Carlos Reygadas is in good spirits; he has just returned from several days of shooting on a new project, and despite the late hour has agreed to have a lengthy interview – something he hasn’t done in a while. As we begin to speak my eyes scan the room, taking in the cabin-like interior, with its wood-lined walls, crumpled sofa and colourful blankets. This house looks warm and familiar, and in a glimpse it reminds me of the interior in Carlos’ last film ‘Post Tenebras Lux’. This personal feature was shot here, in his rustic modernist refuge tucked away in the hills outside Mexico City.
It feels like an appropriate setting for Reygadas who is above all an unapologetically personal filmmaker. His instinctive working, channelling feelings and sensations derived directly from his own dreams and daily life, results in a bracingly intimate cinema that is sensual, tactile and alive – one that demands to be experienced rather than deconstructed.
Carlos Reygadas has made four feature films that are widely different in shape but spiritually akin; each of them shows us the mundane and the miraculous side by side – often to unsettling effect. As a largely self-taught filmmaker he has, I suspect, an inherently iconoclastic atti-tude. His films adhere to an inner logic. For some, the films are beguiling and for others, they are simply confounding. Stylistic and tonal juxtapositions abound: spare naturalism is paired with operatic flourishes; intimacy is interrupted by haphazard documentary; raw sexuality suddenly surges into the spiritual.
The imagery in his films veers from the startlingly confrontational to the ecstatically beautiful. Japón opens with a man removing the head of a real bird with his bare hands, while Battle in Heaven starts with an extended blowjob viewed in close-up. And yet, the films also offer moments of extraordinary subtlety and grace. Silent Light and Post Tenebras Lux open with visionary sequences at sunrise and twilight, respectively, and display the director’s unparalleled sensitivity to light and landscape.
Reygadas’ new film continues his interest in domestic relationships. It will explore marriage, he says, and will be shot over the next eighteen months against the backdrop of changing seasons. He will reveal little else, for now. Instead, he generously speaks about his four remarkable films which embrace the carnal and the spiritual, the sacred and the profane.
Paul Dallas: When I discovered your films, the first thing that struck me was their intense focus on the rituals and experiences of daily life. Whether the setting is a remote farmhouse, as in Japón, or the centre of a metropolis like Mexico City, as with Battle in Heaven, your camera is always alert to the intimacies of ordinary life.
Carlos Reygadas: Cinema is primarily about capturing existence. It’s the part that I appreciate most about the medium. The camera records things that are actually happening, even if it has been staged, which is often the case in commercial cinema. Recording life is the essential aspect for me. Filming a tree, you are in fact presenting the act of existence because this technically is an action. The camera acts like a funnel capturing life. It’s up to the filmmaker to build something else with that material. But no matter what, once you film something, it exists as imagery. Music is very similar. Once you produce a sound with a violin or a guitar, the sound exists in itself, independent of what the artist does with it. I make films to acknowledge that I’m alive. I want to know who I am and why we’re here. What can you think about if not ordinary life, and all the mysteries that flow from it? All my thoughts and feelings are connected to experiences in my daily life. Life is experiencing through our senses. When you see, smell, touch, and feel, you communicate with other people and with the things around us. Sensuality is the main tool.
Sex occurs to them because they feel a powerful attraction and they just let go.
Paul: Because your films are so alive to tactile and corporeal experience, they often achieve a realm of feeling that is beyond linguistic or intellectual description. In other words, they express things that are ineffable.
Carlos: Well, if I could talk about these things, I would probably be a writer instead of a filmmaker. It is my intuition that sharpens my searching and feeling. Making a film is about wanting to acknowledge that I am alive and to communicate with other people. It’s not necessarily about transmitting ideas. It’s more about relating to others on a more basic level. This is the core and the goal. Reality is never simply a collection of facts. It’s composed of our thoughts, memories, dreams, and projections of the future. These are ineffable things that the cinema strives to depict.
