Post Tenebras Lux (meaning ‘light after darkness’) is a film so far removed from the conventions of narrative cinema that building a review of it requires a whole different set of parameters. A new lexicon is required. How do you talk about pacing in a film which all but refuses to show an intended direction? How do you assess performances given by the filmmaker’s own children, mere toddlers? When half the film takes place in a soporific calm involving practically no action whatsoever, how do you discuss screenwriting? Carlos Reygadas’ latest work (the first of his I’ve seen) is unlike anything else you’ll see this year, if you’ve got the time for it.
So what can be said? Well, Post Tenebras Lux is best approached as a series of connected vignettes. Loosely, there is a story here, as we frequently touch base with a Mexican family living in a rustic bourgeois house nestled in some truly awe-inspiring countryside. Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) have two children and are experiencing some marital difficulties. Natalia is chilled by her husband’s brutish tendencies. Juan is frustrated by his wife’s apparent detachment from him. They both show clear love for their children, yet there is a bleakness to their unity. A sense of entropy.
We observe them in some very naturalistic settings – attending a larger family gathering, going on a day trip to the beach – and during these scenes Reygadas adopts a documentary filmmaker’s eye. There’s no denying it, these sections are only as interesting as the viewer makes them, and for many they will prove too aimless to sit through. However – and this is a vital caveat – they are juxtaposed by some hallucinatory sequences that are by turns utterly inexplicable and genuinely stunning.
For example a trip to a sauna quickly reveals itself to be a hotbed for swingers. Juan and Natalia observe group sex acts with a number of overweight and naked men before Natalia herself is caught up in one. What lingers however is how sensual and tender this encounter becomes; Natalia surrenders to physical intimacy in the arms of an old woman who comforts her through an orgasm. Elsewhere, an animated devil prowls their house by night, illuminating the walls with its silent, foreboding glow. In an awe-inspiring scene at the very top of the picture, their daughter Rut wanders alone in a field of cattle and goats as a thunderstorm erupts. The scene descends into darkness, the young girl caught only in silhouette against lightning flashes, haloed by thunderclaps. The atmosphere is electric. Nature’s presence is palpable. It is here that Post Tenebras Lux casts its spell.
All of this is viewed in 1:33 and, at it’s most striking, is filmed through a lens which distorts the image as though you’re looking through the bottom of a glass – anything caught in the centre of the frame becomes razor-sharp, but things blur out toward the edges, where images tend to double. This may sound gimmicky, but it has a remarkable effect and, as Reygadas’ camera moves, it’s like watching a film in 3D without the need for glasses. It bestows upon the film a dreamlike quality, which, along with the purposefully unhurried mood, sets a zen-like pulse to proceedings. Like Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, this is a film set to a different beat entirely.
Which would be entirely magical if it worked all the time. Unfortunately it doesn’t, rendering some stretches of the film listless to the point of distraction. So slight are some of the scenes that you’ll wonder if this isn’t all some joke at the viewer’s expense. At its worst, the film feels simply inexcusable. A waste of time. Yet whilst the film’s ‘narrative’ is small enough to write on the back of a napkin, the topics touched upon here are legion. Family, sin, social class, the environment – all these and more are caught in Reygadas’ wandering eye. Dogs prowl scenes frequently, and are commonly mistreated. Reygadas seems to be likening them to the underclass who serve Juan and his family. It’s an uncomfortable visual metaphor. And just as an abused pet will bite the hand of its cruel master, so too are Juan and Natalia victimised by those they take for granted.
But just when the film finally bows to the pressures of dramatic storytelling, it wrong-foots the viewer once again, switching perspectives away from Juan and his family, risking the removal of any sense of closure. A tragedy unhooks the film from convention before closing out on a head-popping moment of rainbow-coloured catharsis. That description may sound all-but-meaningless but the effect of these scenes is almost profound. It really is something you have to see to appreciate, as long as the film’s more mundane aspects don’t humble you first.
Post Tenebras Lux lands squarely in the box labelled ‘art’ then, and for many it will simply be written off as pretentious folly. That would do the film a great disservice. It’s as pretentious as a poem or a sunrise. Like all truly effective art, it exists to make you ruminate, to reflect, to probe further in your own time. It opens up doors and channels. The satisfaction felt during the experience is one level, the avenues provoked afterward are another. It will reward whatever time you are prepared to give it.
These words are being set down not long after seeing it, and already I can sense that I will look back on Post Tenebras Lux with more fondness than I actually felt watching it, because it’s designed to haunt you. Like a devil creeping about the house in the dark when you’re asleep, Reygadas’ film is here to preoccupy you on an almost subliminal level long after the waking world is blurred out at the edges. For this as well as for some astonishing visual poetry I recommend the film, but it (sadly) more or less defines the term ‘niche viewing’.