Approaching Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux (2012)

Post Tenebras Lux (After Darkness, Light, 2012) has a sense of incompleteness or fragmentariness. The chapters or episodes appear to be arranged at random by the director and his wife and editor Natalia Lopez. Jonathan Romney (2013: 74) contends that the film is exciting for its sketch-like quality of potentialities, possibilities, and the combinations of images. The viewer is invited to the “Carlos Reygadas Experience” (Dargis 2013) to collect or toss aside whichever elements of the audio-visual display they prefer.

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After the premiere of Post Tenebras Lux at Cannes in May of 2012, the audience apparently booed and jeered, then, several days later, Reygadas was awarded the Best Director prize.[1] Despite the initial boos Reygadas maintained confidence in his work, stating that a film is “a reflection of who you are when you made it” (Koehler 2013: 15), but he also re-edited the film after Cannes, which involved merely cutting a few scenes.[2] This is not a new method for Reygadas; the director consistently reviews, re-evaluates, and re-edits his work.[3] More importantly, this re-working demonstrates Reygadas’s proximity to Romney’s above assertion that Post Tenebras Lux is a work of potentialities – at the premiere, says Reygadas, he “never felt the film was finished. I need the public exhibition of the film myself to rethink things. The process isn’t closed” (Koehler 2013: 15).

Such an explicit attempt at keeping the filmmaking process open resulted in an exceptional film in Reygadas’s oeuvre. In 2006 Reygadas spoke with Jonathan Marlow about his then latest feature Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005). Reygadas asserted that he is “not a storyteller”, but rather a creator of worlds, a creator of “a perfect universe” (Marlow 2006), albeit a universe of possibilities to be unfolded in the minds of his viewers. This universe was not fantastic, i.e., in the genre of fantasy, although his characters’ interactions, Tiago de Luca contends, are productively “impossible.” These impossible couplings, as de Luca observes, fall within a realist style which requires some heavy unpacking. But Post Tenebras Lux complicates the director’s prior self-definition as a creator of universes (in a realist style) by eschewing realism and pushing his provocative yet superficially contradictory statement to Karen Badt (2006), that he is “no slave to realism,” well beyond what was filmed in his first film Japón (2002), and the second, Battle in Heaven.

His 2012 feature works with dreams, fantasy, desire, and achronology. Reygadas is therefore somewhat of an experimental filmmaker, but not so far into experimentation that narrative has altogether disappeared. “My cinema is tremendously narrative,” the director states; “There’s always a clear line that connects” (Koehler 2013: 13). Yet Reygadas wants viewers to come away with a feeling or sense of the work rather than following or identifying with a story, plot, or character(s). He is dismissive of deeper meanings directors instill in films, and for that matter, viewers who attempt to read too much into a work. Reygadas does enjoy debating and theorizing the meaning of his perfect universe(s) with interviewers however – this way he too participates in the meaning-generating quality of the cinema.[4] For the film’s capacity to generate multiple kinds of viewing, and simultaneously eschewing meaning in favor of producing perceptual and bodily sensations in spectators, Post Tenebras Lux is often described as “challenging” and “difficult.”

The most difficult films for Vivian Sobchack are those that refuse even conventional difficulties. These works transgress narrative logic or cinematic specificity and “make sense” to us, “sensuously, experientially, in the phenomenological ‘now’ of seeing, hearing, and touching (if always also at a distance)” (Sobchack 2014: 51). It is inappropriate to decipher one of these films, nor be simply shocked by their displays of actors’/characters’ bodies (in moments of pleasurable or painful ecstasy). Sobchack argues for the importance of “meaningfulness” in the sense of “being present to” an object, thing, person, or for our purposes here, a screen and its images.

