The camera flies over the plains of the Mexican countryside. After crossing a series of clouds, it happens upon a monumental city. The sound tells us that we observe it from an airplane. As this stunning vision reveals itself, Esther (Natalia López), a rancher and mother of three, reads in voice over a statement of her intimate world to Juan (Carlos Reygadas), her husband, a renowned poet lost in a vortex of jealousy because his wife has fallen in love with Phil (Phil Burgers), an American horse trainer.
While we experience the airplane’s ordinary landing, a sensory manifestation happens, through a masterful use of sound and image. Of what? Of feelings itself. As in this sequence, the controversial Mexican auteur Carlos Reygadas takes us into the intimate, sentimental and psychological universe of his characters in his most recent feature film, Our Time. His epic fifth feature film is more than an analysis or narration of a love triangle, it is a cinematographic and linguistic exploration of the intangible and ineffable.
We got the chance talk with the director of Our Time, Post Tenebras Lux and Silent Light about his most recent work, his creation process and his ideas about cinema.
NOTEBOOK: I would like to start the conversation with an idea that I find quite uncomfortable. I’ve read almost everywhere how critics or film festivals consider Our Time as your most personal work just for the fact that you stand in front of your own camera, and that the fact it’s a fiction film is being ignored. As with Japón or Post Tenebras Lux, we’re talking about a fiction. It seems to me that the act of being the main character, that your wife is in the film as well as your kids—this does not make your film more personal than if you had made something close to a documentary and filmed your daily lives. Here you take the decision to construct a fiction and through this, reveal your internal universe.
CARLOS REYGADAS: Yes, for me, the fact that my own body, my children or my wife are in the film—this time is not my house—is really a banality. I think it is inconsequential how the film is built, because what is valuable is the final result. Think about The Origin of the World, by Courbet. Today, we don’t know who’s vagina that was. It could be a model, Courbet's wife, I have no idea, but it is inconsequential. I worked with my wife, with my children and with myself for practicality. That does not make it autobiographical. When people see a Clint Eastwood movie they do not think he’s Dirty Harry, I don’t understand why it would be different here. For me, a much more autobiographical film is Silent Light, which is spoken in old German, shot in a Mennonite community, and yet it’s the film that I consider closest to me. The autobiographical has nothing to do with physical presence or portraying a nearby universe.
NOTEBOOK: Now that you mention Silent Light, I consider Our Time as a B-side to that one…
REYGADAS: I understand this idea of the B-side. In this case, we have the point of view of a person who suffers, who feels outside of a world. Silent Light is a film about falling in love and in Our Time, I consider that this is already about complete love. Where there are also the practical aspects of love: the relationship, communication, the everyday ordinary, everything that surrounds the universe of a couple. All that is part of love. We confuse the love with falling in love, the latter is something that catches you radically. The former is a long-term process. There is a bit of a letter in the film that I think perfectly describes my idea about love.
NOTEBOOK: Even if I can see more connections between Our Time and Silent Light, there are many elements within the film in which I find communicating with your previous works. For example, Our Time has a great prologue, a construction very close to the indelible opening scene of Post Tenebras Lux, but here has a more narrative structure and function. Likewise, this opening sequence is kind of close to your short film This Is My Kingdom ...
REYGADAS: All my films, as they are being made by the same person, find connections on thematic and formal aspects, you end up noticing in the stamp, the personal style—they are totally defined by the interests of each film, the tools that I use. That can happen with a cabinetmaker or a farmer. All this happens unconsciously. I do not try to have a style per se. I am working by some personal values and interests that are relevant to the cinematographic language, certain principles and ways of working, things based on my feelings—the similarities and these elements arise naturally. Anyway, I'm not interested in being these filmmakers who repeat themselves all the time. There always has to be an evolution that comes from reflecting on thematic cinematographic language; on time and space and how they are presented, as this means the theme in itself. The mise en scène. All this comes from what my life is, my day to day life, and how it is influencing me in the creation of cinema.
NOTEBOOK: The film has a really interesting mise en scène, especially in sequences in which you use the image as a manifestation of the inner universe of your characters. Not as illustrations, but as if a transmutation of feelings, ideas, psychological states: The scene of a truck’s motor as equivalence of desire, the overwhelming airplane landing scene...
REYGADAS: I really like the term you use, transmute. Because in effect, that's what cinema is about. The cinema is not a tool to illustrate literature, which sadly is what I believe has become the majority of contemporary cinema. The cinema requires just as you say, transmutation. An unfolding into a language, a way in where things can be expressed in different ways.
NOTEBOOK: How much of your sequences to you construct in the editing? I find it really hard to believe this can be devised in a script, in words...
