Carlos Reygadas' 2007 feature Silent Light was simultaneously the Mexican director's most accessible and most widely admired film yet, with many suggesting that he was showing signs of filmmaking maturity after starting his career with two portentous and provocative pictures. As if intentionally rebuking such claims, Reygadas' Post Tenebras Lux is his most obtuse and challenging work yet; a film that defies interpretation and will surely infuriate many viewers who were drawn to the director's previous effort. This non-linear, surrealist exploration of loosely connected incidents in the life of a Mexican family has been described by the director as "an expressionist painting" and your appreciation of the film may depend in large part on how much you get from the images he conjures. More often than not, I got very little aesthetic joy from this perplexing picture, which is a terrible shame, as the opening sequence is simply astonishing.
Shooting in Academy ratio, Reygadas opens his film with his own daughter Rut, following her has she runs happily through a muddy field, shouting the names of the cows and dogs that wander around her, and occasionally calling for her mother. It's a striking image of innocence and freedom, one that recalled the gloriously unlocked childhood images of last year's The Tree of Life, but as the scene progresses, night falls, and the toddler ends the scene shrouded in darkness as lightning flashes on the horizon. Throughout this attention-grabbing sequence, Reygadas utilises an unusual camera effect, which causes the edges of the frame to blur around a sharp central iris. Is this effect supposed to indicate a dream? A memory? A point of view? I continued to try and work out what lay behind this visual choice throughout Post Tenebras Lux, but never got close to an answer.
Answers are unforthcoming on a number of levels here. The camerawork, the motivations of the characters and the order of scenes all confound, even as the director's evident mastery occasionally breaks through to beguiling effect. The confrontational urge that defined Reygadas' first two films is on display in a horrible scene of violence committed against a dog and a long sequence set in a French (?) sauna frequented by glum-looking swingers, but these solemn moments sit side-by-side with a number of unexpectedly goofy touches. What are we to make of the horned red devil who wanders into a house carrying a toolbox? Or the man who commits suicide in the most ridiculous way imaginable? Or the two inexplicable scenes set during an English school rugby match? I would say that they feel out of place, but the film is so impenetrable in its structure I can't confidently argue against any of it. In a picture like Post Tenebras Lux, I guess anything goes.
Such complaints about logic and cohesion aren't necessarily enough to kill a movie for me. I've seen and loved enough films that don't entirely make sense, movies that operate on a dream logic rather than being tethered to conventional narrative, but something else about Post Tenebras Lux did get in the way. That out-of-focus border employed in the film's outdoor photography – a trick utilised in an apparently arbitrary manner – spoiled my enjoyment of the director's undeniable visual sense. The images captured by Alexis Zabe boast extraordinary clarity and richness of colour, but they feel hemmed in by the boxy aspect ratio and the self-defeating affectation that the director has imposed upon them. Reygadas is a director with considerable talent, but Post Tenebras Lux is an opaque, frustrating drag. The title translates as "After Darkness, Light," but following the glories of Reygadas' Silent Light, this film feels like a step in the opposite direction.