Carlos Reygadas explores both the ordinary and extraordinary in contemporary Mexico. He stages scenes of graphic violence, sex, dying, and death; his non-professional actors convey sadness, contempt, distrust, and experience great loss.
In this video essay I tried to bring together these elements of Reygadas’s oeuvre. We see these themes in the deaths of animals and humans, the consistent depiction of guns, and the ties between religiosity and sex and death. In my reading of the director’s work, seemingly incongruous scenes can be connected to help us understand more about Reygadas’s place within contemporary film-making and his view of life in contemporary Mexico and, if we’re lucky, we may also come to understand ourselves a bit better too.
Video from Reygadas’s Japón (2002), Battle in Heaven (Batalla en el cielo, 2005), Silent Light (Stellet Licht, 2007), and Post Tenebras Lux (2012).
The text that follows is a short essay on animals, non-human animals, and death, very loosely tied to the video essay.
In each of Reygadas’s films, the director attempts to maintain the integrity of locations, persons, and objects without transforming them into narrative devices. The director’s aesthetics are often about presenting persons and things as they function in space and time. In contemporary fictional films, death cannot be part of the profilmic event: humans nor animals are killed in the service of drama, on the one hand, and on the other, even if this was permitted, it is difficult if not impossible to capture the precise moment of passing from existence to non-existence even in a non-fictional context. Unlike hard core pornography, which attempts to “‘fix’ the exact moment of the sexual act’s involuntary convulsion of pleasure” by explicitly documenting the male orgasm (Williams  1999: 113), death has no such visible instant. Given the limits and challenges of bringing realistic death to narrative cinema, Reygadas has demonstrated a complex and varied relationship to cinematic dying, corpses, and the repercussions of death for the characters in his films. He has experimented with representations of the death of animals, shown the aftermath of a person’s death, tried to replicate murder with a high degree of verisimilitude and, in his latest feature, briefly turned to computer-generated imagery to symbolically illustrate a suicide. Each attempt to bring dying to the screen further exemplifies the director’s aim to elicit sensuous responses in spectators, quite apart from emotional empathy (Laine  2013) or spontaneous eruptions of screams or tears (Williams  2009).
Human Animals, Non-Human Animals
The death of an animal or animals in fictional cinema stands as a substitute for the impossible to represent human death. Sergei Eisenstein knew this better than any filmmaker of his time. In Strike (Стачка, 1924) he cut the execution of workers with the execution of cattle. Of this scene he wrote,
I did this [finale of Strike], on the one hand, to avoid overacting among the extras from the labour exchange ‘in the business of dying’ but mainly to excise from such a serious scene the falseness that the screen will not tolerate but that is unavoidable in even the most brilliant death scene and, on the other hand, to extract to maximum effect of bloody horror. The shooting is shown only in ‘establishing’ long and medium shots of 1,800 workers falling over a precipice, the crowd fleeing, gunfire, etc., and all the close-ups are provided by a demonstration of the real horrors of the slaughterhouse where cattle are slaughtered and skinned. ( 1988: 43)
On the one hand, we have “the business of dying,” a dramatization that is often too unreal to generate the kind of cognitive engagement Eisenstein aimed to elicit in his spectators. On the other, the slaughter of the cattle served as a bloody replacement of what could not then be shown with verisimilitude in the cinema. This substitution of real death for fictional death posits differing ethical spaces. While the narrative momentum of Strike calls for the execution of the laborers, the indexical inscription of the murdered cattle carries no such narrative motivation. In an early essay, Sobchack discusses Jean Renoir’s Rules of the Game (Le regle de jeu, 1939) and observes that killing an animal onscreen, and contrasting that real death with the fictional death of a character, “violently, abruptly, punctuates fictional space with documentary space” (2004: 246-247). This intrusion of the real results in a greater sense of shock at the death of a rabbit than the fictionalized death of the human character later in the film. Her consciousness, which had theretofore been situated or accustomed to the irreal and fictional events, was abruptly transformed “into a documentary consciousness charged with a sense of the world, existence, bodily mortification, and mortality, and all the rest of the real that is in excess of the fiction” (2004: 269).