Paul: The figure of the human body is very important in your films. You primarily cast non-professional actors, many of whom are not classically ‘beautiful’. We often see them fully naked and in situations that might be described as unflattering. This is due to a lack of artifice in your filmmaking, which I sense is also connected to an existential position. Can you talk about how you represent the human body?
Carlos: My goal is to observe life and not to mystify it. What I film is simply matter that exists in the world. A person or object may have a particular meaning within the context of the film, but I don’t see them as having an inherent conceptual identity. If I say the word ‘tree’, you don’t necessarily need to see the tree because you have learned since you were a child how to conceptualize the tree. In most narrative films, things – whether it’s a bird, a human body, a cloud, a car or a sound – exist as devices that only serve to tell a story.
This is true for the actors as well. These types of films do not allow the viewer to see the actors as people existing in the world. Instead, the viewer sees a mask moving around in a costume and wearing lots of make-up. My goal is to bring out the individuality of each person or object and to capture something of their essence. I’m not interested in filming the mask. This is why you see the particular bodies in the films. If they are not ‘conventional’ – if they are considered old, ugly or fat – I couldn’t care less; they are all people and they are all equally beautiful. Filming people as they are is my way of showing them respect.
Paul: You often pair characters from very different backgrounds, and their difference is expressed in their bodies and sexuality. In Japón, we see a middle-aged man from the city desire and have sexual intercourse with Ascen, a seventy-five-year-old woman living alone in the countryside. In Battle in Heaven, we see Ana, a young woman who is light-skinned, beautiful, and upper-middle class, have sex with Marcos, a thirty-five-year-old man who is darker-skinned, overweight and lower class. In both cases, the visual contrast of bodies is stark. Can you talk about what this means for you, especially in the context of their sexual encounters?
Carlos: It’s true that these examples feature people who come from completely different worlds. Perhaps these encounters seem improbable. They may not happen often in ordinary life, but they certainly could happen, and in the films, they do happen. The contrast exists as a reality, and even though it’s a rare or unusual situation, it’s still entirely possible. So, why not have them in a film? A middle-aged man falling in love with an old woman can happen. It has happened. There’s record of it. With Battle in Heaven, you could read the relationship of Ana and Marco as some kind of metaphor of the racial oppression in Mexico. On the other hand, their relationship can also be seen as just a love story. My interest lies in creating something concrete, defined and simple, and its interpretation is up to the viewers.
Paul: Would you say that there’s no difference between filming a human body and filming a tree?
Carlos: No. I acknowledge that there’s a very important difference in the two things themselves. In religious terms, we might say a tree does not have a ‘soul’ in the same way that a human does. Others might refer to this quality as ‘dignity’. The main difference is that a person is conscious of her own existence in a way that is different from a mountain or an animal.
This is true for sex. For me, personally, there’s no more spiritual way of expressing love than through a sexual act.
Paul: At key moments in many of your films, the camera’s perspective shifts from outside to inside, and seems to inhabit a character’s body. We, the viewer, briefly see what the character sees. In the opening of Battle in Heaven, Ana is fellating Marcos in what might be a fantasy sequence. The camera moves around his waist and then occupies his body. This shift from an observational to a subjective point of view feels very significant. It seems to have a spiritual dimension
Carlos: Maybe it belongs to something that hasn’t yet been categorized in terms of perception. Typically, we have either an omniscient or a first-person narrator. But there’s probably another more fluid mode and this is the way I work. It’s closely related to the way I dream, it’s a space where nothing is very clear. We don’t always know who’s speaking, or where things come from, but there is a flow that connects everything. During the process of writing a film, I experience a similar perception. I spend a long time thinking about a film before putting a letter on paper; once started, I’m able to write the entire screenplay in two or three days. You can compare this with a trance-like state that allows visions to emerge. Even to me, it is not entirely evident how this happens.
Paul: There’s certainly a strong connection in your films between sex and spirituality. In Japón, the suicidal middle-aged man forms a deep connection with the elderly widow Ascen. Of course, her name is short for ‘Ascension’, which evokes an explicitly spiritual association. It seems to suggest that the man, who has come to this land to kill himself, is seeking some kind of spiritual redemption, and that Ascen, in some way, will provide this through sex.
