Saturday, May 26, 2012


Like a Freudian dream where logic is nil and cryptic symbols await us on every sinuous narrative turn, Post Tenebras Lux [IMDb] is Carlos Reygadas' most personal film to date. Themes of banal family life, boyhood, soured innocence, sin and self-sacrifice color this visually sublime cinematic experiment, all shot in the Academy ratio (a la Andrea Arnold). I mean "sublime" in the Romantic-era sense of the expression, as the film—with its dreary, waterlogged landscape sequences, its fuzzy POV shots and high levels of aesthetic artifice—captures nature's ability to exhilarate us, and to terrify us.

The film resembles a kind of arthouse home movie, illuminating private family moments, from waking up in the morning to having dinner together at the table, through an autobiographical lens. Reygadas is known for his slow, dreamy films Silent Light (2007), Japón (2002) and Battle in Heaven (2005), and Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for "after darkness light") plays like a survey of all the Mexican director's works and fetishes.

It opens with a little girl discovering the world. Running through wet plains, she points to and names cows, horses, dogs and trees. This goes on for about five minutes until a thunderstorm bellows from above, and Reygadas moves us into a domestic interior. As his parents sleep, a little boy (presumably the girl's brother) is greeted by a cartoonish, anatomically correct, CGI-rendered devil, composed of a glowing red light. Carrying a briefcase, the devil enters, stands in the child's room and stares at him. The sheer surreality of this moment brings to mind Apichatpong Weerasethakul, whose Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010)—populated by talking red-eyed monkeys, ghosts and doppelgangers—snagged the Palme d'Or when Tim Burton was head of the jury.

But Reygadas is totally his own man, despite references to Tolstoy, philosophy and even his own childhood. Sonorous sound design, amplifying the rustle of leaves and mud and trickles of rain, paired with breathless visual style, make for a purely cinematic, expressionist experience.

Post Tenebras Lux has been derided by nearly every critic imaginable for its impossibly difficult (non)structure, its lack of linearity and its disjointed narrative that moves discursively from episode to episode. Reygadas will become fascinated with one thing (a criminal subplot, for example, that seems to be one of the film's turning points) and then will simply move onto another, abandoning that plot entirely.

If there's some bleary sense of a narrative here, it's the story of Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), a sex-starved patriarch who tries to do the very best for his family but ultimately lets his aggressions get the better of him. In one of the first scenes where we meet Juan, he beats one of his dogs to death, making it difficult to sympathize with this guy. His wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) is a beautiful, younger woman who lives with her husband and their two children (who we meet in the opening scenes) in an affluent home in some vacuum of space and time in the countryside of Mexico.

Like 2011 Palme d'Or winner The Tree of Life, to which Reygadas is (however unconsciously) indebted, Post Tenebras Lux shifts back and forth in time, undulating and expanding to create new wholes while gobbling others. We see Juan and Natalia's children grown-up, looking pensive on a beach or running around a family party where pseudo-intellectuals discuss Russian authors. We see, unrelatedly, a team of English boys playing rugby (this is the film's most impenetrable scene).

In a moment as kinky and strange as anything this side of Buñuel, Juan and Natalia take a vacation to some indiscriminate European bathhouse. Traveling from room to room in this steamy hothouse, Juan and Natalia look for rooms called "Duchamp" and "Hegel" before Natalia has sex with a stranger while her husband watches. All the while, as Natalia's body is penetrated, a naked woman cossets Natalia, holding her head like a mother and sweetly telling her, "Your body was made for this." This disturbing and (unintentionally?) hilarious scene is one of the film's most bizarre, but we can see Reygadas's mastery of mise-en-scène at play. The bathhouse, tinged with pinkish hues, swampy and steamy and filled with grotesque naked bodies, displays his ability to carve imaginative interior spaces as well as exteriors.

I'm always a sucker for experimental, non-narrative cinema. There were a few moments where I dozed off and would wake up, completely lost, wondering, "Where the hell are we?" But I soon realized this was exactly what Reygadas aimed to achieve: a defamiliarizing cinema of a phenomenal world where anything can happen. Even if Post Tenebras Lux is a bit trapped inside its designer's head, the film has burrowed its way into mine.

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This year at Cannes has been a great one for auteurs. I've been graced with works by Reygadas, Haneke, Kiarostami, Vinterberg, Audiard, Anderson and, finally, David Cronenberg. Bristling with energy, cold unfeeling and ideas, Cosmopolis [official site] is the Canadian director's best film since A History of Violence (2005), which also premiered at Cannes.

Adapted from Don DeLillo's 2003 novel of the same name, Cosmopolis is a heady plunge into a dystopian urban milieu of greed, corruption, technology, celebrity and nihilism. Robert Pattinson—who I had never actually seen in a film until now (yeah, I know)—channels Travis Bickle (Taxi Driver, 1976) in his performance as Eric Packer, a dissolute 28-year-old billionaire who needs a haircut. The film tracks Packer's descent into mania as he rides in the back of a stretch limo trying to get across town in Manhattan the same day the president has arrived. Inside the soundproof limo, all is quiet. On the outside, the world roars with chaos and anarchy. Protesters tout the words of Karl Marx ("a specter is haunting the world") and everyone seems to be out to get Eric.

Eric holds an indiscriminate position of power as someone who deals in money, betting on the rise and fall of international currencies while living a life of debauchery and lawlessness. He drinks exorbitant amounts of liquor, has casual sex ad infinitum and discards people like spittle. Inside the limo, he is greeted by an idiosyncratic cast of characters played by Jay Baruchel (the skinny, stuttering dweeb from Freaks and Geeks and other Judd Apatow worlds), Juliette Binoche, Samantha Morton and even, in a gleefully mad little cameo, Mathieu Amalric. In one of Croneberg's career-best scenes, the film ends in a prescient encounter with Paul Giamatti, whose presence always looms in the world outside.

Like Cronenberg's last film A Dangerous Method (2011), Cosmopolis is insanely talky, written in brainy dialogue delivered with stilted unease. It is truly a language movie, structured like James Joyce's Ulysses in a series of episodic encounters built on lines that bruise and provoke. "Life is too contemporary," Binoche's character tells Eric. And that seems to be the main idea of this film. The world around Eric hurtles forth at lightspeed, where even the word "computer" is archaic and technology is at everyone's disposal, and is the cause of their ruination. Though Eric rigidly abides by ideals and obsessions—he gets a medical check-up everyday, he wants to feel something more than sex and empty human connections, and he doesn't even need that haircut—he is, at bottom, a nihilist. He rejects social conventions, makes his own rules and inhabits his own kind of enclosed utopia in that decked-out stretch limo.

Cronenberg shoots in tight close-ups with a wide-lens, so everything, like Eric's asymmetrical prostate, always appears a little off-kilter. A director known for his explorations of the body's (per)mutations, and its inevitable emergence with non-corporeal forms of capital, commerce and technology, Cronenberg is at the top of his game, here. Bouncing off one another like charged molecules, the ideas here are so plentiful that a second viewing seems paramount.

Cosmopolis will not succeed in the mainstream because it is too talky and too cerebral. But those who go the film looking to get their rocks off staring at Pattinson, the dark, chiseled prince of the Twilight films, won't be disappointed. The actor, in a brooding performance as Eric, is sexy-as-hell. Even the way he wields a revolver is erotic. And those eyes—my God, those eyes!—they could reduce you to a puddle of submission with one glance.