It's rare that I'm in the Mr. Jones position.
You know when you are Mr. Jones, right? As Bob Dylan put it at the height of the everything-is-changing late 1960s, you are Mr. Jones when you “know something is happening, but you don't know what it is.”
Carlos Reygadas' unconventional new film Post Tenebras Lux is certainly one that is successful on its own terms, I just can't say that this is something that resonates with me. Unlike other “arty” (for lack of a better term) films that try to get at the essence of a feeling in non-traditional ways, this one lacks the wit of knowable characters that draw me in.
That last statement ought to cause some cineastes to tug madly at their goatees. Post Tenebras Lux has some jaw-droppingly beautiful scenes, and frequently this is enough to do the trick. The film's photography in natural settings, like the beach at magic hour or a large rugby field surrounded by lush green mountains before and after a thunderstorm, is striking. It's just that between each of these are a number of (dare I have the guts to say it?) dull interiors of uninteresting characters just emoting at each other.
The story – and there's only a whiff of a narrative – is about Juan and Nathalia, a wealthy Mexican couple living in retreat somewhere in the sticks. They are there because he is in some sort of recovery. We don't know exactly what for. It may just be “the horrors of modern living.” (He says something about too much Internet porn.) Whatever it is it, the change of scenery isn't quite working because in an early scene he beats the shit out of a dog for no reason. Juan is visited by demons, and this isn't entirely euphemism – a flatly rendered CG devil (with an enormous Mephistophelean wang) clutching a toolbox creeps around the house at night.
The best scene – and I'm not just saying this because I am a devious pervert – takes place at a French swingers club. It may be a flashback, it may be a dream, but there's an awful lot of group sex in steamy rooms with dramatic lighting. Our couple makes their way to the “Duchamp Room” (just through the “Hegel Room”) where Juan watches as Nathalia is duly and consensually boned by a series of men, held in the lap of an older woman like some pornographic pieta.
The film is framed by two scenes of a British schoolboy's rugby team – first in pre-game psyche-up, then during the game itself. Since I refuse to believe it is there “just for the hell of it,” I'll go with the theory that it is about the strength of unity juxtaposed with a family that is in danger of falling apart.
There is sadness in Juan and Nathalia's home, but also hope. Their two loud and energetic children are pretty damn cute, as well as a refreshing, realistic take on parenting. The wee moppets are constantly on the go, running and jumping, and while this is photogenic (the film's prologue is a wonderful short film unto itself of the daughter frolicking with animals in nature) it is, in real life, extremely exhausting for the parents.
Post Tenebras Lux, Latin for “after darkness, light,” is presented in Academy ratio – a giant square. Also, most of the exterior sequences have this odd vignetting effect, something like a tunnel-vision, where there is a ring around the image that is out of focus. If a person walks across the frame at a certain point he'll appear in double or even triple exposure for a flash. (The effect is like looking through an extremely old window, but perfectly cropped-off.)
It looks cool, I suppose, but any “reason” I could give would just be a shot in the dark. Nor can I explain why the scene of Nathalia sitting at her piano and singing a Neil Young song so out of tune is such an effective melancholy moment. Because, I'll be frank, nothing in the “acting” scenes did anything to touch me.
I'm not going to flat out reject Post Tenebras Lux but I can't lie and say I loved it. I suppose it is better to at least recognize that “something's happening here” than to dismiss it as yet another case of the Emperor’s New Clothes. There is certainly a story and experience waiting to be decoded in the mood and the haze of this film. (Lots of shots of trees, by the way.) I am frequently ready, willing and able to put that effort in when the film is chumming the water along the way. Unfortunately, there isn't quite enough reward in the journey on this one. Despite a handful of splendid moments, it doesn't quite succeed for me as a surface experience either.