Carlos: Everything we do has both a physical and a spiritual dimension. The two exist simultaneously. This is true for sex. For me, personally, there’s no more spiritual way of expressing love than through a sexual act. Love is caring for and desiring another person and it can be expressed in different ways. It can be through conversation and talking about what you feel and what you see. It can be caressing and kissing them, and it can be about going as far as you can with someone physically, as sexual intercourse. These are all expressions of love, they can happen with your lover or with a stranger you’ve just met. It’s about two people sharing a bond, and it doesn’t matter who they are, or what sex they belong to. It’s just about experiencing together the most powerful physical connection possible. In Japón, the man begins to feel alive again while he is staying with Ascen. It’s not that he wants to have sex with her because he loves her. It’s that together they create a bond. Sex occurs to them because they feel a powerful attraction and they just let go.
Paul: The depiction of sex in your films is often quite frank. It’s not idealized or romanticized. Rather, sex is presented as simply another part of being alive, and you don’t shy away from showing its awkwardness or strangeness. When the man and old woman have sex in Japón, we see them struggling for minutes to try to find a comfortable sexual position. We even sense the man’s frustration during this process, and it seems very real. In any case, I am interested in how you understand the idea of transgression with regard to depicting sex and sexuality.
Carlos: Each of us has our own values, our own way of life, our own ideas. It happens that some ideas belong to a majority of people and some belong only to a few individuals. If you’re not among the majority, then it appears as if you’re transgressing, but that’s not how I see it. Some people may find my ideas to be provocative, but the films are representative of my own life and because of this, it is difficult to say much more about it.
A lot of films I have seen contain ideas that I don’t personally care for. But I don’t assume the filmmaker’s motivation is to shock or provoke simply because the ideas seem foreign to me. Each person is free to create his or her own world on film. If everything in my films came directly from my dreams, would that make them less provocative? If this were the case, then I couldn’t be accused of doing things for shock value because the films would simply be representing what occurred in my dreams? Well, it happens that those are my dreams, my thoughts, my way of living life.
This might be provocative, but in the end it is more about generosity, about showing a different way of life
Paul: There’s one especially mysterious sex scene that I would like to talk about. Midway through Battle in Heaven, Ana and Marcos finally have sexual intercourse in a Mexico City apartment. It’s during the day, and the bedroom window is open. The camera starts in the bedroom, and then makes a very slow 360-degree pan outside the window, taking in the entire neighbourhood. It’s a mundane scene: we see a roofer working next door and hear traffic and children playing. Finally, the camera circles back to Ana and Marcos lying on the bed. It strikes me as rare moment in your cinema when the camera looks away from the sexual act.
Carlos: You may be attracted to this scene because it is intimately connected to an important mystery that is very simple and yet so difficult to understand. It’s something that we think about even as children, which is the fact that while we are experiencing life, we know that the rest of the world is experiencing something else. We learn that reality, in the end, can only be experienced personally. This thought can occur to you at different times, even in the midst of sex. It’s happened to me while I’m having sex: as my thoughts drift, I think about somebody else who at that same moment is driving a truck or working in a bank somewhere else. Even as we are experiencing intimate physical intercourse we are able to detach and acknowledge the fact that ordinary life continues all around us. It’s as simple as that. We notice a drop of water leaking from a tap. Life just carries on, continuously. And we know this also happens when we die; the world will never stop. Reality is experienced through individual perception.
Paul: The act of sharing is something that is very important to you, and it’s a theme in many of your films. In Japón, the man shares with Ascen a piece of music before he asks her to have sex. They listen together to Shostakovich on his headphones. Similarly, in Silent Light there’s a moment when a group of characters watch Jacques Brel on a small black-and-white television. It occurs after Johan and Marianne have sex. They walk out into the car park and find Johan’s children sitting in a van entranced by the intense performance.
