The provocateur célèbre of London FilmFestival’s new ‘Dare Gala’ was Carlos Reygadas, whose latest film, Post Tenebras Lux, is an audacious fever-like dream of domestic unease. It is so wildly ambitious that it comes with a near-irresistible temptation to view even its most unwieldy abstractions as the highest of cinematic art. And though it is shot in the squarish Academy ratio, no film this year has felt more expansive, as its immersive sound effects and haunting visuals collide with all the brutal gusto of a primal scream.
Punctuated by a series of surreal digressions, featuring a self-decapitated farmworker and a well-hung Satan (thankfully not related), the film follows an upper-class couple, Juan and Natalia on the brink of painful maturation. A dark energy pulses through the nonlinear narrative as Reygadas never shirks from presenting conflicting emotions (family bliss and marital friction, shared tenderness and unexplained violence) alongside each otherwith fiery unpredictability. This gives his semi-autobiographical musings a distinctly less redemptive tone than the otherwise structurally similar Tree of Life from last year. Vivid imagery and oblique aesthetic methods – the use of an edge-blurring, postproduction framing device called ‘tilt-shift’ – merge to create a kaleidoscopic vision that will require more than a few ibuprofens to dispel.
Forgiving a few arthouse clichés, including graphic sex and an extraneous scene of animal abuse, Reygadas has succeeded in creating a film where, in his own words, “reason will intervene as little as possible.” That said, there is a strong conservative message at its core, acknowledging the patriarchal need to protect the family unit against all odds. Juan is insulted by an employee’s overt machismo, his porn addiction is trivialised at an AA meeting and he silently watches his wife being ravished by French strangers in the ‘Duchamp Room’ of an orgiastic sauna.
Through such elliptic scenes, the film tackles the metaphysical conceit underlying much Romantic lore, the idea of the universe as a list of male possessions under threat: my wife, my kids, my house, my life. But why does Reygadas’ criticism feel so vague? Can he only rage against such things through cryptic codes for fear of angering his Mexican countrymen andclergy? Or have I been reading too many DanBrown novels? Keeping all these experiences close to hisheart and the vibration of his caméra-stylo,Post Tenebras Lux is Reygadas’ most impassioned renunciation of form for feeling, even if his central theme can be reduced to “rich people have feelings too”.