REYGADAS: All this is not generated by me in the editing, everything comes from the script. Every element that you see in the film is established, since I visualize it in my head before even starting to write the film. I think I work as a musician that composes listening to the notes in his head and then writing the notes to be able to materialize it—but who doesn't discover the music until when he gets to play with his orchestra. Obviously you can touch up, modify things. But the reality is that the main part of the process is in the preview and at the time of writing. As I was saying, I think a lot about the theme of the film, which from my point of view is not only narrative history, but also spaces, sounds, colors and feelings.
NOTEBOOK: Do you have a way of working on your narrative structure?
REYGADAS: The narrative happens to me in a hypnotic way, it is something automatic. As if there was a previous crop, which is this story that develops while I write it and so all the formal aspects are assembled that, as you say, allows me to transmute all these ideas and sensations. They are translated, abstracted, and I think in being so they become universal, something beyond the illustration—which is something that does not interest me. What interests me is that which is seen and heard, what is in itself, the narrative. I could film grass only and that would be the narrative. I could put together a still shot of grass and that would be the narrative, it would not be just grass. The narrative would be how the grass is filmed, how it moves, its color, how long the shot is, at what distance and especially at what moment of the film is placed. That is the language, the narrative. What is interesting for me is not the “what,” it is the “how.” How you show things.
NOTEBOOK: I found in this film something really particular in the narrative, as if you’re trying to unlearn or discover an exclusively Mexican image, an exploration of national language. In Our Time there is a much greater amount of references to Mexican art than in any of your previous works. The plains recall José María Velasco Gómez or Dr. Atl. there is an explicit presence of murals, a carcamo by Diego Rivera, the monumental Palacio de Bellas Artes as the setting for a timbales orchestra concert...
REYGADAS: Indeed… but let me clarify I do not have nationalist or patriotic concepts, but I love the place where I have grown up, where I live. I am in contact with it and then it is natural for me to appreciate and want it to share. Surely if I were Finnish I would do the same. Here in Mexico there are great human expressions, and they are accessible to me because they are those that surround me, because they are from my country of my land. You spoke of Velasco, the Mexican countryside: the Tlaxcalteca altiplano has been eradicated from the visual paradigm of Mexico that is now the beaches, but during the nineteenth century, Egerton and the great landscape artists established that altiplano as an aesthetic paradigm. This landscape fascinates me, being close to it. Diego Rivera murals are close to where I live, I love the music of Gabriela Ortiz .. When you live in a place, you are in contact with all the expressions of that space, with its artistic manifestations, its nature and its conflicts. If you open yourself to all this, your work is naturally filled with it. Of course, I also listen to music from all over the world, literature from other countries and that is also part of my universe. In the film there is music by Genesis, King Crimson. But of course, human lives happen in a specific space that one can love and detest, but are in touch with everything that the world offers, which is what is communicated by a Mexican artist with a Taiwanese one and these other things with a Brazilian, regardless of any cultural consideration. For example, rhythm, such as love or laughter, have nothing to do with cultural aspects but something closer to human sensitivity.
NOTEBOOK: Can you talk about your experience as an actor? How was it to direct yourself?
REYGADAS: I did it the same as with any other person. I did not have any kind of consideration towards myself, I even believe I’ve less than if it had been someone else. I never saw myself in the mirror, I was never thinking about preparing myself to look better, or to see myself special, choosing angles that favored me or things like that. What interested me was the influence on the rhythm of the scene by being in the frame—influence and hence power. I think the rhythm is the most interesting thing that exists in all human creation. And in this position I could slow down, accelerate, increase tone of voice or reduce it: things that when you are behind the camera you wait for the actor to do or not. Many times it can go better than you expected, and sometimes not, but here all that I could do it directly. This saved me the need to codify all that I thought so that later I could communicate it to a third party and that he had to decipher it to act. Now I was able to do it directly. The problem with this was the partial loss of framing control. Although I previously established the images with a double, one moves and sporadic things arise. For me, everything that happens in the cinematographic picture has thousands of nuances of expression, everything matters to me and is relevant. But I think this is offset by the ability to directly influence the image with my presence.
NOTEBOOK: Do you use rehearsals?
REYGADAS: We rehearse a little. We do not rehearse at a "human" level but more about what you are going to feel not trying to make some illustrative representations—this is about feeling situations. When things are felt, everything else arises naturally. You do not have to impose or work on this because if you feel, when it is stated, the feeling is transmitted. More than rehearsing, I work on a process of concentrating energy to feel what the character feel. You can show only certain things if you put a human being in front of the camera and you allow him to penetrate the camera. Many times, when you want to show something in particular, you end up disguising a guy, and you just taught him to act, using tools that belong to theater and you end up just showing a clown.
