Carlos Reygadas’s Post Tenebras Lux left audiences at this year’s Cannes Film Festival seriously divided on the film’s merits. And no matter which side you fell on, there was a constricting sense of being lost. Beginning with its very first sequence, in which a little girl wanders around a pack of passive-aggressive dogs, the viewer is inducted into a world of ambiguous emotions. The darkness of the night comes slowly and the girl apparently loses her way home, her fear becoming our insecurity. Reygadas appears to want to make one dizzy: Throughout, the past and present are blurred, and fantasies and bodily pleasures combine with psychic fears and deaths. We had to chance to sit with the Mexican auteur, who won the Best Director prize at the festival, and discuss all that’s unspoken in this poetic vision.
I was really fascinated by Post Tenebras Lux, but after leaving the press screening, I had to look at the press book to discover what the film was about. While making a movie, are you ever concerned about the viewers? You demand a lot from the audience.
The film may seem mysterious at first sight. But I really hope that by not giving you any simple answers, you eventually felt how much I respect you as a viewer, how I respect the movie in terms of art, and how much I respect myself as a director. The film is what it is. Talking about it afterward makes me feel dishonest. I demand a lot from the audience and I don’t have any limits, that’s true. However, I am a free man, and I may do what I really want. I am giving you the best of myself, and I strongly believe that all around me there are lots of people more sensitive and intelligent than I am. Every single person is different, is focused on other things, feels different emotions, and tries to find their own way through the movie, and is able to find their very own and unique interpretation of the story. One viewer could love the film; the other one, as sensible as anyone else, may hate it for a very good reason. Moreover, I am a viewer as well. I watch lots of movies, and I truly appreciate the directors that don’t try to lead me by the hand through their stories. I want to be considered one of them.
There isn’t much dialogue in the film, which is more of a pure vision than a classic story. Yet, speaking of stories, I wonder what your script looked like. Was it as visual as the film is?
I have very detailed storyboards, yet I don’t resign myself to a precise script. However, during the shooting, all of the words that have been written are turned into filmic images or sounds. The movie is like a vision that implies sounds. The words are more or less like birds chirping.
Do you want emotions to be precise enough to elicit a specific feeling in the audience? The scene when the man has decapitated himself makes some laugh but shocks others.
I’m definitely not a clown or a circus entertainer who wants to lead people through concrete emotions. The audience isn’t just a group of individuals; each of them perceives with their own eyes, brain, and soul. The same sequence can be excellent to one, ridiculous for the other, and that’s fine to me! I can’t do anything about that. I know that Mexicans will have very specific reactions to that scene, because of the fact that in Mexico people are really decapitated nowadays. They are punished now in the way the others have been punished centuries ago in European countries. So, that is an image which may haunt Mexicans’ dreams. But I’m not directing the audience. I’m not a master of ceremony.
In Latin, post tenebras lux means “light after darkness.” Watching the film, I felt that the darkness comes after light. But I don’t consider the title as an ironic statement. Or should I?
The whole idea of “light after darkness” seems appealing to me in terms of intimate experience, of being a human living in a Western world. In a sense we all live in the darkness of our daily frustrations. We manage to be free and pure even though we may lead a dramatic life. Yet, I hope the light would come after us to enlighten the world for our children. However, the title is in Latin, because thanks to that it says a lot about the clash between West and East. Mexico was conquered by Europeans centuries ago, yet the culture there is still combined of different, opposite elements derived from both backgrounds. Nothing is really mixed in the cosmogony of the world. Some people are really Westerners, and others are not. Yet, on the subconscious level, being a Westerner implies separation within society that triggers a permanent feeling of judgment. The Latin world is a part of reality which hasn’t been subjected to Western ideas from the very beginning of its existence.
In terms of that kind of social division, what side is yours?
I feel like I’m on both sides as the same time. I was living in Europe for some time and I understand that if you develop a good balance at home, you’ll be able to deeply understand more things from very different perspectives.
Your film could be called a Mexican Tree of Life, since there’s a family which slowly falls apart and has this peculiar, close relation with nature; the past and future is glimpsed and the story develops strongly through images, and narration is nothing more than a poetic commentary.
Well, that’s flattering! Yet, to be honest, I had shot my film before Terrence Malick made The Tree of Life, and I believe that Post Tenebras Lux isn’t so Catholic and imperialistic as The Tree of Life is. Moreover, the pure form of cinematic experience is essential for me. I like juxtaposing cinematic elements—images, sounds, etcetera—against each other, and from the very beginning till the far end there’s nothing like it in The Tree of Life.
Speaking of images, the frames of your film are blurred at the edges. You force viewers to focus on the central part of the picture. What is in the center of Post Tenebras Lux’s world?
I won’t tell you what’s in the center. It’s your part of the work to find out! [Laughs] If I explained everything, the whole construction could fall apart. Your freedom would be destroyed. So you should be thankful for me not to say a word [Laughs]. Whatever there is in the center of that world, I just wanted to show the fragments of it in a different way than they’re actually seen in everyday life. Filming is a way of reinterpreting. When I was a child, I was enchanted by paintings. I loved still lives and my goal was to mimic the world as it was. Today, I want to do everything but that.
And you made a red, animated devil who enters the family house twice with a toolbox in his hand. We will never know what’s hidden inside. I saw that kind of box in Belle de Jour as well and I still think about it.
The thing is I also have the right to ask some questions, so I would like to ask you why the hell you would like to know what’s inside? [Laughs] Evil is part of our lives. The film is about an ordinary life, the imagined future, fantasy, memory. All elements of pure naturalism! The red devil could be part of dreams, so it’s as real as they are and as important as any other part of everyday life. I put into the film the photo of a Spanish golfer as well. It represents an end of a certain epoch. It’s amazingly detailed, yet you don’t see any labels on the clothes and props. Personally speaking, it shows my nostalgia for the better times when you weren’t forced to name things. The vision of that sort of pureness makes me calm. I don’t like and don’t need any sort of brands.