When "Post Tenebras Lux" premiered at last year's Cannes Film Festival, it was mostly met with boos and pans, yet days later Carlos Reygadas won the festival's best director prize. It is that sort of polarized response to his work overall and "Post Tenebras Lux" in particular, that recently lead the critic Tony Rayns to refer to the Mexican filmmaker as "one of the most admired/hated figures in contemporary cinema."
Opening in Los Angeles on June 7, "Post Tenebras Lux" begins with a little girl running through a muddy field amid various animals, her wobble-legged enthusiasm unflagging even as the sun is dipping behind a mountain range. In the next scene, a devil-creature, flatly animated with glowing horns and dangling genitalia, carries a lunch pail as it seems to be returning home from a hard day at work.
From there the film continues as a stream of scenes that often feel disconnected one from the other, even as a fragmented narrative emerges of a man named Juan (Adolfo Jiménez Castro) who lives in a modern-rustic house nestled in the countryside with his wife, Natalia (Nathalia Acevedo), and two small children. Scenes seem to move back and forth through time, as the film seems to shift into the air of a deathbed reverie. There are images of a rugby match, a swingers' spa, conflicts with local workmen, Natalia plaintively singing Neil Young's "It's a Dream" and a man who tears his own head off his body.
"I accept the fact that certain people don't like the film and sometimes violently reject it," said Reygadas from his home in the countryside south of Mexico City. "It's totally OK. I just have to feel sure and feel satisfied with what I'm doing and be my own judge."
"Post Tenebras Lux" — the title is alternately translated as "After Darkness Light" or "Light After Darkness" — is Reygadas' fourth feature, all of which have played at Cannes. "Japón" (2002) and "Battle In Heaven" (2005) established him as a provocateur examining the clash of social class and tradition in contemporary Mexico. Then 2007's "Silent Light," set amid a Mennonite community, found him unexpectedly reaching for a graceful transcendence.
Reygadas, 41, came to filmmaking somewhat late in life, after a career as a lawyer working in Europe specializing in armed-conflict resolution. "I liked what I did very much, and at a certain point I just felt it was not my work I didn't like but the kind of life I lead," he said. "I didn't want to go to an office from Monday to Friday, dressing in a suit and a tie. It is something as banal as that, but in the end it's your life, what you do every day."
Reygadas has carved out his own unique space within Mexican film culture and the broader international scene. He is teaching at a film school run by the equally challenging Hungarian director Bela Tarr in Sarajevo.
"On one level he stands apart from contemporary Mexican cinema. But he's also working within a thematic tradition that's been part of Mexican cinema since at least the 1930s," said Colin Gunckel, assistant professor in the department of screen arts and cultures at the University of Michigan. "He deals fundamentally with these discrepancies and contradictions within Mexican culture, issues of class, race, urban versus rural, indigenous versus European or U.S. influences. All these things align thematically even as aesthetically he is definitely apart from that."
"Post Tenebras Lux" may be his most formally bold and varied film yet. Building from a style he developed for the 2010 short film "This Is My Kingdom," Reygadas shot two party scenes for "Lux" with multiple cameras, recording whatever woozy goings-on he could. (Those sequences were shot digitally; the rest of "Lux" was shot on 35-millimeter.) He also used a special lens to give a strange effect to the edges of the frame for many scenes, a response he said to the "crispy and cold" look of much contemporary digital photography.
Reygadas prefers to think of cinema as "not an art of representation, it's an art of presence," using reality to capture the essence of things even within a fiction. To that end the house in the movie is his own house — during a recent Skype call, he moved his camera to give a better view of the strangely familiar room — the children in the movie are his two children and his wife is named Natalia. (Natalia López edited the movie, as she did "Silent Light.")
Yet while some critics have complained this makes the film inscrutable, Reygadas doesn't see it that way. He believes audiences don't need to know any of the reality/fiction intersections to engage with the film.
"I actually would prefer people didn't know that, I just cannot hide it," he said. "But that's not what matters. For me, the thing is the film itself. I think whatever is really personal resides in yourself, it doesn't exist in your underwear or in your bedroom. That is a bourgeois superficial approach to intimacy."
Even as he declares "Silent Light" a more personal film, he also acknowledges that "Post Tenebras Lux" is a film rife with conflict familiar to him. As someone infused with global cultural influences while invested in Mexican identity, he himself must deal with daily tensions of gender, class and family that make a man want to pull his hair out or even rip his head straight off.
"It's clear that I am, disregarding my opinion," he said with a mix of good-natured humor and rueful self-examination, "the typical dissatisfied Western male."