In a later essay, from which the second quotation was taken, Sobchack addresses the fiction/documentary blur in more detail. Here, with reference to animal death, Sobchack claims that an animal is not of the same fictional order as a human character. Upon the event of the rabbit’s death, its status as a “quasi character” quickly transitions to that of a real “once-living creature;” the animal dies in the fictional world while also dying for the production of fiction, “in excess and outside of the irreal fictional world, in the space of the real, where death counts because it is irreversible” (Sobchack 2004: 269-270). Animal death thus serves as an interruption of the fiction by the profilmic real. Given the inability to “fix” the moment of human dying, Catherine Wheatley writes (2011: 97), “the blow that strikes down the living [non-human] animal is the violent equivalent of the penetration shot, offering ‘proof’ of an act which shocks by its very reality.” However, this functions on different registers for the classical film than the contemporary. Wheatley finds many examples of animal death in contemporary art cinema (2011: 97) and Reygadas’s films fall in with this trend.
In Eisenstein’s and Renoir’s films, the purpose of this factual interruption is to grant the irreal an index which could then elicit similar bodily and cognitive responses from the spectator when they later witness the fictional death of a human character. Reygadas’s most recent feature touches upon something different, i.e., a documentary quality whereby the animals appear to exist for themselves. To make this point, it is helpful to contrast Post Tenebras Lux’s animals with those of Reygadas’s debut feature. In Japón, the unnamed protagonist, on his journey towards a remote village to contemplate and commit suicide, encounters a child with a wounded bird. The child states that he is not strong enough himself to pull the head from the bird’s body to end its suffering. The man takes the animal and without hesitation accomplishes the task himself. A close-up of the head tossed to ground, the bird gasping for breath, concludes the scene. The significance of this act is clear.
Two more instances of animal death punctuate the film but function less powerfully as intrusions of the real. Prior to his final descent to the village, the man wakes one morning to the agonizing screeches of a pig, the animal on its way to becoming human food. He then enters a butcher shop and we see close-ups of various parts of animals. Again, both the slaughter of the pig and the remains symbolically illustrate the man’s desired death. Further, in the middle of the film, in perhaps the most emotionally-driven sequence, on the threshold of committing suicide the man encounters the corpse of a horse. He raises his gun towards his own head but cannot pull the trigger. He collapses beside the horse while the viewer takes in a helicopter shot of the scene, and the sounds of Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Passion of St. Matthew fill the non-diegetic air. It is important to note the use of rain in this scene, as pathetic fallacy, which sets the mood for the long shots and baroque music.
We should be reminded of Eisenstein’s October (Октябрь, 1928) and the dead horse displayed therein, again as a stand-in for the human body, as well as the beating of the horse in Raskolnikov’s dream in Crime and Punishment (Преступлéние и наказáние, 1866), symbolically illustrating his madness. For de Luca (2014: 40), the animal deaths in Japón “underscore the film’s central themes: life, death and rebirth,” and poignantly exhibit the “fragility and finitude of physical life as captured by the film medium.” Thus we have two possible but not exclusive ways of receiving these scenes: we can interpret the animal deaths symbolically or, more productively, as an expression of film’s capacity not simply to represent but to present something real. Reygadas runs conflicting modes of spectatorial response up against one another, either in the mode of fiction or documentary, and thereby blurs such rigid divides. For Sobchack, and this is what I also claim to be Reygadas’s aim, the shock of the conflict between one consciousness and the other registers at the level of the body. “My goal [in Japón] was to make people feel,” Reygadas provocatively stated in an interview from shortly after the film’s release (Gordon 2002). “Maybe not feel well, but not bad particularly either. I wanted to make them just feel something. Being numb is bad. Feeling something is good…. Animals die. We die. But we just don’t think about it. [The film] was for making people think about it for a while.”
Although there are no animals killed nor any animal carcasses in Post Tenebras Lux, horses, cattle, and Reygadas’s dogs gallop, meander, and dart onscreen in a number of sequences. Rut introduces us to all three species in the opening episode, and here we should note that Reygadas devotes as much attention to the non-human animals as he does his daughter. Rut’s sense of wonder and spontaneity at these creatures translates into what the camera sees as well. Of all the animals, the dogs are given the most screen time, and we might want to say Martita is even given a minor role. Earlier in the film Martita was severely beaten by Juan for some undescribed transgression. Reygadas makes no attempt to shoot for verisimilitude here – a medium close-up of Juan frames only his punches and not the dog herself receiving the blows. We do hear the painful yelps and whimpers of a dog as Juan inflicts his punishment. Thus while certainly not granting us real death, the scene attempts to convey a sense of the real through Juan’s overwhelming brutality and the sounds of the dog being beaten. Sound artists therefore figure into this sense of the real. I link this extended scene of brutality and its audio track to those images and sounds of the slaughtered pig in Japón. In both scenes we are physically overwhelmed by the punishment or dying of animals.
