Battle in Heaven follows Carlos Reygadas’ critically acclaimed first feature Japón (2002). The 2005 feature we are watching tonight was not as well received however. Although his debut did have scenes of sexuality that were strange to say the least – the middle-aged protagonist redeems himself, finds a renewed vigor for life, through sexual intercourse with a religious 80-something year-old woman – Battle in Heaven, like Quandt suggested of Bruno Dumont’s Twentynine Palms, perhaps succumbs to the vogue tactics of then recent European cinema.
Like Japón, Battle in Heaven was written with a non-professional actor in mind, in this case, Marcos Hernandez, a chauffeur for Reygadas’ father at the Ministry of Culture. Marcos, in this role, like Alejando Ferretis in Japón, is undergoing an existential and spiritual crisis brought on by forces outside of his control: a botched kidnapping and also a love affair with Ana, daughter of a Mexican general whom Marcos chauffeurs for in the film. This unexpected affair is perhaps the cause of such negative reception. The unlikely couple suffers the same fate James Stewart expected of Scottie’s affair with Madeleine in Vertigo, played by a much younger than Stewart Kim Novak. While Vertigo achieved great success, and as of this year the highest success, the relatively unattractive Marcos and attractive Ana did not convince anyone of the naturalism of their sexual relationship. [I say more about this in the Arthur piece.]
Many critics were upset by the “all shock and no awe” (Johnson 2006) of Reygadas’ second feature with its focus on the body of the young Ana. Furthermore, the lack of both narrative drama and suspense, as well as any hints of psychological motivation, baffled critics (Bradshaw 2005; Smith 2005; Johnson 2006). It is very easy to be critical of the film because I believe our categories of so-called “good movies” needs to shift with Battle in Heaven in order to truly get something out of it. Described better by Manohla Dargis of NY Times as an “acquired taste” (2005), Reygadas pursues something formal or experimental here that I want to briefly explore.
Firstly, in regards to the challenge of casting non-professional actors, Reygadas claims that a “naturalistic” acting or faithful representations of a character are incorrect criteria of judgment: he repeatedly invokes his desire for “the actual human presence”, portraying actors/characters as they are in the world. It’s like choosing someone for a photographic still or painted portrait, he says. By doing this Reygadas suggests a rethinking of the relationship between real and fiction as these persons onscreen, in the flesh – which is to say in their vulnerability, anxiety, and bursts of courage – act out a particular scene. Thirdly then this real/fiction confusion questions directorial responsibility, as critics, namely Paul Julian Smith, are worried that extra-diegetic concerns, such as knowing what the actors were getting into and Hernandez’s wife getting upset over performing sexual acts, raises ethical problems for Reygadas’ art. By raising this point, Tiago de Luca writes of Smith’s review, is to make the actors involved seem helpless and weak, incapable making decisions for themselves.
Besides Ana’s enthusiasm in post-production interviews, Reygadas answers this concern with a quick dismissal of the problem: “…I don’t feel any responsibility towards [Marcos, Ana, and Bertha Ruiz], because I believe in individual responsibility…. Some people say that there is risk of exploitation. I don’t think this idea respects the fact that people are intelligent and grown up” (Higgings 2005). He invokes trust as a necessary component to shooting difficult scenes, and his actors, so Reygadas describes, had complete faith in his work. Elsewhere he explains that nudity was necessary for realism: “It is absolutely essential that things need to be real and not simulated…. [I]f Marcos has to get naked, I don’t want to simulate his penis. I mean, if he’s going to eat a sandwich, I don’t want him to pretend…. [I]f I could have simulated [nudity] with an extra, without harming the film, I would have simulated it” (Marlow 2006). But we must be careful in overemphasizing the depicted sexual acts; sex is something all people do and thus warrants a place within narrative cinema. Similarly, in an interview for Battle in Heaven, he says he “wouldn’t mind shooting people having breakfast or walking in a park.” His 2007 feature Silent Light – which rekindled his critical acclaim – allowed him to shoot such scenes.
I agree with Reygadas that the responsibility is not his but the actor’s; I disagree with him in that the extra-diegetic concerns, with Hernandez’s real wife or Ana’s social standing, are what makes the performance all the more engaging. Performance art is often a risk of bodily integrity and so the sexual acts onscreen add to its intensity.
The first experimental quality of the film then surrounds non-professional actors and the divide between reality and fiction. The other cinematic feat accomplished with this film is its toying with temporality. Reygadas is becoming a stock name in contemporary contemplative cinema, or slow cinema, whereby the long takes and pans across stretches of landscape point to something significant apart from the anthropocentric framing we have become attuned to. Narrative, to address negative reviews of Battle in Heaven, takes a backseat to the static image or the slow pan, exhibiting Marcos’ solitary existential crises, the cityscape of Mexico City, or in some shots, nothing at all. The long take, to bring us to a trait of New Extreme cinema, is itself a kind of violence done to the viewer as we anxiously await a cut, rather than just a horrific act between the characters onscreen.
The film is indeed part of the global trend of New Extreme cinema for the performances of Marcos and Ana as well as for violating spectatorial expectations of rapid edits, narrative logic, and explicit motivation. New Extreme then is not merely graphic sex and violence but films that demand a different kind of viewing experience. And further, with Dumont’s Flanders last week, the New Extreme cinema rarely hides or obscures its stories of love. Through and against all odds this is yet another tale of struggling love, referenced in the title, and this love is made apparent in the play of Marcos and Ana’s, and Marcos and Bertha’s bodies.
All three of the films are about love and all three ends more or less the same way with proclamations of love; Flanders began with the vocal outburst “Fuck!”, Battle in Heaven begins with “Shit!”, and The Wayward Cloud next week starts with a fuck.