Fearful Symmetries

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17 April, 2013

WFF '13: Post Tenebras Lux



Post Tenebras Lux, Latin for “After darkness, light”, will surely go down as the most divisive, if not most loathed, film of this year's Wisconsin Film Festival. Director Carlos Reygadas has constructed a surreal story that plays out like random scenes from a life rather than a linear tale that will surely alienate viewers looking for a linear tale.

The film opens with a small girl wandering a rain-soaked field with mountains in the background as dogs shepherd cows and horses around her. The scene plays out slowly with the sky darkening as night approaches and a thunderstorm rolls in. It was beautifully shot with a Steadicam (not unlike many scenes in Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life) with flowing pans and constant movement of camera and subjects. We then cut to a dimly lit door inside a modern house in a scene that resembles something from Paranormal Activitywith artificial lighting and a static camera. The door opens and a red glow enfolds the room as a tall, thin CGI figure enters the room. It has the head of a goat, cloven feet, and is naked with its male genitalia dangling between its legs. The figure carries a toolbox and wanders down a hall where a small boy sees it from his room before it disappears through a door across the hall.

We soon find out that the girl in the opening is the daughter of Juan and Natalia and that it was her dream. It is a lovely morning and she awakens her parents with her cries. Natalia rises from bed and we glimpse her beautiful before she dons a robe and attends to her daughter. We also find out that the boy who witnessed the spectral figure is their son. Juan is an architect and he has moved his family into a picturesque rural area of Mexico. In the scene their lives seem idyllic. Natalia plays with her daughter while Juan tickles his son and there is laughter all around. But soon a dark side of Juan is revealed when he mercilessly beats one of his dogs for a transgression which remains unknown and offscreen.

Juan and his relationship with Natalia ostensibly form the core of Post Tenebras Lux. We witness scenes from their lives that jump around in time and space. For instance, we see them when the kids are older at a fancy home where the family matriarch is holding court. In another scene the children are young again and the couple argues over sex. Natalia may have curves in all the right places but their sex life is apparently in shambles. Juan is passive-aggressive here moving from apology to more conflict in a split second. Later we suddenly find them at an anonymous bath house in Paris traversing rooms full of naked and wet (and mostly older) couples looking for the Duchamp room. Once they find it, Natalia disrobes and enjoys being fucked by a strange man while she is cradled in the arms of an older woman who is, again, a stranger.

When Juan and Natalia's dysfunctional marriage is not on display, we get glimpses of the other folks in the area. We see Juan admitting to a porn addiction at an AA meeting after others tell their own more tragic tales, for instance. At the meeting a man known as Seven gives a laundry list of the work he has done on Juan's house which highlights Juan's relative wealth. A tension is built here between Juan, who is lighter skinned, and the townspeople who are darker skinned. Later Juan catches Seven and a friend robbing his house and Seven ends up shooting him. This dose of social commentary gets lost, however, as we return to Juan and Natalia or other diversions such as the scenes of boys at an English school playing rugby and trees falling in the woods.

Post Tenebras Lux plays out in a dreamy expressionist way. The various scenes don't really tell a story in as much as they show human passions alight and suggest things about the characters. Some shots have their edges blurred lending a dream-like quality to them. We are told that the opening scene is a dream and perhaps the whole film is. It is surely fractured enough to be. While Juan is not a particularly likeable protagonist, the scenes with him and Natalia have a raw, brutal honesty to them. It is weird suddenly being transported to a sex club but there is also something tender about the pleasure Natalia takes in having sex with a stranger.

There is a scene where one of the men from town auto-decapitates which no doubt leaves audiences puzzled but it's the scene with the red goat-man figure that sticks with me. Is he a demon or Satan? Or perhaps he is Pan, the Greek god of wilderness and spring fertility, taking his tools into the marital bedroom to fix a broken relationship? Either view will work. Reygadas is not interested in presenting a definitive story with its own rules of cause and effect. Instead he is concerned here with giving his audience the raw material – shots of nature, human drama, passion, dreams, and the supernatural - to form its own story and its own interpretations.


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|| Palmer, 12:20 PM

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