I am not interested in the contestation the narrative poses, as a strenuous and intellectual effort to comprehend, but the test Reygadas proposes – he demands spectators rid themselves of their desire to put the pieces of the film together and replace that mode of viewing with a more sensuous experience, which of course still demands an engagement with the story, as it serves as a link to cognitive continuity.[5]

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Narrative Excess

After his first two features Reygadas became known for shocking viewers with his graphic displays of sexuality between likely and unlikely couples. Particularly Battle in Heaven, which features an obese dark-skinned Mexican man receiving fellatio from a rich, young, and white girl, followed summarily by their real onscreen sex, as well as that same man’s sex with his fictionalized obese dark-skinned wife. Post Tenebras Lux takes a different approach, even when it turns to sex, portraying it in a rather subdued manner compared to the director’s prior features. But the controversy and debate around the film was not its sexual provocations; rather, “the film’s biggest provocations are its aesthetic and narrative liberties,” film critic Dennis Lim wrote in 2013.

Amongst the episodes, stripped as they are of any deep meaning or cause-and-effect logic, are sequences which are dreams, flashbacks, flash forwards, even concepts and desires that add to the sensorial quality of the feature as a whole. “Instead of progressing from one event to the next,” Lim writes and quotes his interview with Reygadas, “[the film] drifts among ‘all the levels of perception,’… which include ‘dreams, things you long for, memories, an imagined future, the conscious present, a reality that is beyond us.’”[6] Ever the enigmatic director, Reygadas mentions to Lim in a separate interview (2012), “The film is about fantasy, but probably the [sex] scene is reality, who knows?” Provided Reygadas’s account of his film, its narrative challenges, and our own curating of these sequences, the concept of cinematic excess serves as a starting point to address the narrative of the film.

With Post Tenebras Lux, as well as in his earlier features to a lesser extent, Reygadas offers an experiment in cinematic excess. Kristin Thompson has explained this concept in detail in her 1977 essay on the topic. Her opponents are those who find a cinematic device used without narrative motivation disturbing. Arguing for the legitimacy of cinematic excess, for Thompson, is to champion the specificity of cinema – images and sounds for perceptual play ([1977] 1986: 133). For Thompson there are no rules that govern when a device should be used, such as an exceedingly long take, to motivate the narrative (1986: 135-136). This is clearly the case in Reygadas’s films as we are required to restrain ourselves in linking the episodes themselves to some kind of cause-and-effect logic. The arbitrariness of the sequences, the gaps in time, and the lack of context and situatedness in the sequences render them excessive – we could argue to the extreme and say the entire feature is without narrative motivation, is a pure work of cinematic excess. We will see that Reygadas’s film demands a new mode of viewing, one where the images function individually, themselves expressive of the capacity for film and spectator’s perceptual play. We could attempt to heed Thompson’s advice (1986: 141) on encountering the excessive film in the following analysis:

Once the narrative [of an excessive film] is recognized as arbitrary rather than logical, the viewer is free to ask why individual events within its structures are as they are. The viewer is no longer constrained by conventions of reading to find a meaning or theme within the work as a solution to a sort of puzzle which has a right answer. Instead, the work becomes a perceptual field of structures which the viewer is free to study at length, going beyond the strictly functional aspects.

In absorbing oneself in the episodes presented in Reygadas’s film, I can both engage with what is there as a perceptual play while also studing the individual sequences and their relationship to the whole. Interpretative readings of the film fall short as we consider instead the shock of an utterly arbitrary narrative.[7]

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Cinematography

The appeal to sensation repeats itself in critical reviews of the film. Manohla Dargis, Rayns, and O’Hehir (2013; 2013; 2013) each compare it to a drug trip – perhaps the sensuous experience par excellence – and Dan Sullivan contends “Reygadas aims to evoke pure sensation[,]… make the viewer truly feel the audible and visible” (2013: 67).[8] It was the director of photography’s accidental discovery of a lens which made this possible. For most of the exterior shots, and a few interiors, Reygadas and his DP Alexis Zabe (who also worked on Reygadas’s cinematically beautiful Silent Light) employed a bevelled or refracted lens. This lens is slightly curved so that (the camera’s and spectator’s) perception is drawn towards an inner circle, creating a “halo-like effect” (Lim 2012), and a ghostly doubling of whatever appears in fringes of the frame.[9]

For the director, this produced “an amazing effect” (Koehler 2013: 15); for film critic Peter Bradshaw (2013) it was “annoying and absurd.” I am in the former camp, particularly when it is deployed for stedicam and handheld shots. It blurs the motion of the figure onscreen at their peripheries, dissecting the all-too-perfect figure-ground dichotomy of HD quality cameras and images. These sort of “horrible images,” says Reygadas (Lim 2013), “go further than the actual eye can see.” The clear intention with Post Tenebras Lux was to revisit and reinterpret the aesthetics of reality (Lim 2012) and the lens was a stylistic means that helped the director accomplish this.

