The fusion of art and graphic sex is an uncomfortable subject for testy critics and cinesnobs. They don’t care to admit they’ve been aroused by some of the daring—sometimes titillating, if not always useful—depictions of sexual intercourse film culture has seen in the last decade: Yekaterina Golubeva sucking off Guillaume Depardieu in Pola X, Kerry Fox lovingly fellating Mark Rylance in Intimacy, Chloë Sevigny’s hungry mouth devouring Vincent Gallo’s cock in The Brown Bunny, and Ricardo Menses getting expert oral treatment from a stranger in O Fantasma. Imagine a theater fire during a screening of 9 Songs, specifically midway through any penetration scene between Kieran O’Brien and Margo Stilley. Would the men run for the exits or stay behind, choosing death so as not to have to relive that mythologized grade-school nightmare of walking up to the chalkboard while pitching tents?
Carlos Reygadas, the breakout director of 2002’s moody and primitive Japón, understands this sense of unease. With his 2005 flamethrower Battle in Heaven he connects our discomfort viewing graphic sex to a daring critique of a country’s complicity in a man’s frustrated social situation. Reygadas provokes—calmly, not thuggishly—our contempt for his film’s radical aesthetic patterns and explicit sexual nature, suggesting our anxiety with the text’s essential unconventionality is tantamount to racism, bodyism, and anti-artism. Take the film’s first image: a sexy, lean, and outré general’s daughter, Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz), performs oral sex on her driver, Marcos (Hernández), a fat, dark-skinned, unattractive proletariat man. I gather most would rather watch O’Brien and Stilley go at it in 9 Songs (or see Ana do it with her ridiculously attractive boyfriend), but the point of Battle in Heaven is to confront us with the things we’d rather not see.
Krzysztof Kieślowski’s final films took France’s moral and spiritual pulse through their mystical dissections of the colors of the country’s flag. In the 1960s, Vilgot Sjöman similarly examined a modern Swede nation with I Am Curious (Yellow) and its sequel I Am Curious (Blue). Now, Reygadas subjects Mexico to similar scrutiny, and though he shares Kieślowski’s flare for mysticism and Sjöman’s intellectual curiosity, he’s more evasive than either man: he’ll never admit to being explicitly concerned with the meaning of the green, white, and red that colors his country’s flag. Like Lisandro Alonso, Reygadas practices a form of cinema absentia, conveying dramatic incident and moral terror through unconventional means. For him, what lies beyond the frame is often more important than what lurks within, and his totemic obsession with the close-up positions Battle in Heaven as a force that demands serious reckoning.
9 Songs was sexy but meant nothing. Battle in Heaven is unattractive but meaningful. The necessary information the audience needs to parse Reygadas’s inquisition of an inextricable personal and political tragedy is revealed elliptically—through inflections of speech, frank displays of emotions, and the physical movement of Reygadas’s camera and actors. The class rift between Ana and Marcos is not only obvious in the way they look and carry themselves, but is implicit in the way they fuck (like a sculptor chipping away at the statue of his own creation, Reygadas spots Marco’s pain beneath his orgasmic expressions), the dialects they speak, and the revolutions they enact. Ana is confident, rich, and ostensibly bored, which might explain why she takes up prostitution—a little girl’s “fuck you” to the daddy that isn’t there. He’s poor and, along with his wife, kidnaps a child that dies under their watch; theirs is an equally intense response to a more terrifying sense of human emptiness.
Reygadas likens our disgust for his nonchalant sex scenes as a form of political reticence. Notice the differences between the film’s two major sex scenes: in one, Marcos lies passive beneath the controlling Ana; in the other, Marcos fucks his wife from behind, their rolls of fat jiggling up and down. The less appealing sex scene (guess which one?) ends with a loving hug, the other with an extreme close-up of Marcos’s uncircumcised penis losing its erection. Reygadas has a gift for weighty parallelism and Battle in Heaven not only comes with one but two sets of bookends: a pair of blowjobs. Early on, the Mexican flag is hoisted into the air; later, when Marco’s fate has been sealed, the flag goes flaccid. Beyond these two scenes appears two recapitulations of the same oral sex scene. In one, Ana goes down on Marcos, his cock sheathed in a condom; in the second, no condom is involved, but the cock is clearly a prosthetic. To the very end, the film is committed to conveying a modern tragedy of personal and political negation through sexual pageantry.