By Etan Weisfogel
There’s always been something of a prog rock spirit to the work of Carlos Reygadas, so it’s appropriate that Our Time, his new film focused on the struggles of an open marriage, prominently features songs from both Genesis and King Crimson. Like those artists’ albums, his films are characterized by digressive displays of technical skill, a preference for high drama, and a general maximalism. Take the scene which features the Genesis track “The Carpet Crawlers.” The character Ester puts the song on while driving home from a tryst with a ranch hand employed by her husband. In a riveting moment of stylistic grandstanding reminiscent of a guitar solo, the camera enters the car and explores its inner workings.
Maybe this seemingly unconventional approach should be expected from an arthouse auteur; long, slow-moving films that emphasize form over content are not exactly hard to come by on the festival circuit. But there’s something different about Reygadas. We might think of the art film director as a perfectionist who aligns every element of the frame to their intended vision, but that’s a paradigm his films falls outside.
Our Time is filled with moments of genuine spontaneity, accident, and chaos that invade its careful design. Its lengthy opening sequence, one of my favorite stretches of filmmaking in Reygadas’s oeuvre, is a perfect example. The scene shows a group of young people, from older teens to small children, playing together by the ocean. While his images are still immediately arresting in their own right, his compositions seem to be following the actors’ lead—the children move and act like children, not perfect models. Reygadas and his camera embrace the unpredictability.
A documentary-infused style like this isn’t necessarily anything new in and of itself, but what’s singular about Reygadas’ work is his marriage of the sweeping, slow cinema aesthetic with a neorealist influence. The camera doesn’t hide its presence from the audience. For Reygadas, the camera is a tool that imposes itself on an existing world, rather than concocting or conjuring it anew; he underlines this worldview with the discrepancy between the naturalism of his actors and the conspicuousness of his cinematography.
This tendency is particularly pronounced in Our Time, more explicitly engaged in questions of the real than his previous films. Reygadas plays Juan, his real wife Natalia Lopez plays Ester, and their real children play their children on-screen, leading many to read the film as autobiographical. It even screened at this year’s True/False, a festival devoted to nonfiction filmmaking. The film also avoids some of the abrupt, almost random dramatic turns that Reygadas has relied on in the past (no one dies completely out-of-the-blue).
In other words, Reygadas, who has been known to embrace sensationalism, is working with his most mundane, least sensational material. Despite the relative lack of incident, he still finds ways to naturally motivate his expressive camerawork: the characters attend a concert, and the film briefly leaves them in order to focus on percussionist Gabriela Jimenez’s intense performance; Ester reads a letter she has written to Juan in voiceover and the camera takes the perspective of a plane making its descent; etc. The dissolution of this marriage would typically be the focus of a small-scale, kitchen sink drama, but Reygadas capitalizes on the intense emotions of the situation to create a work of real grandeur.
He still falters a bit as a dramatist. The ranch hand character Phil does not feel developed enough to earn the significant role Reygadas gives him, and the epistolary structure of the film’s second half ends up feeling like an easy way for Reygadas to describe his characters’ emotions, something he should trust his camera to do. But you don’t listen to a King Crimson record for the lyrics—it’s about how the music sounds. Our Time, for all its flaws, sings like few films in recent memory.