Mexican director Carlos Reygadas begins Post Tenebras Lux (Latin for After Darkness Light) with a stunning sequence in which a toddler (the director's daughter Rut) wanders through a field in which cows graze, dogs run wild and donkeys trot through wet grass. The rumble of thunder evokes thoughts of distant cannons. A storm seems to be brewing, and we fear for the tiny girl who is on the verge of learning to speak, and says only simple words: "Cow." "Mommy." "Daddy."
Adults are nowhere to be found in these images, and the sequence concludes in darkness broken only by sharp flashes of lightning.
As such a sequence suggests, Reygadas (Japon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light) doesn't make filmmaking easy for an audience. Although Post Tenebras Lux tells a story of sorts, it also dances away from the linear imperatives of narrative cinema.
Consider: In a scene following the opening, a red devil -- an animated figure -- enters a home carrying a tool box. The image of this wandering devil recurs later in the film, casting a strange shadow over scenes that are arranged in ways that don't always seem to connect. Reygadas forces us constantly to reorient ourselves, to keep resetting our relationship to this strange and sometimes baffling film.
Clearly, a Reygadas film is not for every taste, and even those with an appreciation for adventurous filmmaking may find themselves taxed by Reygadas's cinema of disorientation.
The movie does, however, have a focus. Juan (Adolfo Jimenez Castro) is an architect who lives in an isolated rural home in Mexico with his wife Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) and his daughter (Rut Reygadas of the opening sequence) and young son (Eleazar Reygadas, also the director's child).
Tender and obviously loving with his kids, Juan nonetheless has a brutal side. Early in the film, he vents his anger on one of his dogs, administering a severe beating that's almost unwatchable, even though Reygadas doesn't show us the suffering animal. He focuses more on Juan's raging face and flying fists than on his canine victim.
Given Juan's mercurial temperament, it's hardly surprising that something's wrong in the marriage between Juan and Natalia, who are shown at various times of their lives and during a visit (which may not be real) to a European sex club where they wander through naked steam bathers en route to the Duchamp Room.
There, Juan watches as Natalia has sex with a stranger while resting her head on the lap of an older woman with mountainous breasts.
Talking about films as dreams can be a critical dodge, a way of trying not to engage a movie's substance. In a way, though, Post Tenebras Lux is like one sustained dream sequence with Reygadas offering few clues to help us differentiate between what might be real and what might be fantasy. And when we come down on the side of fantasy, we may not be sure exactly whose fantasies we're watching?
At first blush, most of Reygadas's images appear to be entirely naturalistic, but he blurs the edges of many of those images so that they become embedded expressions of the conflict between what's clear and what's distorted.
And, yes, you'll initially wonder whether what you're seeing is the result of faulty projection or artistic intention. Look, there's simply no way to accept a film as entirely realistic when it includes a shocking image of a man tearing off his own head.
Elements of class conflict percolate throughout the film. Educated and even sophisticated, Juan -- who grew up in wealthy Cuernavaca -- forms loose associations with the poor Mexicans with whom he shares the rural countryside. These characters seem to have nicknames -- Seven, for example -- and it's this mingling of classes that leads to Juan's doom. At times, Juan exchanges intimacies with his neighbors; at other times, he treats them as inferiors.
I've read that many elements in the film are personal to Reygadas. That's one explanation for the rugby scene that concludes the film. Reygadas attended school in Britain. A British rugby scene in a movie about a Mexican marriage? Yes -- and without apologies, perhaps because some of the tension that rumbles through Post Tenebras Lux stems from Juan's roiling sense of his own masculinity. Juan could be one of those young rugby players.
Post Tenebras Lux may not rank with Reygadas's widely acclaimed Silent Light, which took place in a Mexican Mennonite community, and those who care about such things, should know that Post Tenebras Lux was roundly booed at the 2012 edition of the Cannes Film Festival.
But if you're interested in directors with genuine artistic vision, no Reygadas work should be ignored.
At one point, Natalia sings her version of Neil Young's It's a Dream to her bedridden husband. The last line of Young's refrain ("Just a memory without anywhere to stay") might make a fitting summary of Reygadas's tonally challenging film, which can be confusing, but which also provokes and disturbs. From its first deeply mysterious and unsettling images, Post Tenebras Lux declares itself as the work of a difficult but remarkable talent.