The autobiographical thread running through Carlos Reygadas’ last film, 2012’s divisive Post Tenebras Lux, becomes more intensely personal in the Mexican iconoclast’s sixth narrative feature, Our Time, which traces the breakdown in an open relationship when one partner transgresses by falling in love outside the marriage. Featuring the director and his real-life wife and children playing versions of themselves, this navel-gazing epic is maddeningly distancing at almost every turn, lacking the spiritual and existential breadth of even Reygadas’ most impenetrable work. Running a prolix three hours, it feels like being trapped in somebody else’s crisis unfolding in real time.
Reygadas erupted onto the scene in 2002 with his audacious debut Japon, a meditative depiction of the psychosexual odyssey of a suicidal man. The writer-director has continued to forge an international reputation with his handful of uncompromising slow-cinema essays since then, most notably 2007’s Silent Light. He reshapes influences from Dreyer through Bresson to Tarkovsky to explore the inextricable ties between his characters’ interior lives and the natural world around them, casting a gaze of unsettling intensity also toward religion and received notions of fidelity. His stature as a consecrated master alone will guarantee some partisan support for this tiresome misstep. The uninitiated will be less forgiving.
The movie opens with considerable promise. We’re in the state of Tlaxcala, not far from Mexico City, at a sprawling ranch where fighting bulls are raised, and while Reygadas is in no hurry to identify the key characters, it emerges that the estate is owned by celebrated poet Juan (played by the director) and run by his wife Esther (Natalia Lopez).
The loose early scenes weave in and out amongst three distinct groups: the kids, playing in the muddy waters of a lake baked dry around its edges in the long period without rain; the teenagers drinking beers, smoking joints and making out nearby; and the adult rancheros, testing the speed and strength of young bulls. The snorting and grunting of the animals is a constant throughout.
There’s an interesting suggestion of a tight-knit community functioning according to its own rules, almost like a throwback pocket of counterculturalism — with bloodsports. And the male-female interaction among the children and teens, even starting playfully with the youngest of them, hints at the spiky sexual politics to come. By contrast, the animals are instinctive, often violent, unimpeded by rational thought, as illustrated by a startling early scene in which a bull gets out of control and gores a mule to death, spilling its innards in graphic detail. All this provides a solid foundation for drama touching on many of the director’s predominant themes.
It doesn’t take long, however, before Reygadas narrows the focus to a tortured romantic triangle that would be banal if it weren’t so irritating. Juan and Esther have an understanding that sex outside the marriage is permitted provided there are no secrets. But even before she heads off on a business trip to Mexico City, giving a lift to gringo horse whisperer Phil (Phil Burgers), Juan is threatened by the spark between them. When Esther begins omitting details or outright lying about her trysts with Phil, Juan grows increasingly obsessive, checking her phone for evidence and spying on them, while appealing unsuccessfully to Phil’s sense of loyalty in order to regain control of the situation.
That’s pretty much the scenario, and if you think it portends the world’s artsiest telenovela, you wouldn’t be far wrong — jealous husband with volatile artistic temperament; straying spouse struggling to reclaim her independent identity as a woman beyond being a wife and mother; interloper with full awareness but zero accountability. There’s also an echo of romantic complications early on when Juan and Esther’s adolescent son is left pining like a sick puppy for a girl who loves another guy, though the director loses interest in that thread almost immediately.
In his accompanying press notes, Reygadas claims to be posing questions about the binding nature of love, possession and sexual exclusivity, but nothing goes deep enough to resonate beyond this micro story given unjustified macro treatment. The coldness of the director’s approach also leaves it curiously without much genuine intimacy.
Lopez comes closest to creating a character with some emotional depth as Esther, but Reygadas’ customary use of nonprofessional actors becomes a liability in a film far more talky than the director’s norm. There’s just no reason to care about any of the characters. Phil is simply a boring jerk, though he’s arguably preferable to self-absorbed Juan with his wounded macho pride. He seems willfully oblivious to his wife’s painfully conflicted feelings, and not just when he’s asking her to get naked in the middle of a heart-to-heart over Skype during which only her webcam is working. This is not the only point of the movie where the gender dynamics get distinctly queasy. But mostly it all just grows numbing and repetitive.
Even visually, Our Time doesn’t hold the attention like so much of Reygadas’ previous work, its lengthy cutaways often seeming quite random. There are occasional moments of invention, like a thrilling timpani performance by renowned percussionist Gabriela Jimenez, accompanied by an orchestra on a powerful piece that seems to speak directly to the turbulent thoughts of Esther in the audience. It’s a novel touch to have key developments in the melodrama recounted like children’s stories by Esther and Juan’s young daughter. And although there are too many voiceover readings of letters and emails, it’s quite seductive hearing Esther’s long, detailed account of her efforts to understand and serve her own needs while a flight bringing Juan back from a poetry conference makes the long, slow descent into Mexico City, shot from the p.o.v. of the plane’s landing gear.
Naturally, there also are the usual WTF moments that Reygadas aficionados have come to expect, notably during a party where much cocaine and tequila have been consumed, and a gender-nonconforming satanic rocker suddenly appears in elaborate makeup and costume. More often, the music choices are cheesy, such as a folky singalong when Juan visits the death bed of a friend who’s succumbing to cancer but nonetheless is about to marry his pregnant girlfriend. It’s a groan-inducing inevitability that Juan will make this, too, all about him.
Frankly, it’s a relief when, at the conclusion of this endurance test, the camera returns to the stirring images of the bulls shuffling around in an agitated state in the morning mist. Their brutality as two of the beasts lock horns in a death battle is distressing. But it’s at least vigorous and alive in a way that the circuitous human drama here seldom is. It’s also an apt coda to a load of pretentious bullshit in which a talented filmmaker squanders his gifts by giving free rein to his self-importance.
Production companies: NoDream Cinema, Mantarraya Producciones, The Match Factory, Snowglobe, Mer Film, Eficine, Foprocine, ZDF/Arte, Luxbox, Detalle Films, Film I Vast, Bord Cadre Films
Cast: Carlos Reygadas, Natalia Lopez, Phil Burgers, Eleazar Reygadas, Rut Reygadas
Director-screenwriter: Carlos Reygadas
Producers: Jaime Romandia, Carlos Reygadas
Directors of photography: Diego Garcia, Adrian Durazo
Production designer: Emmanuel Picault
Costume designer: Stephanie Brewster
Editor: Carlos Reygadas
Venue: Venice Film Festival (Competition)
Sales: The Match Factory