Carlos Reygadas’s new film is a textbook example of how to tell a basic story in the most complicated, off-putting manner conceivable. Stretching narrative means to their breaking point and beyond, Post Tenebras Lux plays like an experimental short that just happens to run 120 minutes, ample enough time for unsolicited (and unexplained) flash-forwards, interpolated boys’ rugby footage, and a sidebar into steamy, seamy sex tourism. (What would a Reygadas film be without some unsimulated sex? Silent Light, that’s what.) Shooting for whatever reason in Academy ratio (though some of the footage looks composed for Reygadas’s preferred CinemaScope format), Reygadas goes the unnatural next step and films most of the outdoors scenes with a viscous gel-smeared lens, resulting in a blurry, refractive image that’s liable to induce headaches.
Admittedly, the opening shot is breathtaking, on par with the opening and closing shots of Silent Light: A little girl (Rut Reygadas) wanders around a puddle-pocked field while cows and dogs amble around her, naming the creatures and objects around her with the purity of some Edenic callback. As night falls and thunderheads gather, darkness and flashes of lightning become inseparable. Cut to a living room. Amid peals of thunder, a glowing red, featureless figure enters the front door, what appears to be a devil holding a toolbox, paterfamilias as petty demon. Or maybe not. Like a lot of Post Tenebras Lux’s other “flourishes,” the WTF factor here is stratospheric, and hoping for any kind of context whatsoever, by which to frame your own explanation, is an exercise in futility. If inscrutability were the measure of success, Post Tenebras Lux would be the most successful film of all time.
At its most basic level, Post Tenebras Lux contrasts two families living in rural Mexico. Affluent landowner Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) has anger-management issues. In one gut-wrenching scene, he throttles and pummels one of his dogs for little reason. His wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) minds the children and tends to the housework, when, that is, the couple isn’t off visiting a Parisian bathhouse for group sex in a steam-soaked inferno. And then there’s a scene that leaps forward a number of years, a family gathering that introduces Juan and Natalia’s now-adolescent children to their family, and offering a modicum of insight into why they conduct their lives the way they do. Reygadas only introduces the second family, belonging to a peon nicknamed Seven (Willebaldo Torres), within the last few minutes, another shock tactic that throws the film seriously out of balance. Alcoholic, with his own anger issues, Seven has committed a crime of opportunity, and later proffers one of the most bizarre acts of repentance ever filmed—if, again, that’s even what it is.
What all this adds up to, however, I can’t quite say. Assessment seems a trifle capricious when faced with such willfully impenetrable filmmaking. Of all the unanswerable questions this film provokes, here’s one that may well have an answer: If a film falls flat on its face in the woods, does anybody hear it? The audience does. And they’ll likely want to tear their own heads off too.
The Cannes Film Festival runs from May 16—27. For more information click here.