Entrancingly beautiful and calculated to confound, Carlos Reygadas’s first feature since Silent Light (07), is as beguiling a cinematic object as one is likely to encounter this year. Met with boos following its premiere at Cannes last year (although it went on to win the Best Director prize), Post Tenebras Lux represents Reygadas’s attempt to make a personal work in which autobiographical content is lyrically transfigured and elevated to cosmic heights.
Every component of the film affirms its lofty artiness, leaving little doubt that Reygadas is intent on crafting a cinema whose metaphysical explorations are as revelatory as those of his forebears: Dreyer, Tarkovsky, late Godard, etc. While this might suggest that Post Tenebras Lux is irritatingly grandiose, through its weirdo plasticity and viscous materiality the film manages to be at once fully cognizant of its cinematic lineage and altogether different from its predecessors. Echoes of Tarkovsky’s Mirror, Dreyer’s Ordet, and even Jonas Mekas’s Guns of the Trees resonate throughout but always with a wholly singular timbre.
The narrative revolves around Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro, sporting a multitude of hairdos and levels of stubble), a moneyed, middle-aged man living with his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo, whose courageous performance is capped by a wonderfully awful rendition of Neil Young’s “It’s a Dream”) and their young children, Rut and Eleazar (played by Reygadas’s own progeny). The family resides in a large modern house (Reygadas’s actual residence) incongruously situated in rural Mexico. The opening sequence points the way to the ravishing confusion to come: Rut runs wild among a pack of dogs and several horses on a water-logged soccer pitch as the magic hour fades into night; the darting camera and staccato cutting yield a frenetic image of bodies in motion. Far more invested in the audiovisual rendering of physicality than in narrative, Reygadas aims to evoke pure sensation.
In interviews, Reygadas has been reluctant to sort out the scrambled chronology of Post Tenebras Lux or to explain how certain ostensibly unconnected scenes—a red rotoscoped Lucifer figure making two housecalls, toolbox in hand; English adolescents playing rugby in school; a visit to a French bathhouse sex club with rooms named after Hegel and Duchamp—fit together with the main action, or what they mean. He has elaborated on the film’s signature formal device: a blurring distortion at the edges of almost all exterior shots that causes figures to take on a ghostly aspect as they fall out of focus and sometimes become doubled. For Reygadas this technique approximates the experience of looking through an imperfect pane of glass, and the distorted images express the way in which visual perception is informed by a host of desires, however unconscious. Setting aside the symbolic dimension, the results are, more often than not, gorgeous.
Post Tenebras Lux is a film rich with sheer material presence, making good on Reygadas’s apparent intention to make the viewer truly feel the audible and the visible, but his pictorial gimmickry can only do so much aesthetic heavy-lifting. In the end this is a painterly meditation on the interplay of vision, memory and imagination, and a quasi-diaristic account of the impressions that set the imagination to work. It amounts to watching the dissolution of the boundary between life and art, through a glass darkly.