Juan’s punishment of Martita is significant for two sequences later in the film. After Juan and Natalia have concluded their argument about their deteriorating marriage, Juan goes to feed the dogs. He rests on the ground with them as they eat, a gesture of intimacy, and a close-up of one of the dogs ripping apart its meal may be Juan’s POV (or perhaps not). Proceeding Juan’s deathbed speech, this gesture of intimacy repeats. The protagonist’s last words are a request to bring him the dogs. Reygadas then spends some long seconds with several of the animals, a clear expression of the profilmic real; the dogs look at something out of frame, likely Reygadas himself, instructing them to keep still. Each animal is given a ghostly doubling by the camera lens.
In both Japón and Post Tenebras Lux, then, the animals do not merely serve as substitutes for an impossible to film (ethically and aesthetically) human death. Their status as quasi-characters begs the question of what constitutes the fiction/documentary divide, and in the case of the latter film, the intimacies possible between human and non-animal humans. As if Martita was a human member of the family, Juan stresses after her beating, “I always hurt… the one I love most.” For Bazin, writes Jennifer Fay (2008), there is a strong relationship between realist aesthetics and the depiction of animals. One of the things Bazin loved most about cinema was precisely its capacity to place human and non-human animals together in unique, if not dangerous, framings. The tradition of Bazinian realism echoes in yet another way in Reygadas’s work; both critic and director have warm places in their hearts for animals.
In Reygadas’s four features, human death is represented in several forms. Ascen’s death at the end of Japón shows her nephew’s tractor overturned, scattering the pieces of her former house across a long stretch of road. The scene is six minutes in length, as the camera tracks forward on a railway line and rotates 360 degrees to the music of Avro Pärt, eventually coming to rest on Ascen’s corpse. The impossibility of such an accident is exaggerated by the unconventional camerawork.
Silent Light shows us the moments prior to Esther’s death and her funeral. In the former, during a torrential downpour, Esther leaps from her husband’s slowly moving-vehicle and rushes into the woods. She props herself against a tree and weeps uncontrollably as rain splashes against the camera lens, yet another indication of Reygadas’s investment in the profilmic event. Johan soon goes in search of his wife; he carries her back to the side of the road and two Mexicans arrive to help. Rather than seeing the death itself, a doctor later informs Johan that his wife has passed away. In a nod to Dreyer’s Ordet (1955), Esther is resurrected by a kiss from Marianne, her husband’s mistress.
Battle in Heaven depicts death with a heightened display of verisimilitude. I claim this likeness to reality was used because of the gravity of the depicted act. Marcos visits Ana as a last gesture before his willing arrest. She passionately kisses his lips, he does not respond similarly, and she tells him to leave. She then appears satisfied by his departure. The next scene has Marcos in the hall urinating in his pants. This is a revelatory moment for he returns to the apartment, fetches a knife, and makes a preliminary jab at Ana, gashing her arm badly. Shocked by the action, she struggles briefly as Marcos plunges the weapon into her. His left arm wraps around her and there is less a stabbing motion than a forced entry. She collapses and blood pools all around the floor. Marcos retrieves his hanging coat, left behind after his first exit, and steps out the door.
The violence displayed in extreme cinema has an intensity that registers viscerally, totally unlike the spectacle of horror films. The gash on Ana’s arm at first left me motionless and the attempted struggle to save her own life was an instant of anxiety for me. The tension of the scene, exhibited initially by Marcos’s indifference to her kiss and subsequent urination, erupted into an intensely affective moment as the knife entered Ana’s body. I received a similar sensation during the final shot of Breillat’s Perfect Love (Parfait Amour, 1996), in which the lead male, in close-up, excessively stabs his lover who repeatedly humiliated him. This excessiveness, and the murder we had anticipated since the beginning of Perfect Love (it begins in grainy documentary style with police asking the man to re-enact the crime), comes out from the screen to haunt us as we enter it to feel the images viscerally.
Marcos, psychologically unstable after the murder of Ana, joins the procession of individuals to church to celebrate the Lady of Guadalupe. He dons a head cover and attempts to trek the sidewalks and steps of the church on his knees. At one point he missteps and smacks his skull on the concrete ground. He does eventually reach the church and finds himself a seat in a pew. Bertha, Marcos’s wife, soon finds him kneeling and inert (his head still covered and bloody). She nudges Marcos and he falls over, dead. Thus we again miss the precise moment of a character’s passing from existence to non-existence.
 I follow Sobchack (2004: 258n1) in the use of irreal, as a contrary to the real and not its direct contradiction, as in the “not real” of an impossible or fantastic fiction. In an irreal fiction “the real is ‘bracketed’ and put off to the side as a noncriterion of the work’s meaning, coherence, or plausibility.”