The word “art” within the context of cinema can sometimes be embarrassing to use. Much of the “cinema,” movies or film we consume is consumer-driven — well-calibrated, committee-made popcorn to entertain the masses. And indie films made by auteurs — cinema as recently defined by Steven Soderbergh (and arguably accepted by all) — are often artfully made, but still doggedly linear and narratively conventional. That’s OK, all forms of movies have their place in the world, and as Danny Boyle recently intimated, they are symbiotic — we need both forms, the blockbuster, the indie, the escapism and the esoteric. No arguments there, but “art,” like the term “genius” should be, in this writer’s opinion, sparingly used.
Which brings us to Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas‘ “Post Tenebras Lux,” a baffling, impressionistic and striking WTF whatsit about evil, sins and a psychological portrait of man in crisis (I think). Whether it’s good art or bad art, that’s completely subjective, but I would dare to call it some kind of wild, uneven, frustrating and confounding piece of art. Having read our review of the film at Cannes, I agree with the grade and many of the points made therein, but don’t share the same mild disdain towards the film as our writer did. There’s little point in reviewing it again, I think, so instead, I’ve decided to offer up what some might describe as a dumbed-down Coles Notes version of why I think this film, while uneven, is still worth checking out. If only because it’s bewitching and maddening mien has drilled its way into my psyche.
1. It’s directed by Carlos Reygadas.
To be slightly broad, if Terrence Malick and Lars Von Trier had a bastard offspring child he would be Carlos Reygadas. And that is to say the Mexican filmmaker is part provocateur (raw, uncomfortable sex or violent depictions of death are often seen within his films) and part seeker of the divine, the spiritual and the impressionistic image within nature. It’s a weird mix sometimes, but Reygadas’ films are both challenging and gorgeous to look at. His ravishing 2009 movie “Silent Light” is a stunning piece of visual work with tremendous emotional substance quivering inside. Roger Ebert named it one of the best movies of that year (“his story [is told] with a clarity and attention worthy of Bresson”) and it also ranked very high on our Best of 2008 list (its release date being a little bit fluid). Reygadas is one of those rare filmmakers who always has a premiere slot reserved for him at Cannes when he finishes a new film. In fact, “Post Tenebras Lux” won the Best Director prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, so that’s gotta say something too.
2. Hail Satan: The Devil’s inside for some late-night plumbing?
In a beguiling, odd scene, one of many WTF moments in “Post Tenebras Lux,” Satan himself shows up in the couple’s household, looking like a bright neon red Beelzebub silhouette that seems like he just stepped out Leos Carax’s “Holy Motors.” To step back a little, “Post Tenebras Lux” centers on an affluent family (husband, wife, two toddlers and many dogs and farm animals), who live in a remote part of Mexico and employ the help of many poor locals with tons of issues like addiction (class issues abound too). Satan enters their spacious domicile in the middle of the night with a toolbox. The handyman from hell? He even wakes up one of the children who watches him close a door behind him and do who knows what. Weird, eerie and even a little amusing. Does this abstractly tie into the themes of domestic crises? Can Satan repair the damage done?
3. There’s strange, kinky sex in it.
“Post Tenebras Lux” jumps around in time without explanation and with little linearity. And yet it’s not quite “dreamy” either. One moment you’re in one scene and in another you’re elsewhere, and it can be disorienting. The children are shown as much older in some scenes of the film, but most of the time they’re toddlers. Sex, or lack of it, is discussed often throughout, and then ‘PTL’ seemingly jumps forward to a time when the husband and wife — Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) and Nathalia (Nathalia Acevedo) — are seemingly experimenting with sex. In a large, labyrinth-like steam room/sex dungeon with dozens of people, the wife is laid down and fucked by strangers while a naked older lady holds her to her breast in a Pietà-like pose and comforts her while her husband and others look on. Depending on your kinky proclivities it’s either strangely hot (fetishists may enjoy) or just deeply unsettling. No judging!
4. It’s visually stunning and gorgeous to look at.
Reygadas began “Silent Light” with an unbelievably radiant shot: a tree in the middle of a field as the sunrise begins to bloom. Simple, a long shot that slowly unfolds over several minutes, but hypnotic and achingly beautiful. “Post Tenebras Lux,” which translates into “light after darkness” also begins with a stunning, jaw-droppingly gorgeous opening sequence. In a toddler’s dream, she is playing in a field by herself surrounded by their many dogs and also a pack of cows while lightning streaks across the sky and thunderclaps boom ominously in the background. Shot at the end of the magic hour, the light is magical and haunting; these dark pinks, blues and purples mutate with every spectrum of their respective section of the color wheel until it goes dark, and the scene — a child left alone after dusk — becomes disturbing (much of which you can see in one haunting version of the trailer below). Throughout, “Post Tenebras Lux,” shot by DP Alexis Zabe (“Silent Light,” Harmony Korine‘s short’s “Umshini Wam” and “Snowballs“), is alluringly lensed, and we’ve barely talked about the shimmering POV shots (that might be evil’s distorted perspective).
5. It will swirl around in your head for days.
As you can probably surmise, “Post Tenebras Lux” is a head-scratcher. It’s opaque and mysterious, but also mesmerizing and engagingly oblique, and as our review put it, “singularly strange.” “Post Tenebras Lux” isn’t for everyone, but there’s nothing really like it out there. It’s bewildering to the point of being utterly fascinating even though it’s off-putting at times (which is a bit of the Reygadas m.o.). The curious and adventurous, fans of things like “The Tree Of Life,” “Holy Motors,” “Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives” and “Upstream Color” should definitely give it a shot. As difficult as it can be, it’s memorable, near unforgettable and worth experiencing.
“Post Tenebras Lux” opens in limited release today.