Carlos: Music is a beautiful thing to share because it’s so sensual and powerful. It’s pure and doesn’t need to be decoded. It’s like humour, in that way. In Japón, it’s about bonding. Ascen wants to get to know the man who has been staying in her house, and so she starts asking questions about the little radio he carries around everywhere with him. At this point in the film, the man respects and cares for Ascen, and so he wants to share with her something that brings him joy. Love means needing to know the other person, and sharing the things we like and care for, as well as the things that we dislike or make us fearful. Life is made of these rare moments that are beautiful and meaningful because of the way they occur at a certain moment. There are many times in life in which the same moment could go unnoticed. This is also true for the Jacques Brel scene. It’s the context of the scene that makes his appearance and the music so special.
Paul: Your soundtracks often include pieces of devotional music from composers like Bach, Arvo Pärt, and John Taverner. Often, you pair it with mundane scenes of daily life. In Battle in Heaven, Marcos stops at a petrol station and we suddenly hear Bach. The music both underscores the banality of the place but also elevates it as well. Given that you live and work in a predominantly Catholic country, I wondered if the use of sacred music carries special significance for you.
Carlos: I don’t make any distinction between devotional and non-sacred music. This is only an external and historical categorization. Some music is beautiful and some is not so beautiful. Some music tends to evoke the visionary or helps me have visions, and some music doesn’t have that effect. Religion is dead in Mexico, and very few people seem to know or care what sacred music means. You can say that Mexico is basically a pagan country. The United States is probably more religious at this point. Of course, Mexico is still miles ahead in terms of ritual, even if the rituals are empty.
Paul: Post Tenebras Lux is in many ways your most personal and most mysterious film. It has the sense of a home movie, albeit a very strange and surreal one. You used your actual house as the home of Juan and Nathalie (Adolfo Jiménez Castro and Nathalia Acevedo), the upper-class married couple, and cast your own son and daughter as their children. The couple is experiencing an existential crisis, the cause of which is never entirely revealed. Seven (Willebaldo Torres), a poor young man who works for Juan and eventually causes several acts of shocking violence, seems to be at the centre of the mystery.
Carlos: Post Tenebras Lux depicts metaphysical dissatisfaction. Materially, Juan and Nathalie are very satisfied. They have a family, they have wealth, they are educated. They have friends. You can even assume that they have a good sexual life. But they are on the verge of becoming neurotic. One of them has become zombie-like while the other has become wild. The film is about people not knowing where they belong in the world and struggling with this crisis. By contrast, Seven is very pure. In real life, Willebaldo exudes an almost Zen-like quality. He is able to simply exist; he does not need to pretend. This is why you can look at him with such joy. This is very different from Juan, who is a more Westernized Mexican.
Juan and Seven have a close bond but of course, on some level, it is a perverted relationship because it’s connected to the history of colonialism. I don’t want to suggest that the two sides cannot trust each other, but the film expresses in allegorical terms how they can clash. The Western view of life implies imposition and this is how Juan operates in the world. Seven tries to defend himself. In situations where one person is overwhelmingly more powerful than the other, the powerless one is forced to resort to dirty tricks to survive. This, of course, is simply my interpretation, and it’s no more relevant than what the viewer sees and experiences.
Paul: There’s a scene in Silent Light that captures what you were speaking about earlier in terms of filming the act of existing. Johan and Esther have taken their children to an idyllic bathing hole. They are surrounded by nature, and we watch the family relating together mainly through looks and touching. Toward the end of the scene, Johan compliments Esther on how she washes the children’s hair, but does so in the past tense, as if their relationship has already ended. It’s one of the most tender scenes in your films. What did you want to capture in this scene?
Carlos: The joy of life. My childhood. Just being present. We consume time from the moment we’re born until we die. In this case, it’s about experiencing time through a particularly healthy and positive moment, bathing with brothers, sisters and parents. These are childhood memories that are beautiful and constitute part of life. The scene simply represents people experiencing happy moments together. It’s not about narrating anything in particular. It feels like music because it captures feelings that don’t need transcription. The scene was inspired by the memory of a strong emotion that I can recall from childhood. My childhood was very happy, and the sense of being surrounded by love, comfort and security came back to me. It’s the feeling of being embraced.