination like a linear narrative movie but the process of watching, unpacking, twisting and reshaping it until it almost fits into the mind is its own pleasure.
And as for its bleak message, maybe Juan does learn enough that he can save his children from losing their innocence. Maybe a cycle can be broken. After all, the final moment of the film belongs to a young rugby player stating clearly that it is teamwork that will allow them to win. The reflexive conflict at the heart of human interaction goes on, borne of our suppressed animal nature which either battles with the teachings of religion or supplements its divisive, negative elements, forcing us to resort to tribalism that can only enhance our detachment from our fellow man, but in the childlike belief in companionship and trust comes an end to the loneliness that blights everyone in the movie. Perhaps that was Reygadas’ ultimate message.