Video essays

Link to video essay: “Mexico is bleeding”

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 [1989] 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 [2011] 2013) or spontaneous eruptions of screams or tears (Williams [1991] 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. ([1924] 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).[1]

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.

PTL dog PTL dog2Juan’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.


Fictional Death

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.

Conclusion and death and dying in Post Tenebras Lux

[1] 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.”

Grizzly Man1

Video essay here:

Jean Rouch said that a camera functions like a confessional. In one sense, we’ve seen this in countless reality television programs from Survivor (2000-), to Big Brother (2000-), and constructed documentaries such as Coal House (2007). In these programs, the confessional closet grants performers the space to give a testimony or a recounting of events – the contestants or participants on reality TV provide an account of their day’s behaviours or feelings for entertainment purposes. These reflections on the day are most amusing when the scene shifts from a heated confrontation between or amongst participants to the confessional closet wherein one of the performers, in a rage, informs the audience that their fellow contestant was acting like [bleeped expletive].

In another sense, Rouch meant that the camera enables individuals to perform. We see this in films as diverse as Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, lies and videotape (1989), Ulrich Seidl’s Jesus, You Know (2003), and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). These works – one fiction and two documentary – demonstrate that the camera is not merely for commonplace testimonies nor a medium which allows spectators to identify with performers’ emotions. The camera, while asking or commanding persons in front of the lens to perform, is also like a therapist.

Cameras and therapists are alike in their silent and non-judgmental nature, a nature which allows performers to divulge their secrets, desires, and confessions. The technology is silent, thereby providing an uninterrupted time and space for performers to bring their psyches to language and to work out a problem for themselves. The added benefit of being recorded is that it demands an individual to perform not just everyday life, but reflect on the fact that in speaking and acting for the camera, everyday life is a performance.

In Sex, lies and videotape, Graham’s camera is a substitute for sexual intimacy. Unable to get or sustain an erection, Graham videotapes women revealing their most intimate sexual encounters, desires, and preferences. In his session with Cynthia, a woman who had already been characterized as sexually adventurous, Graham’s questions about her first sexual experience sparks not just her visual and aural memory of that initial encounter, but moves her bodily as well. She eventually removes her clothes and, in a later scene, Cynthia reveals that she had touched herself. As to why she did so, she tells her sister, “I wanted to. I wanted him to see me,” a sentiment Catherine Breillat’s female protagonist would echo in Anatomy of Hell (2004).

The passive gaze of Graham’s camera allows Cynthia to perform in three interlinked ways: for Graham, for his camera, and for herself (in full knowledge that both man and camera are observing her – Walter Benjamin had said, “… the audience takes the position of the camera,” and it is possible if not likely that the performer is aware of this during her own performance). Yet, to state that Cynthia wanted Graham to see her where she is unwatchable, to invoke Breillat’s phrase, misses the mark. It would be more accurate to say that she wanted to see herself, although not referring to the final cut of the tape. Cynthia wanted to imagine herself performing as herself, and this is why we see the most intimate part of the recording session from the camera’s grainy perspective. This is Cynthia’s virtual perspective of her performance.

Jesus, You Know features a number of performers reciting their prayers. They each present their respective interpersonal problems, ask Jesus for advice, and through two or more sessions in front Jesus and Seidl’s camera, the individuals have minor and major revelations about their (love) lives. While Sex, lies and videotape is a thoroughly fictional film, Jesus, You Know is a documentary feature. These are real individuals with what we assume to be real problems – the veracity of this is shown by cutting to domestic scenes between protagonists and their friends and lovers. Yet the truthfulness of verbalized prayers is called into question by Seidl’s form and the structure of the film. First, he does not attempt to mask the performances of his actors: they are shown walking into churches, taking their seats in pews, acting out everyday tasks, wavering between a gaze at a crucified Jesus somewhere behind the camera and at the camera itself, and the tableau-aesthetic of each scene clearly marks its staginess. The participants bring their performance to the camera and Seidl has positioned the performers in aesthetically appealing ways. Seidl’s style counters the anti-aesthetic imperatives and discourses of sobriety that the documentary genre has historically commanded.

