The glorious opening sequence of Carlos Reygadas's Post Tenebras Lux succinctly captures all the themes and wonderment the rest of the movie explores in further detail. A toddler stands in a meadow during a thunderstorm. Horses and a pack of dogs run in and out of frame. She is both enthralled by the enchantment of the setup and yet it could easily turn sinister, even violent.
This is a film – an opus of cinematic art – that explores, to various extents, the function of anxiety in waking life and dreams. One might declare it riddled with fear and hesitation. Yet simultaneously, it is intrigued and worried by these tumultuous emotions. Fear and desire, twin engines of angst, propel Post Tenebras Lux.
The much commented upon use of a distorted lens, used in exterior scenes, that causes a blurring and ripple effect on the edges of the frame, lends the film a spectral beauty and is an inventive depiction of the representation of memory and its fogginess. Despite certain harsh qualities and mystery of scenes, there’s a softness and intimacy too. Like looking through a photograph album but not necessarily in the correct, chronological order.
The husband, Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro), is presented as both brutish and loving. He is also entirely self-aware of his emotional problems. A solid criticism to level at the movie is this: ‘Do we really need another film about male anxiety?’ One longs for a sequel to Post Tenebras Lux – to form a diptych – told from the point of view of the mother and wife.
Do Juan and Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo) visit a sex club or is it the projection of the husband’s fantasy? Juan mentions an addiction to internet porn and we might leap to the conclusion he has imagined the episode as part of his inner erotic yearnings. Do we judge him as a pervert or attempt to understand his sexual frustration, even recognise it in ourselves? The closeness might well frighten those of a nervous disposition. In another scene, he badgers his wife about performing anal sex. She demurs, leading to an argument and childish accusations by Juan. You cannot turn real life relationships into the highly stylised and often lurid porno fantasia. Would he really want this, anyway? The power of desire is stronger than the angst of fulfilment. Perhaps, though, the scene is literal and that explains better the hesitation and nerves.
To shadow, rather than counter Juan, Reygadas offers a subplot involving a peasant the middle-class newcomer has befriended. A short sequence, in the village, shows how Juan is seemingly oblivious to Natalia’s unease at mingling with the locals, suggesting she is less comfortable with their new social arrangement, and even a bit of a snob. The peasant has problems with his own life and family relationships leading to one of the most brilliantly staged representations of existential frustration and horror ever put on film.
Post Tenebras Lux is a beguiling, richly thematic work of cinema and confirms Carlos Reygadas as a modern master of the medium. He has captured something truly remarkable here.