Modern Couple
By Lawrence Garcia

Our Time
Dir. Carlos Reygadas, Mexico, Monument Releasing

As if fulfilling the title of his spellbinding last feature Post Tenebras Lux (2012), Mexican director Carlos Reygadas opens his latest, Our Time, in the full light of day. From a shot of muddy shallows beneath a cloudy sky proceeds a languorous, 15-minute passage of youths of varying ages frolicking under the summer sun. A group of boys sling mud at each other; soon bored, they decide to ambush a gaggle of girls lounging nearby. Elsewhere, some teenagers laze about in the end-of-summer haze, attempting to manage the heat as well as their own libidos—though it’s not long before one pair cools off in the murky water, and another steal away for an afternoon tryst.

Despite lacking the immediate magisterial heft of Reygadas’s previous coup-de-cinema overtures, this passage nonetheless constitutes an early peak of Our Time, and extends a number of the Mexican director’s stylistic hallmarks: a predilection for short lenses and widescreen compositions, and an attention to behavior and action without much recourse to a greater narrative structure. For as long as shots or sequences last in Reygadas’s cinema, we are immersed into slipstreams of sensation—sights and sounds that transfix with the enormity of their presentation. But when these are broken off, it’s not part of the director’s bargain that any given person or figure should return, or even that what we’ve witnessed should retain much, if any narrative significance. The structural purposes of his representations are often secondary to the instantaneous moment of their unfolding. And so, after this extended opening, the tangle of tensions we've thus far witnessed will never be taken up again, for we shift once more—this time to the main ranch of which the muddy pond is but a part, where a number of middle-aged adults are cutting loose after a day’s work. It is over this domain that a rancher-cum-poet named Juan presides with his wife Esther. And it is their relationship that will center the remainder of the film.

Played by Reygadas and his wife and editor Natalia López, the couple carries on with a familiarity born of years of companionship, looking after their three children, as well as their hacienda in the state of Tlaxcala where much of the film is set. Wealthy and worldly, the pair is also in an open marriage—but their love being complete at the outset, it would seem that there’s only room to fall. And when Esther drives into the city with a horse breaker named Phil (Phil Burgers), whom she later describes as “really funny for a gringo,” that is exactly what happens. Despite her arrangement with Juan, she neglects to tell him of the ensuing affair with Phil, a deception that he in turn responds to with disproportionate belligerence. What follows is a spiralling push-pull of aggression on his part, and (understandable) withholding on hers.

At its core, Our Time is a fairly straightforward tale of love and commitment—a complement, of sorts, to the director’s earlier Silent Light (2007), which observed the fallout of adultery in a cloistered Mennonite community. Upon its release, that film seemed, perhaps for its daring lifts from Ordet (1955), like an unusually unified story for Reygadas—and was consequently reckoned as a leap in maturity by some, and a case of fraudulence by others. In retrospect, particularly after the fractured follow-up of Post Tenebras Lux, such assessments now seem incomplete. Though Silent Light's spirituality fails when tested against Dreyer, it is clearer that Reygadas's concerns lie elsewhere, and so the film remains a success on its own terms. Its faith is in the sheer physicality of its images and sensations—transmutations of the experience of simply existing in the natural world.

Instead of tracing Our Time’s more settled trajectory—a gradual fall from grace to match the early passage from unfettered youth to straitened middle age—it seems more apropos to focus on Reygadas’s ecstatic cinematic orchestrations, which are, not to put too fine a point on it, the main attraction. Seated for a timpani concerto in the auditorium of Mexico City’s Palacio de Bellas Artes, which Reygadas introduces with arcing pans across its ornate interiors and mosaiced murals, Esther is seen to be distracted from the beauty around her, instead caught up in a series of text messages with Phil. Later, as she drives home amidst a torrential downpour, we are treated to fixed shots of the car's vibrating engine, as well as an obscured, but fairly explicit recollection of oral sex.

These digressions, as uncanny as any in Reygadas's oeuvre, clearly operate under the sign of Tarkovsky—an allegiance the director has affirmed since his debut (quite literally) spun off from Stalker's tracks. It would be too simple, though, to embrace (or reject) him as yet another “contemplative” modernist filmmaker. For one thing, he has a kind of prankster’s touch—see: the “Hegel Room” in the sex club of Post Tenebras Lux—that’s not so easily untangled from the solemnity of his stylistic flourishes. For another, far from being rigid displays of virtuosity, his films retain a sense of the uncontrollable—which explains not just his frequent deployment of sex and violence but also the constant presence of animals in his films. When early on in Our Time, during a supposedly routine feeding, we see a bull gruesomely goring a mule, its guts spilling out onto a grassy knoll, the scene’s horrific shock feels beyond what should be possible with such material. It’s as if the varying footage that comprises the hunting sequences of Howard Hawks’s Hatari! (1962)—split between sequences of actual wildlife wrangling and professional acting—were suddenly, seamlessly collapsed.

Such sequences are meant to destabilize, to jolt the film's dominant rhythms, which only threaten to become more wearying as the central love triangle becomes more fraught. After the initial coupling between Esther and Phil, Juan takes it upon himself to contact the latter, offering his consent where none is required. But whenever Our Time threatens to settle down into Bergmanesque scenes from a marriage, Reygadas offers yet another thrilling leap or startling ellipsis, with sequences often as noteworthy for their visual-aural play as for their startling range of contrasts. After a tense, queasily intrusive video call between husband and wife—which shifts between a muddy digital stream and a completely black screen, Juan’s laptop camera being broken—comes the film’s (literal) high point: a keening, seven-minute correspondence from Esther, whispered as the camera drifts above the clouds, and ends beneath an airplane on a runway in Mexico City. In this transportive, otherworldly passage, we are made to feel not just the newfound clarity that she expresses therein but also the full ache of what her words fail to convey.

To even describe Our Time, then, is in some sense to betray it. During a literary conference that Juan attends late in the film, the movie itself broaches matters of language and communication. It's no accident that Reygadas's male artist is not a painter (as in Japón) or an architect (as in Post Tenebras Lux), but a poet. And it comes as no surprise, either, that, as if expressing a desire to return to the consciousness of a child, the film twice incorporates narration from Juan and Esther’s two younger children. (These moments recall, however obliquely, Linda Manz’s voiceover in Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven, another film where the cycles of nature seem to move with the affections of three troubled lovers.) Present, always, is the desire to return to innocence, to a space beyond rigid interpretive strictures—perhaps beyond even language itself.

Even as the wayward figures of Our Time express such yearnings, Reygadas recognizes the impossibility of their desires, and that perhaps the most one can hope for are moments of weightlessness and glimpses of clarity. So, following the last gasps of Juan and Esther’s relationship, the film moves beyond human boundaries, observing a herd of bulls escaped from their paddocks, wandering about a fog-shrouded glade. A fight ensues and, with yet another documentary-like jolt, one bull pushes another off a cliff. It is a mark of the film's success that, although the scene certainly registers with symbolic heft, what lingers is the horrific violence of the action, the eerie placidity of its aftermath, and the play of light on the morning mist.