Well, the honeymoon was bound to end eventually. And I kinda suspected that the big disappointment might turn out to be my most anticipated film of the festival: Post tenebras lux,Carlos Reygadas’ follow-up to the sublime Silent Light (which won a Jury Prize here in 2007). Reygadas has never been afraid to go for the grandiose, opening him up to charges of pretension; I found his first two features, Japón and Battle in Heaven, painfully self-conscious in their determination to provoke, but Silent Light seemed like a giant leap forward into—as much as I hate this word when applied to artists—maturity. With Post tenebras lux (a Latin phrase meaning “After darkness, light”), he continually veers back and forth between the magnificently evocative and the willfully obscure, with the latter ultimately prevailing. Should someone come up with a coherent interpretation—one that makes sense of seemingly random elements like sudden cuts from the Mexican countryside to British schoolkids playing rugby, or a character who suddenly pulls off his own head as if he were in a Takashi Miike film—my opinion might change dramatically. Unlike Like Someone in Love, this film baffled me but rarely bored me.
Describing it for you is problematic, as nothing exactly “happens.” The opening sequences are flat-out astonishing: In the first, a two- or-three-year-old girl wanders gleefully alone in a field among cows and large dogs as a thunderstorm moves in; in the second, a quiet house at night has a visitor in the form of an animated demon composed entirely of bright red light, moving silently though the rooms carrying a (non-animated) toolbox. We then meet the occupants of the house, a family of four (including the little girl from the opening), and observe them over an indeterminate period that at one point definitely leaps well into the future (the two kids are now teenagers) and at another seems to have drifted into the past (as Mom and Dad take part in a weirdly solemn swingers’ orgy, moving through the “Hegel Room” into the “Duchamp Room”—that’s like a KICK ME sign, Carlos). Most indoor scenes are mundane domestic drama; all outdoor scenes are shot employing a strange effect in which the frame is sharp at the center but goes blurry in a circle around the edges, with multiple exposures occurring across the border area. The toolbox demon reappears at the end but just walks around again, offering no further insight into his presence or agenda. At no point does a definable narrative of any kind emerge, though somebody dies.
Obviously, a film like this is what it is, and there’s no real point in complaining that it doesn’t make sense or fulfill expectations. Whether you roll with it will depend largely on how entranced you are by its surface, and on that score my own reaction was decisively mixed. Reygadas opted to shoot in the squarish Academy ratio this time, and with the exception of that opening sequence with the girl in the field, Post tenebras lux doesn’t possess the imposing visual grandeur of Silent Light,especially given the blurry-iris effect (the intended function of which I honestly just don’t get—I thought it was gradually closing in at one point, as if nature itself were threatening to engulf the characters, but as far as I can tell that was a false alarm). And a lot of the film is just pokey and uninvolving, as we never get a sense of who any of these people are, yet bear witness to plenty of their banal interactions. Whenever Reygadas throws in a coup de cinéma—and I’m defining that broadly, to include e.g. a lovely moment in which a woman serenades her ill husband with Neil Young’s “It’s a Dream” on the piano—he confirms his mastery in spades. But there are just too few of them here, and they add up too little. Grade: C+
At the other end of the spectrum, Bernardo Bertolucci’s first film since 2003’s The Dreamers, Me and You,is so pleasantly inconsequential that it feels like a warm-up exercise. I hadn’t known until now that Bertolucci has been inactive all these years because he can no longer walk, and it makes perfect sense that he’d choose, for his first movie directed from a wheelchair, a story mostly confined to a single room. Adapted from a novel by Niccolò Ammaniti—this is Bertolucci’s first wholly Italian feature in over 30 years, amazingly—it’s about a moody teenager who ditches a school skiing trip and spends the week camped out in the basement storage room of his apartment building, regaling his mom with imaginary snowbound exploits when she calls to check up on him. When his estranged half-sister shows up needing a place to go cold turkey from heroin, the two of them forge a tender new relationship that reminded me a bit of the kidlit classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (about siblings who live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art for several weeks), albeit with more vomiting and shrieks of pain. Newcomers Jacopo Olmo Antinori (who looks eerily like Malcolm McDowell) and Tea Falco are solid as the two leads, and Bertolucci still knows his way around a camera, but there’s a terminal slightness to the adventure that makes it feel like an unusually adult after-school special. The good news is that Bertolucci says he’s already prepping his next film. Good to have him back. Grade: C+
For some masochistic reason, I also felt compelled to sit through 7 Days in Havana, yet another geographical omnibus project in the tradition of Paris, je t’aime and New York, I Love You (though it’s not related to those two directly, as far as I can tell). The main draw was Gaspar Noé’s segment, which turned out to be a mini-version of Cristian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills,depicting an exorcism meant to cast out whatever demons provoked the girl to engage in lesbian sex; it’s scary and sensual at once, if not as galvanizing as his features. And I enjoyed Elia Suleiman’s contribution, which explores the city from the perspective of his usual bewildered mute (played, as ever, by Suleiman himself). But the rest, ugh. Benicio Del Toro, moving behind the camera, turns in a ludicrous bit in which Josh Hutcherson fails to recognize an obvious transvestite and invites him to his room; Pablo Trapero casts Emir Kusturica as himself in a cutesy tale of a film director who’d rather jam with his trumpet-playing driver than attend the Havana Film Festival party being thrown in his honor; Julio Medem reinforces my sense (derived solely from Sex and Lucía) that he understands exactly nothing about human behavior; etc. (The other segments are by Juan Carlos Tabío and Laurent Cantet—the latter, a fine dramatist, should stay far away from comedy in future.) Waste of time, mostly, but then I don’t know what else I expected. Grade: C+
Sorry, just a C+ kind of day. But tomorrow: the worst freaking movie I’ve seen in a year! Is it The Paperboy, Lee Daniels’ adaptation of Pete Dexter’s novel, starring Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and Nicole Kidman? Or is it On the Road, which I realized I could catch up with today after all? I’ll give you a hint: Precious was my vote in various critics’ polls for the single worst movie of 2009.