Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Lux Can Be Deceiving - Post Tenebras Lux Review

Forming a stable opinion of controversial Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas' latest, Post Tenebras Lux, is rather like trying to nullify the effects of an optical illusion: Every time one attempts to fix the picture in one's mind, it has already shifted. It is maddening and mesmerising in equal measure, and endlessly elusive.

Let's just try starting with what it's all about. Easier said than done: Set in rural Mexico, at its core it's the extremely low-key story of a wealthy, middle-class family living in luxury amidst the poverty-stricken locals, many of whom work as their employees and house staff. The father develops a friendship of sorts with one of the men, albeit one never exempt from the possibility of mutual exploitation and duplicity. Eventually, inevitably (for a film examining socio-economic tensions), it ends in ignominious catastrophe.

Or is it the story of a marriage? Although Reygadas localizes most of the film's duration to a period in time when the wealthy couple, Juan and Nathalia, are raising toddlers, he jumps backwards and forwards to show the trajectory of their relationship. In one sequence, we witness them seemingly attempting to spice up their love life by visiting a bizarre bathhouse-cum-swinger's club, where they indulge in the most solemn onscreen orgy since the one staged in Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut.

And then again, it could be an evocation of life from the perspective of a child. Many of the most memorable scenes track the vivid experiences of Juan and Nathalia's two young children. At the beginning, we see their daughter, Rut, alone in a water-logged field surrounded by a strange menagerie of dogs, cows, and donkeys. Although the girl is delighted by the intensity of the animals' wild behaviour, the mood becomes increasingly threatening as the beasts' fight with one another before the sky darkens towards night and a thunderstorm breaks out.

At other points, the son, Eleazar, is shown to be the only one aware of the night-time visitations made by a glowing-red devil with a briefcase, whilst the rest of his family sleeps. Reygadas' strategy seems reminiscent of Blake's Songs of Innocence and Experience in the way that it presents a child's point of view as a means of approaching an unmediated, culturally uninhibited understanding of the world and all of its hidden, metaphysical secrets.   

If there is a narrative as such, it doesn't unfold in linear time, but in space, with each new perspective - parents', workers', children's - adding a new and unexpected room to what increasingly comes to resemble a form of cinematic architecture. By exploding and then reconstituting materials that might have gone to make up a more conventional drama, Reygadas is either merely trying to imbue the film with a touch of avant-garde prestige, or illuminate the stuff of dull domestic lives and class division in fresh and insightful ways. It seems to me that Reygadas' formalist ambition is to make us see like the aforementioned children - to look past the assumptions bred by familiarity and suddenly be confronted with the beauty and the horror of life, even at its most mundane. 

Visionary filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky once said that it was his ambition to make a film that would feel as if it had existed before anybody started to watch and would continue long after anyone remained. Lux has that same quality - and I don't just mean because it's likely many auditoriums will empty out before the movie has run its course. At its best moments, it does have the thrilling atmosphere of a self-contained universe to which we have been granted a brief and privileged point of access. 

The ultimate 'message' of Lux, if that's what you want to call it, could be that violence and brutality are so ubiquitous that they in fact constitute life itself: The white-collar devil and its dwelling place in the home of the middle-class family might symbolise how their comfortable, exclusive lifestyle is contingent upon the dirty work silently carried out by a corrupt social and political system. The husband, Juan, can only articulate his love for his wife through his control of her sexuality, informing her over the washing-up that he is going to fuck her in the ass, and giving her over to the sexual attention of other men. And the scenes of a rugby match at an English boarding school show boys being trained to embrace the heady thrill of violence during even innocent pastimes.

It's a disturbing truth, and Reygadas fixates upon it with what could be considered a case of self-indulgent, sometimes tedious monomania and simplistic cynicism. But Lux is less interested in questioning societal norms than in challenging viewers to reassess the way they typically receive screen stories, and leaving them with the disorientating experience of an eccentric alternative model for cinema.