Saturday, 23 March 2013

GFT Programme Note: Post Tenebras Lux


It may be provincial inexperience talking, but booing a film screening has always seemed like unusual behaviour – pointless when directed at unresponsive flickers of light and shade, and needlessly spiteful when done with the filmmakers present. Yet every year, reports from Cannes suggest that vociferously bellowing displeasure screen-wards is all the rage amongst festival critics, with putdowns in print apparently only part of their appraisal process. As with most forms of knee-jerk evaluation, such opprobrious jeers rarely translate into lasting negativity, with the list of films to famously elicit boos in the festival’s 67-year history containing a significant number of works now widely (though obviously not unanimously) acknowledged as amongst cinema’s finest: L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960), Gertrud (Carl Th. Dreyer, 1964) and The Tree of Life (Terence Malick, 2011), amongst others. In all three cases, catcalls at premieres were later drowned out, with the first awarded the Jury Prize; the second named one of the films of that year by Cahiers du Cinema critics; and the third scooping Cannes’ top prize the Palme d’Or.

Of last year’s competition, Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas’ wilfully challenging fourth feature Post Tenebras Lux reportedly garnered the loudest derision from French cineastes, with Manohla Dargis of The New York Times noting it came in ‘for the harshest reception I’ve heard here since Vincent Gallo’s Brown Bunny in 2003’.[1] While, like L’Avventura et al, the boos by no means reveal all about the film’s Cannes welcome (with a Best Director prize one of several off-setting details), they have been predictive of the film’s subsequent rough treatment by a number of critics: Xan Brooks describes it as ‘a congealed Jungian stew’;[2] Geoff Andrews declared it a ‘frustratingly vague achievement’;[3] while David Jenkins argues that Reygadas ‘has chosen to take his audience spelunking in the surreal depths of his own naval.’[4] Amidst this are, of course, notable voices to the contrary, including Jonathan Romney (who has celebrated the film’s originality in both Screen Daily and Sight and Sound) and Tony Rayns, who praises its ‘sheer sensory impact’.[5] Whether one agrees with its detractors or champions, it’s fair to say that Post Tenebras Lux is not a film to yield meaning easily. Throughout, it is never fully clear whether what we are watching in any particular scene is past, present or future; a character’s reality or their fantasy; a symbolic aside or an integral piece of the puzzle. This balanced obscurity is reflected in the film’s distinctive aesthetic: shot in the square dimensions of Academy ratio using a distorting camera lens that blurs and bends the edge of the frame, thereby presenting the film like a puzzle box, with inscrutable edges masking any potential clarity at its core.

The opening sequence shows a young girl playing in a flooded field as the sun sets and the weather turns. As the child happily splashes after cows and horses, the light fades further and thunder enters the soundtrack; childish enthusiasm gives way to fear, and soon she is in complete darkness, only visible in silhouette when sheet lightning flashbulbs the sky. And that, in terms of incident, is all that happens; but the way it happens – creating an unstable tone that fluctuates from innocent abandon to quiet dread – is affecting in a way that has little to do with narrative understanding. Which is fortunate, since the scene it segues into proves an early mettle-tester for those sceptical of Reygadas’s experimentalism, boasting what is perhaps the film’s most striking image: a glowing demon entering the home of a sleeping family, for motives unknown. The scenes are linked visually by the lightning’s strobing effect and aurally by cricket song, bridging one hypnotic sequence of ambiguous meaning with another and leaving thin threads of understanding that thicken as the film progresses. Even on second viewing, these threads resist being fully knitted together (particularly when further enigmas in the form of English rugby matches and foreign sex clubs are factored in), but neither is the film as thoroughly resistant to interpretation as cynics would have you believe. Certain scenes may be non-sequiters in terms of plot, but there is always something – a gesture, an echo, a feeling – from which to hang connections. For instance, when the demon scene is later repeated, the shots either side add highly suggestive layers to the monster’s symbolic meaning.

Towards the end, a character sits down at her piano to play a dying man a song. Emotively off-key, her serenade seems to extend comfort not just to its onscreen recipient, but to perplexed sections of the audience. ‘It’s a dream/ only a dream/ and it’s fading now’ she sings, Neil Young’s lyrics seeming to urge the viewer to abandon causal logic and embrace the associational interconnections of dreams. The other option is rejection: to survey the film’s mysteries and proclaim the emperor naked – and while to treat Reygadas such seems unjust, it would, at least, place him in good company. Writing on the aforementioned Gertrud, David Bordwell suggests that dismissive reactions to demanding material can sometimes be indicative ‘of something very important.’ He argues that Gertrud’s initial rejection revealed ‘the panic that can seize us when confronted with a film that unremittingly, almost malevolently, refuses to be cinema of any classifiable kind.’[6] For this reason alone, it seems safe to suggest that a film as vividly idiosyncratic as this one is not to be judged hurriedly.

Christopher Buckle
Researcher and journalist
March 2013

[1] Manohla Dargis (2012), ‘After the Boos: Reviewing the Cannes Film Festival’, The New York Times, accessed 12/03/13 at
[2] Xan Brooks (2012) ‘Cannes 2012: Post Tenebras Lux – review’, The Guardian, accessed 13/03/13 at
[3] Geoff Andrew (2012) ‘Post Tenebras Lux’, Time Out, accessed 13/03/13 at
[4] David Jenkins (2012) ‘Post Tenebras Lux – Cannes Film Festival 2012’, Little White Lies, accessed 13/03/13 at
[5] Tony Rayns (2013) ‘Post Tenebras Lux’, Sight & Sound, April 2013, p. 101
[6] David Bordwell (1981) The Films of Carl-Theodor Dreyer (University of California Press, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California) p. 171

No comments:

Post a Comment