An aesthetics of reality would also be more attuned to the levels of perception which exclude the human as visual object. In some films the narrative motivation calls for such shots, but since we have nearly done away with narrative here, Reygadas would prefer to focus on landscapes, non-human animals, or pieces of nature that serve no other purpose than for viewers to take in their beauty. It is this lack of a human something in the frame that again evokes the sensuous engagement with Post Tenebras Lux.

In the opening scene for instance, the refracted lens on the steadicam at times seems to take Rut’s point-of-view. The shot is low, at the level in which the infant can encounter the playful dogs firsthand. The shakiness of the camera seems to accentuate this POV-shot, particularly when there are reverse-shots between Rut’s POV and that of a cow or dog, or when the dogs run around and avoid bumping into Rut/the camera-operator. After some minutes of exchange between what we think to be POV shots and shots featuring Rut in frame as object for our viewing, a long shot of the animals has Rut enter the frame unannounced. This long shot dismantles our former certainty of the camera position(s) – in Craig Epplin’s words (2012: 299), in Reygadas’s films the camera often appears to line up with a character’s gaze only to then deny us their POV as it drifts back to reveal them or, as I mentioned here, has the character enter the frame. Writing on Japón, but similarly applicable here, Epplin argues that Reygadas’s camera erases the human subject, questions the human subject’s centrality in narrative film. We see this in the opening scene as well as many others (our introduction to Seven, the many shots of dogs and trees, a Devil, the frequent use of post-action lag, the long take of waves gliding up to the sand in the beach episode). “What I find noteworthy in Reygadas’s films is the way in which the camera seemingly does not know how to treat human subjects, either becoming bored with them and drifting away or linger on them far too long, and how points of view often seem to suggest the protagonist’s gaze but are then revealed to be slightly off-center” (Epplin 2012: 298; cf. Lahr-Vivaz 2008: 148). Reygadas’s semi- or quasi-documentary aesthetic transcends the boundaries of the camera as factual observer of the world and our perceptual treatment of the point-of-view shots which are often used to establish a direct relationship between character and spectator.

To further this effect Reygadas consistently employs a hand-held camera in his films. Although many static shots are seen in his oeuvre – whether Reygadas teams up with Diego Martínez Vignatti as director of photography (Japón and Battle in Heaven) or Zabe (Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux) – instances in which a shot would normally cut and bring us to a new camera setup and thereby repositioning itself to further contribute to the narrative’s momentum, Reygadas’s shots often extend against the logic of narrative or character identification, as explored in the last section, and unarguably challenge our spatial awareness of where the characters are going and what they are getting into. In Battle in Heaven the camera follows Marcos’s trek as he pushes through persons in a crowded subway station; the camera tracks right through a subway turnstile and eventually loses track of him altogether. In the 2012 feature, we travel behind Juan and Natalia in the sauna as they search the hallways for the Duchamp room. As they enter the Hegel room, the camera pursuing them continues directly inside; the camera tracks at waist-height, inches from one patron’s flaccid penis, then breaks the threshold of the room and tracks to a medium shot of a young girl who gazes at what we can only guess to be in the direction of the new guests, Juan and Natalia. Behind her is yet another bored-looking older couple. But with this tracking motion our attention is shifted as Juan and Natalia disappear from the frame, sidestepping to the left. The spatiality of the room is not established before we lose contact with the protagonists. Reygadas does not grant us this ordinariness in our cinematic experience.

This constantly renewing set of spatial, temporal, and perspectival co-ordinates intertwines “the levels of actor, character, and audience,” writes William Rowlandson (2006: 1033) on Japón, and we should add to these three levels that of the relationship between spectator’s body and film’s body. No more is this apparent than with the wandering camera; we see how the film’s body deviates from a humanly enabled camera. The latter should retain its interest in the film’s protagonists, aid spectators in their comprehension and engagement with a human-centered story, and represent something. Reygadas has called these aesthetics filmed theatre. On the other hand, certainly the film’s body – as camera in this instance – is operated by a cameraperson, yet the images express themselves with obvious curiosity and with little regard for bridging the gap between spectators’ desire for narrative momentum and character identification.