Second, we suspect that while some of the performances were prepared in advanced, the individuals’ lives are also shown to develop into their own narrative from the centrifugal force of their prayers. The move from prepared speech to tears or revelation exhibits the power of the camera. At least one woman, for example, begins with an emotional discussion about her cheating husband and ends a later session – and the film – with an optimistic speech that rivals the best scripted fiction film has to offer. Independent, en route to a meaningful life apart from marriage, and content with mortality, this woman’s story formed a narrative that concluded with a happy ending. The camera-therapist was perhaps a key part in her story’s resolution.

As Herzog makes clear in his commentary, Grizzly Man offers the most interesting case for documentary performance because the performer, Timothy Treadwell, more or less performs solely for himself. Hours and hours of footage was shot, first-hand, by Treadwell. He acts as director, writer, performer, and cinematographer in each scene. Towards the conclusion of the film, Treadwell presents himself as three different performers within the same scene. He begins as the level-headed director of the film, shifts to his onscreen persona, then in a surprising move explodes into a series of expletives against the United States government – this is followed by a return to the kind, onscreen persona to wrap up the segment. The question is where we locate a “real” Treadwell, i.e., one we would recognize off-screen. But this is a cliche psychological problem. There is no authentic self, but the many selves captured by recording technology. The camera, in this instance, offers Treadwell not just one but three ways to perform himself, and each performance is no less authentic than the other.

Benjamin wrote that unlike the theatre-actor, in which a performer is required to act out a whole scene and story, the film-actor is fragmented into shots that are often shot non-chronologically. Real individuals are far from the perfected whole person on the stage; rather, similar to the film-actor, our life is comprised of pieces and put together by those viewing us. Thus the camera, used in these three films as a kind of therapist whom enables us to speak freely with the self-reflexivity to contemplate the words and sentences we utter, demonstrates that being filmed is a positive experience. These films suggest that the camera-therapist functions in three specific ways: it allows the performer(s) to act out several identities or problems at once, in sequence or out of sequence; to assemble personal test performances; and discover the senses in which performance is a part of everyday life. To help us live with our symptoms, cope with our problems, fix our broken relationships, or call up pleasures from our childhood, such things we must perform – and the camera helps to turn us back on ourselves and confront whatever confessions we reveal.

Video: Stags, Sexploitation, and Hard Core

The link to the above video is a teaser for an exhibition I am curating on pornography up to 1972.

Thursday, August 28th – Saturday, August 30th, 12pm-6pm

Artspace, 378 Aylmer Street North, Peterborough, ON

vlcsnap-2014-07-21-21h55m04s154The 1920s was a booming decade for moving-image pornography. 10 to 20 minute films were shot and then screened at stags, thus the name, stag films. Oftentimes the players in these shorts were prostitutes and their johns, or filmmakers and their friends – the films are therefore made anonymously. What is interesting about them is the lack of differentiation between the sexual act as such, real penetration for instance, and the performance of sexual acts. We see in a number of these films that men do not get erections or cannot remain erect for the duration of the shoot. What mattered most, it seems, is sex in any shape or form; or, put differently, the reality and/or the illusion of persons doing things otherwise private. At times the mise-en-scene was elaborate – nuns, teachers – while at others a man “picks up” a woman and has sex. But even in this latter case some kind of narrative unfolds. Even anonymous sex, shot and performed for the enjoyment of a group of men, needs a story. The clips are edited from The Good Old Naughty Days, available from Strand Releasing.


Swedish Marriage Manual, aka Language of Love

The period from about 1956 to 1972 offered a number of soft-core pictures to the public. These films, from The Immoral Mr. Teas (1959) to Swedish Marriage Manual (1968) and many European art films, were generally accessible. While sex was implied or, in the case of some art films, not shown with maximum visibility (as Linda Williams calls it), simple displays of nudity saturated the big screen. Even in films such as Sweetback (1971), the simulated sex is boring – Sweetback doesn’t dare use his sweetback too quickly. Stag films, even when obviously faking the sexual act, were energetic. There was something about the projection of movement that was, in itself, fascinating to watch.

Boys in the Sand

Boys in the Sand

In the early 1970s, films such as Mona (1970), Boys in the Sand (1971), Deep Throat (1972), and Behind the Green Door (1972) brought hard core sex to the screens. Explicit cinematic sex finally became a commodity in its own right, and in the case of Deep Throat, men and women began to take an interest. However, Deep Throat tried to downplay its explicitness with humor while the interracial and orgiastic Green Door used special effects and a hypnotizing score to bring sex into the realm of art.

