Director: Carlos Reygadas
Stars: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia López, Rut Reygadas
There are personal cinematic landmarks that one collects without even realising. A key one for me was in the spring of 2013.
Picturehouse Cinemas run an on-again, off-again strand called Discover Tuesday, showcasing features from around the world that, for whatever reason, exist outside of the mainstream and can’t quite guarantee a return on an entire week’s run. Carlos Reygadas’ last film – the unique tone poem Post Tenebras Lux – was one of these titles. An atmospheric and dreamlike treaty on Mexican class divides and a marriage in crisis, its vivid visual language impressed upon me the transcendent possibilities of cinema. It confused, beguiled and haunted me. I loved it and it went on to become one of my favourite films of the decade.
Now, some six years later, I come to Reygadas’ follow-up; watched over the course of three hours hunched over my smart phone, having rented it on Curzon Home Cinema; an experienced defined by mild hand cramp and near constant fidgeting to find a part-way comfortable position. How the fuck do people watch movies like this?? To say that this is not the optimal way to view a film is putting it mildly. But the cinematic release of Our Time is even more selective than the one rolled out for Post Tenebras Lux and if this was to be my only recourse, so be it.
It is a credit to Reygadas, then, that even under the constraints of such diminishments, his work still shimmers. Where Post Tenebras Lux boxed up the vistas of Mexico in the classic 1.37:1 aspect ratio, Our Time expands out at the edges, showing off the country’s vast plains in 2.39:1, bringing to mind myriad classic Westerns as well as the golden hour swoon of Terrence Malick’s Days Of Heaven.
Set primarily on a ranch owned by esteemed poet Juan (Reygadas himself), Our Time finds the director in a comparatively more traditional and approachable state of mind than we last found him in, but no less able to poke and pry at the constraints of orthodox narrative cinema.
Our Time again depicts a marriage in crisis. Where previously Reygadas had other actors take centre stage as his proxies, here he casts not only himself, but his wife and editor IRL – Natalia López – to play Juan’s partner Ester. Juan and Ester have a tacit agreement; an open marriage built on trust, respect and love. But when Ester starts a fling with an associate of Juan’s without talking it over first, Juan becomes increasingly obsessive, inserting himself ineffectually between the lovers and taking on the role of the exasperated cuckold.
With Reygadas and López’s real life children also starring as the couple’s own kids, there’s an overwhelming urge to treat Our Time as some kind of perverse exercise or autobiographical confessional, but the truth is that however much this scenario resembles Reygadas’ own life is neither here nor there. What’s presented is a languidly paced inquiry into the dynamics that play between men and women, one that picks apart the qualities that are valued, and the qualities that are perceived as open to trade and compromise.
Juan is a bit of a wretch. Though he opines his love for Ester, he (and the film) frequently reduce her to a sexual cipher, wherein her body becomes a commodity to be jostled over. He’s also a viper’s nest of contradictions; at once jealous of Ester’s affairs and ever-ready to instigate them so he can attempt to spy on her. It’s all a part of his own narcissism, and being able to play the martyr only feeds into this further. Ester herself, meanwhile, is attempting to break out of her own cocoon and transition into her next stage of being. One of the film’s highlights finds Ester reading out her own written thoughts on this matter as Reygadas’ camera sweeps over Mexican cityscapes. Despite the densely populated ant farms drifting by below, Reygadas makes us feel as though these characters are the only people really left in the world.
Ester feels as though her development is being smothered by Juan, and as he continues to test boundaries, the film gradually moves toward an apex of exasperation and strife, culminating in an unexpectedly poignant and quiet cathartic release. Yet Our Time is so patiently paced, so calmly graceful, that this family drama never really feels too oppressive.
The film opens with children playing in a pond on inflatables and then shows us a gathering of teens, including a young couple who sneak off for a sexual tryst. These inexperienced youngsters are explored by Reygadas’ camera like newly discovered terrains, as yet unmapped, and their hesitancy with one another speaks of nervousness over such uncharted territories. The near 3 hours that follow show us, perhaps, that the complexities of sex never really come into sharp focus with the passing of years, and that young and old alike we are all still fumbling our way messily through our urges and emotions.
I’d have loved to have seen Our Time in a cinema, where it could envelope and surround me but, even though I didn’t, it still managed to prickle and preoccupy my senses.