The title of Carlos Reygadas’ fourth feature film, Post Tenebras Lux, means “light after darkness” in Latin – and unwittingly, it perhaps alludes to the polarised reaction it has received since its premiere at last year’s Cannes. Met, at its first screening, with the absurd chorus of boos that spoilt Cannes audiences often like to dole out, it went on to win Best Director Award for Reygadas, and opinions continue to diverge sharply. As with his earlier efforts, Reygadas’ approach – artful, unhurried, often bafflingly aloof – has delighted and infuriated.
There’s much to compare here with Terrence Malick, that other Cannes darling, in the reverence and quiet esteem it gives to the natural world, and our relationship with it. Like Malick, Reygadas presents ideas slowly, thoughtfully and with an impassive precision. Minutes pass without any dialogue or notable action. Yet despite the occasional surreal interlude – seemingly irrelevant vignettes of an English rugby club are particularly perplexing – there is, at its core, a fairly conventional narrative, of a marriage faltering and a father grappling with his own morality.
The opening sequence, it should be noted, has received universal praise. The first shot is of an infant girl, seemingly alone in a field, with a gaggle of dogs, horses and cows nearby. A brilliant pink sky is reflected in puddles. The girl splashes about merrily, calling out to the animals, but then the sky darkens, and a lightning storm erupts overhead. The girl calls out for her mother, but her calls are not met. She starts to cry. There’s something immensely powerful about this dazzling melding of imagery, and it hits you elementally: the raw power of nature, both beautiful and terrifying, set against the vulnerability of childhood. It’s unfortunate that this mesmerising visual overture promises a little more than the rest of the film can deliver.
Reygadas has likened Post Tenebras Lux to an impressionist painting, and this makes sense: generally, this film is ethereal rather than tangible. We glimpse at strange, transient segments of human activity, but our impression is only a feeling, not a rounded understanding. Throughout the film, there’s an odd blurring effect around the edges of the frame, which emphasises the dreamlike concept, as if the whole film is told in a feverish flashback.
But where it is visually vigorous, its content is practically impenetrable. Reygadas respects his audience enough to offer questions rather than answers, but certain sequences (an animated devil figure; an orgy with sweaty unrelated characters; a jaw-dropping moment of self-mutilation; the aforementioned rugby match) are oblique and obfuscating. Conversely, the cinematic tip-offs are sometimes too heavy handed by half (the film ends on young rugby player extolling the virtues of teamwork). Like a dream, Post Tenebras Lux is a hypnotic whirlwind: confusing and inconsistent, but destined to haunt your mind.