Home Video Hovel: Post Tenebras Lux, by Aaron Pinkston
Most films given the dreaded “non-narrative” label fall into one of two camps: films that don’t tie themselves to characters or films that don’t have a particular sense of time and/or space. Post Tenebras Lux is a slightly different type of non-narrative film, as it has a set character focus in a definable time and place. Each scene in the film, however, doesn’t quite stand in relation to the rest of the film — not in a puzzle looking to be solved sort of way, but the narrative simply can’t be tied together. Few scenes in the film are without plot or experimental, but the film as a whole has an irregular feel that is bound to divide most viewers. Because of its nature, Post Tenebras Lux is a film bound to be hated or forgotten about by many of its viewers. Others, like myself, will be intoxicated through the struggle.
If you see any synopsis, the film seems pretty straightforward, but that’s a bit misleading. If you read the synopsis after seeing the film you will find everything in your recollection of the film, but you wouldn’t necessarily extract it while viewing. This is either a strength of the film or a major weakness, depending on your personal experience with the film — it’s either too narrative opaque and lacking of key narrative moments or it expresses a story through a tone without needing exposition. Boiled down, Post Tenebras Lux looks into the lives of a family of four (mother, father, young son and daughter) who live in the Mexican countryside. We see them interact with each other and the outside world, which is cruel and dehumanizing. The film has an interesting way of teaching us about this family, as I think we end up having a good sense of them as people without a lot of your normal necessary filler. On multiple occasions we are taken through entire scenes that seems superfluous at first, with characters and situations we don’t recognize, only to reveal our main characters there. This is a particularly innovative narrative trick that gives us a fuller spectrum of these people’s lives without prodding into them.
Director Carlos Reygadas was given the top director prize at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, even as his film was mostly panned by the audience. It was a well-deserved honor. There are a number of narrative and stylistic choices that Reygadas makes to set apart the film — many could instantly rub viewers the wrong way if they aren’t in with the film, though they are surprising and vital throughout. Narratively, Reygadas seems to have a strong hold on the film despite its wandering nature. There is a prominent stream-of-consciousness, but not from the character’s but of the director. One prominent stylistic decision is the use of a “fish-eye” like lens which gives an effect around the edges of the frame, bowing out the perimeter. Though the effect doesn’t have much of a meaning on the surface, and while it is used consistently throughout the film, its effect seems to change depending on the action of the scene. At most times it has a cloudy/dreamy feel, but it also enhances the inherent beauty of the Mexican landscapes or emphasises the menacing undertones with a doubling effect.
Throughout the film the idyllic natural setting is undercut and broken up by the film’s narrative and style. Early in the film, when we are first introduced to our couple, we peek in on a tender moment between the father and his children. In the very next scene we see this same man viciously beat his dog for no real discernible reason. With the edges of the frame blurred, much of the beautiful setting is out-of-sorts. Typically a filmmaker would want us to get lost in the landscapes, but it is literally difficult to focus on it here.
Post Tenebras Lux is a challenging film, sure, but its radical sensibilities are actually fun to digest. It mixes the narrative with the non-narrative, leaves the viewer to connect the dots without being overly confusing or difficult. Reygadas should be the main draw, though, as his style is bold without being oppressive and unique throughout. He is able to do little things with the frame that become magnified given the plot or tone of a particular scene. I can sympathize why someone wouldn’t connect with the film (even with the things I’ve highlighted here, it isn’t a particularly warm film), but I found it to be engrossing in its odd nature.