Directed by: Carlos Reygadas.
Written by: Carlos Reygadas.
Starring: Adolfo Jiménez Castro (Juan), Nathalia Acevedo (Natalia), Willebaldo Torres (El Siete), Eleazar Reygadas (Eleazar), Rut Reygadas (Rut).
Carlos Reygadas’ Post Tenebras Lux is one of those art house movies that got booed at Cannes, and still managed to win a major prize – this time the Best Director prize for Reygadas. It is easy to see why so many people hate the film (many thought it was hilarious to refer to the movie as Post Tenebras Sux – ho ho). But it’s also easy to see why so many people really do think it is a great film. This is one of those films that inspire impassioned debate. It’s not an “easy” film – it flashes back and forth in time, and sometimes into the dreams and fantasies of its characters, yet the film itself never “announces” these transitions – so for instance, you think you’re in reality at one point, and then all of a sudden a character pulls his own head off. The film is deliberately paced as well – you will know whether the film is for you after it’s extended first sequence – a little girl running through a field chasing dogs, and being awestruck by horses and donkeys – while storm clouds roll in above them. Like all the exterior scenes in Post Tenebras Lux, this scene is shot with a filter that blurs the edges of the images – which are shot in the little used aspect ratio of 1.37:1, giving the film a boxier than normal look. The story is seemingly simple and overly complex at the same time. Reading the reviews for the film it gets compared to the work of everyone from Terrence Malick to David Lynch to Stanley Kubrick to Andrei Tarkovsky. How can any serious film fan not at least want to see Post Tenebras Lux? It’s one of those films that you may love, you may hate – but you have to have an opinion on.
The basic storyline of the movie is fairly straight forward. Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) has moved his upper-middle class family into a remote town in Mexico. Juan immediately stands in contrast with the villagers around him – not only because of his money - although he is clearly the richest man around, and is referred to by all as Don Juan – but because his skin is lighter. He isn’t descended from the same tribes as everyone around him. To his face, the villagers treat him with respect – but underneath it, there is a not so hidden vibe of resentment.
And it must be said that Juan isn’t a very nice guy. He treats his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) like a doormat, and one of the first things we see him do is viciously beat a dog (an event that reoccurs in most Reygadas films) for reasons we do not understand (mercifully, we don’t really see the dog as Juan viciously beats it) – and then he is able to go right back to being a loving family man with his kids. Juan stands in contrast with Seven (Willebaldo Torres), an employee of his, who invites Juan to attend an AA meeting with him – and afterwards tells Juan even more personal secrets – which somewhat shames Juan, who believes that his internet porn addiction pales by comparison. Seven is seemingly respectful of Juan – refers to him as not only his boss, but his friend. But later things will happen, where it becomes clear Seven may well be putting on a front – much like Juan himself. Juan is clearly a man coming apart at the seams – he doesn’t fit in anywhere.
It would be tempting to say to focus on the main thrust of the story, and ignore the fantasy and dreams sequences – these are the ones most critics have a problem with. Whether it’s the bright, shining demon with a toolbox (foreshadowing of handyman Seven’s betrayal), or the extended visit to a bathhouse, where Natalia has a sexual experience that seems to border on the divine, or the British boys playing rugby (I admit – I have no clue on that one, other than Reygadas went to school in England – but he clearly thinks they are important, since he ends the film on them), or the aforementioned self-beheading. But you cannot ignore them – they are an intricate part of the movie itself.
So once again, I find myself in a position of admitting that I don’t “get” everything in a movie, and yet saying that I don’t think you really have to “get” everything in the movie to like it. This is a film that is based on dream logic more than anything else – where scenes flow from one to the next not in a linear fashion, but in thematic fashion, and where not everything we see on screen is “real” – and really, perhaps none of it is.
Post Tenebras Lux will frustrate viewers who want movies like this to be a puzzle – where in the last moment, the last piece falls into place and makes everything that preceded it perfectly clear. That doesn’t happen here. That doesn’t mean that Post Tenebras Lux is incomprehensible however. Like a dream, most of what transpires makes sense while you are in the world created by the film. It’s only later that you sit there and try and puzzle your way through it that you start to ask more and more questions.
I think Post Tenebras Lux is a film that should be seen by anyone who likes this type of movie – you know who you are – and probably not seen by people who want a more traditional storytelling approach to film. The movie doesn’t provide that. What provides instead is somewhat greater. In the end, Post Tenebras Lux is a film I admired more than I loved – I admired that Reygadas attempts what he does, and for the most part, I think he pulled it off. But the film, to me anyway, remained an intellectual exercise more than anything else. Films that deliberately take the form of dreams – everything from Lynch’s Mulholland Dr. to Altman’s Three Women to Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut to Carruth’s Upstream Color – are among my favorites because they manage the trick of working on an intellectual and emotional level. Post Tenebras Lux only works on the first part. That still makes it one of the year’s must see films – even if it’s not the masterpiece some believe it to be.