Pornography today is a far departure from any works of the prior decades. Or, if we prefer, contemporary pornography has taken something from each of the three periods identified: the vigor and energy of the stags; the beautiful bodies of sexploitation flicks; and the explicitness and maximum visibility of 1970s hard core.

Video: Stags, Sexploitation, and Hard Core



Link to Video essay: Death and Dying in Post Tenebras Lux

This is my first attempt at a video essay. It turned out less like a video essay and more like a read essay with video accompaniment. This was simply because the material is drawn from my dissertation. Wordy, to be sure.

I learned a lot about editing software and recording my voice. My pathetic laptop and software managed to record my voice on the left channel only, thus the volume is quite low. For this I apologize.

The video essay draws from other parts of the dissertation, some of which I have published in an entry here. Hopefully my essay can be understood without prior knowledge of the film and my research. Its focus is on the representation of death, non-professional actors, CGI, and affect.

The video essay text follows the bibliography.



Michael Allen, “The Impact of Digital Technologies on Film Aesthetics” (2002)

Martine Beugnet, Cinema and Sensation (2007)

Peter Bradshaw, “Post Tenebras Lux – review,” The Guardian (2013)

Manohla Dargis, “Juggling Primal Conflicts of Innocence and Sin,” NY Times (2013)

Tiago de Luca, Realism of the Senses in World Cinema (2014)

Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1 (1983)

Robert Koehler, “The Impossible Becomes Reality,” Cineaste (2013)

Tarja Laine, Feeling Cinema (2011)

Lev Manovich, “What is Digital Cinema?” (2002)

Sheldon Penn, “The Time-Image in Carlos Reygadas’ Stellet Licht: A Cinema of Immanence,” Bulletin of Spanish Studies (2013)

Fernanda Solórzano, “The Devil in the Detail,” Sight & Sound (2013)

Keith Uhlich, “Post Tenebras Lux: movie review,” Time Out (2013)

Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre and Excess” (1991)

Linda Williams, Hard Core (1989/1999)

Jason Wood, The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema Book (2006)


Boys' rugby in Post Tenebras Lux

Reygadas is a director of the profilmic event. In each of his films he maintains the integrity of locations, persons, and objects without transforming them into narrative devices. The director’s aesthetics are often about presenting things as such as they function in space and time. If we push this argument to its limits, filmic representations of death would be the antithesis to the director’s style. 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 documenting the male orgasm (Williams [1989] 1999: 113), death has no such visible instant. Provided this inability to realistically present the death of an individual, 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 filmed 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 [2011] 2013) or spontaneous eruptions of screams or tears (Williams [1991] 2009).

Post Tenebras Lux has two deaths: Juan’s and Seven’s. The one follows the same pattern of representation in Reygadas’s oeuvre while the latter is expressed through CGI.

When Juan returns home to retrieve the forgotten stroller and other items, the camera positions itself at a distance from the family’s household, and maintains that distance for most of the scene. As Juan confronts Seven and his partner in crime, only then do we get a medium shot, used to establish a stronger sense of danger and urgency. Seven aims a gun at Juan, and Juan demands that Seven give him the gun back, i.e., the very weapon which will end Juan’s life is his own property.

Seven does not return Juan’s gun. The camera repositions itself to the location of the opening long shot. Seven chases Juan up the house’s patio stairs and a shot rings out. The two criminals flee. A very odd thing happens next, a shot which is unlike Reygadas’s familiar style: we cut to a view from the floor of the patio, tilted, which is clearly Juan’s perspective. The refracted lens shows us some trees in the distance. This POV shot demonstrates that Juan really was shot, is immobile, and we hear Jarro’s voice in the distance calling out for Don Juan. We have here a subtle critique of gun culture, and thus after Juan is shot and we leap ahead to a routine hunting party, Reygadas suggests that the proliferation of gun violence is due in part to the willingness of so many individual’s to purchase guns. He mentions to Koehler (2013: 12) that the dominant color of the film is red-orange, the color of blood: “it’s the color of Mexico for me, because Mexico is bleeding. More people died in Mexico in the last six years than in Afghanistan. Our land is bleeding.” So, with this cut to a hunter party, we await the result of the gunshot in a state of suspense. Yet Juan survives for one last episode, for one last speech from his deathbed – but the deathbed is a frequently misused place in cinema. Its clichés overwhelm.