For Barker the film’s body and spectator’s body orient themselves in space with musculature, a given set of physical co-ordinates that come near to and are spatially separate from other persons and things. “We comport ourselves by means of arms, legs, muscles, and tendons whereas the film does so with dollies, camera tracks, zoom lenses, aspect ratios, and editing patterns…. We mark our position in relation to space by such things as shoulders and hips, whereas the film’s frame is marked off by the edges of the celluloid strip, viewfinder, screen, and theatre” (Barker 2009: 77). There is thus expressive and perceptive capacities for both viewing and filming; the film expresses itself to us and in turn we express ourselves bodily in our reception of it.

Barker argues that long tracking shots allow spectators to empathize with the film’s body’s musculature. With the lens nearly brushing the flaccid penis and then crossing the threshold of the Hegel room, we watch and feel as the camera comports itself in the world, and finds what interests it, i.e., the young girl. As the steadicam traipses through the soccer field with Rut, in the bobbing close-up of Seven atop his donkey, or when we track alongside Juan and Natalia in the sauna, “we feel those movements in our muscles because our bodies have made similar movements: we have whipped our heads from side to side, moved slowly and stealthily, and stretched out our bodies in ways that are distinctly human but inspired by attitudes like those that inspire the film’s movements” (Barker 2009: 75). These are but a few examples of the ways in which Post Tenebras Lux is attuned to simultaneous and multiple levels of perception, in both filmmaking and its processes of expression and projection, and in spectators’ empathetic experience of the audio-visual displays.

 

[1] Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005) received “lusty boos” at its first press screening at Cannes (Dargis 2005), but did not receive any awards at that festival. Karen Badt (2006: 21) witnessed a standing ovation for the film at the festival’s public premiere.

[2] Reygadas in Higgins 2005:“After I make a film I psychoanalyse myself retroactively so that I can give explanations to journalists and film people. But I don’t believe in those explanations myself.” The deleted scenes are available on the Strand Releasing Blu-ray. According to Koehler (2013: 15) no significant changes were made to Post Tenebras Lux between the Cannes premiere and the Strand Releasing copy.

[3] All of Reygadas’s films underwent some re-editing after their film festival premieres. The changes to Japón (2002) were significant (Koehler 2013: 15) and Battle in Heaven was rejected by Cannes in 2004 then re-edited and re-submitted with acceptance in 2005.

[4] Interviews with Reygadas follow the same pattern. Interviewers search for meaning, or at least an account of personal expression, and pose explanatory questions to the director only to receive light-hearted responses such as: “You ask yourself what it means!” (Badt 2006: 23); “All of these explanations, in my opinion, are logical and they can be valid, but none of them is right or wrong” (Marlow 2006); “Technically, [your interpretation is] that. But you can expand it to something more” (Koehler 2013: 14).

[5] Some explicating and explaining will indeed be necessary to bring the experience of the film to language, but I am here interested in the first time viewer (or multiple viewings for the purposes of re-immersing oneself in the images and sounds).

[6] Koehler 2013: 11: “The film is about many things, including the perception of reality, of our dreams, fantasies, and in our direct experiences, and in the acknowledgment of the reality beyond what we see and hear…. As for the feelings people have from their experiences, and what these may trigger in our dreams, or subconscious, these are left more or less powerfully. And if we didn’t feel them we wouldn’t be alive.”

[7] Lahr-Vivaz (2008: 143ff) reads the excess of Battle in Heaven alongside the film’s class depictions and struggles with Mexican nationalism.

[8] Sensation has been Reygadas’s aim since his first film Japón (Gordon 2002; Matheou 2003: 11).

[9] Koehler 2013: 15: “What happens is the outside of the lens is polished and shaved so it becomes flat, and then it creates a refraction. It was a 25mm lens, and it reacts differently depending on the light and atmosphere, as well as the camera movement.”

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