Carlos Reygadas’ ‘Post Tenebras Lux’: decapitations, bad sex and mysterious demons

Carlos Reygadas, stubbornly avant garde Mexican director, discusses his challenging new film

Thu, Mar 21, 2013, 06:00

Skype is not always the greatest medium for conducting an interview. All those squillions of pixels can get in the way of intimacy. This evening, however, the technology seems perfectly appropriate.

As Carlos Reygadas, Mexican director of Post Tenebras Lux , blinks onto my screen, I suddenly realise that he is sitting within the set of that already notoriously puzzling film. Reygadas conceived the picture while building his house in the hills north of Mexico City. The finished work, featuring glimpses of his own children, was largely shot in the vicinity

“It was like writing a book,” he says in his immaculate English. “You write a book in your own house. My daughter, who was 18 months’ old, would complain. My wife would insist that it was time to eat. But it was a pleasure overall.” He gestures towards a window opening onto luminous Central American verdancy.

Reygadas had, long before the appearance of Post Tenebras Lux , already established a reputation for creative peculiarity.

A former lawyer, he first confused arthouse audiences with his creepy, rural drama Japón (not set in Japan) in 2002.

Three years later Battle in Heaven – noisy, surreal, sexually explicit – was even more confusing and confrontational. After embracing conventional narrative with the beautiful Silent Light in 2007, he now seems to have lurched back into total insanity. The new film played to gaping jaws at last year’s Cannes Film Festival.

“Reactions to the film are very evenly distributed – across class, religion, race. Some like it. Some don’t,” he says. “The only place there was a universal negative reaction was among journalists at Cannes. I think they are like hooligans. But, if you are a Manchester United hooligan, you maybe wear a T-shirt. They are hooligans in disguise.”

He can’t complain too much. The film did pick up the best director prize at that festival. It is true, however, that Post Tenebras Lux alienated many viewers. The film features some of the most stunning scenes in recent cinema: an opening sequence showing one of the Reygadas children adrift in a field; a demon wandering spookily through the house. But much of it follows the puzzlingly banal adventures of a nasty man who, about Carlos’s age, appears to live in Carlos’s home with Carlos’s children.

“Some people really feel the film,” he says. “They really connect. You can project your own personality onto it.”

You’d expect him to say that. What’s more surprising is that, for all the film’s meandering eccentricities, Reygadas claims to have a precise understanding of what goes where and why. You thought that the scene (no, really) featuring the English schoolboys playing rugby meant nothing? It does, in fact, indicate that among all the world’s catastrophes, “life is still going on elsewhere”. (It also nods to Reygadas’s own schooling in Derbyshire.)

What about the decision to shoot all the exterior scenes in narrow ratio with a lens that blurs dramatically at the edges? If cinemas still deigned to employ projectionists I would pity them.

“People say it’s ‘expressionistic’. That’s rubbish,” he says. “We installed this lens and accidentally discovered that we could get this double image. We wanted something that was different from the metallic digital image you see everywhere. If you want an image that looks like what you see with your eyes then don’t watch a film.”

Reygadas is a much more accommodating human being than you would anticipate after any immersion in his combinative films. Directors of high-end avant garde art tend to deflect any efforts to impose order on their work. Spend half an hour with Reygadas and his films gradually begin to make a kind of sense.

One could argue that his most peculiar decision was to invite connections between the film and his own home life. The protagonist bullies his wife and abuses an unfortunate dog. A sequence that could be a fantasy shows his wife in a sordid sex club. He can’t want Post Tenebras Lux to be seen as autobiographical. Can he?

“No. Not that way. But I have a connection with everything that happens. I haven’t seen anyone beheaded. I have never hit dogs like that. But I have heard about all these things. Ironically enough, it’s maybe my least personal film. The personal doesn’t reside in your house or even your children. It exists within you.”

Though controversial, Reygadas is now one of the world’s premiere directors of outré cinema. All four films have played at Cannes. Three have won major awards there. I hope he is regarded as an ornament of the Mexican nation.

“I am not that,” he laughs. “I think I am at the point where many people would like me to fall running and for the hyenas to get me. It might be different if I was in Hollywood making films with Brad Pitt.”

Well, now Sam Mendes has left the building, Sony needs a new director for the next James Bond film. Would he be interested? “Ha ha! That depends on the pay.”

The mind boggles.

Post Tenebras Lux is on limited release from Friday.