Reygadas knows these melodramatic tropes well. Thus when Juan delivers his final speech, it is not accomplished with a convincing air – Castro is a non-professional actor. Due to Castro’s inability to deliver an authentic speech, a tearful moment for the spectator is denied, and instead Reygadas poses the question of just what we are weeping about when a fictional character dies. It is not a man who dies but his character. To add to the attempt to distance the spectator from heightened emotions based on character identification, Reygadas cuts the scene away from Juan, turns to the bedroom window as a conversation ensues between Juan and Natalia. Juan provocatively says he cannot remember who shot him. Shots of the dogs follow next then we return to an unconvincingly weeping Castro. Just as the representation of death is falsified, Reygadas, by casting non-professionals and allowing them to test their acting abilities with long takes, it additionally points to the unrepresentable state of an individual’s decline into death.

We learn about Juan’s passing from Eleazar. The little boy and his sister are not yet of an age to understand death and dying, and so their daily playtime continues on. Seven approaches, looking for Juan. Eleazar mentions his father’s passing and it seems secondary – the key thing is that Seven should play with him instead:“Come play with us cos Dad has died already.” The scene is presented not with shot-reverse shot technique; when Eleazar delivers the news we stay with him and Rut as they continue to play. What is Seven’s reaction? Again, an attempt for a non-professional to display such an emotion would be painfully faked. We cut instead to Seven’s empty home – his wife and children have parted – then to the murderer walking with purpose through the field in which the film began.

Reygadas cuts to close-ups of various parts of Seven’s/Torres’s body, shot with the refracted lens: the back of his legs, his hands, his right ear, his thighs and crotch. Martine Beugnet, writing on contemporary French film and sensation, argues the close-up is a haptic image which frees the figure from their subjectivity. “It is here, at the point where the boundary between subject and object of the gaze appears to dissolve, that cinema most powerfully evokes a sense of loss of self, where the cinematic experience offers itself most strikingly as an exultant combination of pleasure and terror” (Beugnet 2007: 89). Indeed Gilles Deleuze ([1983] 1986: 70) called the close-up the affection image par excellence. Fragmenting the body as Reygadas does, shot in close-up, the camera contemplating Seven’s limbs for an excessive number of seconds, also participates in the more general tendency of recent art cinema Beugnet has observed (2007 95), i.e., “opening to the gaze the realm of the ‘body-landscape’.” The body-landscape is the capacity for the camera to “wander” or “linger” on a body that exceeds narrative motivation and exists for itself as a haptic image. Reygadas’s close-ups operate according to this logic.

Seven comes to a standstill and gazes out across the landscape. His hands twitch, they are readying themselves. In Reygadas’s oeuvre we have seen consistent employment of pathetic fallacy and this scene of Seven’s suicide follows this pattern. We remember that Seven is a woodcutter. Shots of various trees tumbling down then symbolically prepare the man for his imminent death. Since these trees fall without the visible aid of human persons, we can see that even within a diegetically real sequence Reygadas turns to fantasy. For Seven this fantasy takes on a literalness: we have no marker that these trees are diegetically unreal, neither via a sound, edit, or style of cinematography. They simply point to Seven’s immanent experience.

In yet another effort to counter narrative cinema’s tendency to try to accurately present death, as if it were happening in the profilmic, Reygadas turns to CGI in Post Tenebras Lux. This is the first film the director has used these sort of images. We were introduced to a CGI devil in the opening of the film proper, the very antithesis of realist aesthetics. The devil had no resemblances or likeness to a made-up, costumed, or realistically drawn devil. It radiates redness, lighting up the dark room, bouncing its color off objects and walls. Bradshaw finds (2013) this scene to be “as bizarre and gripping as any conventional scary movie.” But there is nothing menacing about this creature. “I don’t see him as a ‘mean’ devil,” Reygadas said (Solórzano 2013: 53). The devil does carry a real toolbox however (Reygadas’s father’s toolbox to be exact [Reygadas in Koehler 2013: 12]), as if going to work, as if part of its regular activity – “like a handyman from Hades on an emergency call” (Dargis 2013).

Critics have similarly noted how the creature seems to situate himself: he “skulks” (Uhlich 2013), “strides in and surveys the abode” (Koehler 2013: 10). The creature and Reygadas take their time. The devil’s long stroll down the household’s hallway, shot with a static camera, is not unlike Tsai’s preference for extended shots of passageways and corridors.[1] This exceedingly slow and contemplative cinematographic gaze at an obviously unreal image seems to go against both the realist imperative and purpose of CGI. On the one hand we are supposed to be presented with things as such, their indexical quality, and on the other, the experience of something really occurring, usually accomplished with quick-edits, reverse shots of characters amazed, shocked, or scared by the CGI, and camera movements with pseudo-documentary authenticity (Allen [2002] 2009). As Michael Allen succinctly puts it (2009: 825), “The success or failure of any digital image lies in the degree to which it persuades its spectator that it is not digital, but is photographic.” Reygadas would seem to know this contemporary use of CGI in cinema and asserts his distance from it in this sequence and later with Seven’s suicide.

After we have seen Seven fragmented, and after the trees have fallen, the camera takes one last look at the character, framing him in a medium shot. Reygadas cuts to a long shot from behind the character. Seven places his hands on his neck and appears to struggle; he groans slightly then suddenly pops off his head. Blood spurts from the wound as Seven lays motionless on the ground. “Mexico is bleeding, dying, and it’s raining blood all over the land” (Reygadas in Koehler 2013: 14). In typical Reygadas style, it begins to pour rain over the corpse.

For Lev Manovich cinema has always been about the “art of the index.” He claims that contemporary cinema, with its increasing investment in special effects and CGI, is more akin to painting than photography: the realms of photochemical processes which take an impression of reality and hand-drawn or computer animation are no longer easily distinguished ([2002] 2011: 1060-1061). The profilmic real is lost once “live action footage is digitized” and subsequently manipulated by computer software, argues Manovich (2011: 1064). While this seems true for much of popular cinema today, most powerfully in Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity (2013),[2] I think Reygadas offers us something different in both the devil episode and Seven’s suicide episode. In the latter, with the emphasis on Torres’s body, the shot length, and the treatment of reality as I have articulated it in this chapter – i.e., attempting to present the immanent experience of characters even if those experiences take place in dreams, fantasies, and desires – the CGI sequences present the digital “as if” it were filming the raw material of the profilmic.

Thus Seven’s suicide, presented in an irreal style, suggests that it need not be indexical in the sense described by Manovich, Bazin, and others. His head is torn from his body and shown to us surrealistically for a number of possible reasons, each an expression of Reygadas’s attempt at crafting a cinema of immanence. Perhaps: for Seven the act of suicide felt like the represented gruesome death; or, the suicide may have taken on this appearance as if a child were seeing it, Rut for instance, or possibly, given the complex nature of the film, remembering it later in life; or, given the shot which immediately follows the act, namely, a cow chewing grass, the suicide is as if from that animal’s perspective. Again we see that Reygadas does not provide simple answers. What he demands of us instead is that we view his films with all that human perception allows.

The impossibility of shooting real death is all the more pronounced by its artifice in Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas seems to suggest that we do not need verisimilitude in the cinema; our reality, as it is lived through the body, is already attuned to strange modes of perceiving, whether dreams, hallucinations, fantasies, or desires. A death by a more cinematically realistic means is moot, for the scene would still offer us the character’s mortality either way. Further, an attempt to represent an act of suicide could not do justice to the lived emotional experience of a real person. Seven’s suicide turns out to be aesthetically pleasing in spite of its distance from filming the event with verisimilitude. And the narrative (almost) concludes where we began, giving the whole feature a definitive finale through symmetry.


[1] For an extended discussion of Tsai’s cinema and its realist tendencies, see de Luca 2014.

[2] A short film made by Cuarón’s brother Jonas, Aningaaq (2013), accompanies the feature-length film on the Warner Brothers Blu-ray edition. The short film functions as an alternate setting and story for one of the feature film’s episodes. Reygadas’s director of photography, Zabé, and his editor Lopez, both worked on the short. Reygadas received a thank you in the credits as well.

The Cuarón’s are acquaintances of Reygadas. Alfonso had some very kind words to say about the director’s debut. Cf. Wood 2006: 116.