NOTEBOOK: And the experience of working with Natalia? She was your editor in your two previous films, and now is acting here…
REYGADAS: With Natalia it was the same. At the time of work she stopped being my wife and became an actress. With the proviso that she became more strict than a regular actor. However, we had an agreement, that she had to do what I said. When she works as the director and I work as his actor, I will do what she says. That, at the human level, was somewhat more complicated. But it still allowed us a lot of things because there is a previous understanding and an ease of communication.
NOTEBOOK: There’s something really interesting in your way of working with the topic of human communication. It call my attention the importance of technology in the story and how it contrasts a lot with the country life where the characters are set.
REYGADAS: The film is about communication and the door that opens between this world that is 400 years old, well, 150 if we talk about farming. The film happens in this old world (the bullfighting one) that collides with this new form of technological communication. I was one of those persons who resists having a telephone, but in the end it is a new communication that has to be accepted. These new technologies have changed the way we relate, the issue of intercommunication. There are people who would currently die without these objects and in ancient times people lived looking only to keep a living fire. But all this had to be mixed. As I was saying, I react to what happens around me to my world and all this is incorporated.
NOTEBOOK: In your films, the presence of the animals is always important. You use them to talk about the animal aspect in the human being...
REYGADAS: I really like the animal breeding, especially of the brave bulls, because it keeps us in contact with the non-pure nature. Nature in relation with man. The contact with dogs, horses, bulls is something basic to talk about the history and evolution of the human being.
NOTEBOOK: The integration of bullfighting is very interesting. You select a world that, under contemporary perceptions, can be anachronic...
REYGADAS: Yes, I was very interested in talking about someone’s sensitivity in a world as complex as the current one with tendencies such as vegetarianism, which result in ideas that someone related to the world of bulls would automatically have to be a savage or something in style, but now, in the contact with nature you develop a particular sensitivity. I chose the bullfighting world because I wanted to talk about people who lived in the countryside but had access to culture, a certain education, these technologies, travel. Unfortunately, to solve the injustice of the agricultural and livestock production system, our country feudalism was destroyed before the revolution only to implement a more harmful one, generating poverty and absolute degradation of the countryside. So I wanted to locate this story in the Mexican countryside but it turns out that in our present, it is almost impossible to find people who live and work in the countryside that are not poor and therefore have no possibility of accessing culture. Talking about the bullfighting world allowed me to talk about these characters who were not victims of the economic system, who did not live in poverty.
NOTEBOOK: I really like how in the film works this exploration of the human animal side of perspectives in contrast with the human civilized ideas: How both construct love, how both construct the social being but at the same time develop inner conflicts…
REYGADAS: Yes, of course, this idea that love is a civilized concept, that romantic love is an invention that occurs in the Middle Ages. But love is always present since the beginning of mankind, with a strong presence of the animal part, of sexuality, of the desire. Love requires this part, along with other things that we already talk about. Love for trees or for dolphins exists but it is something completely different than the love of a couple between human beings.
NOTEBOOK: Now that you mentioned love, I believe the film is just about feelings and sensations. About love, frustation, sadness, about a man incapable of deal with them and with them world, but not about specific topics like open relationships, maybe yes, about toxic masculinity...
REYGADAS: Completely agree. This is a film about love. But for me, interpretations have more to do with how you think about love, about human beings and their relationships. In our current society, I think you can so easily generalize. For me, the film does not have machismo, toxic masculinity or manipulation, and I’ve read a lot about it. Machismo for me is simply the idea that man is superior to woman. And I don’t believe that and the film never raises or works on this idea. I find deplorable acts in the film, yes, but both individuals in the marriage do deplorable acts because they are trying to find a way, to solve a problem, his relationship. They are like two circles that overlap in the center. They have their individual universes but others that overlap and share.
NOTEBOOK: Our Time is a film about this “two circles” that try to overlap and share but they’re clashing all the time. And I found interesting that you pass from talking about the clash between social classes—that are not invisible because the decision to choose the bullfighting world and thanks to this character incapable to see beyond himself—but now you prefer to talk about the clash of an inner and intimate universe from a "non-reconcilliation possible" perspective rather than to make an obvious statement about it, its more like something inherent.
REYGADAS: Yes, I would say that there’s a communication crash on the surface level and in deep profound level, a human crash due the obstacles of daily life. About class issues, well, that’s something that happens everywhere, and as I told before, my work is a reaction to world that surrounds me. It’s amazing that as human beings we haven’t been able to break out the class concepts. Europeans believe they have, but that’s a lie. The middle and lower classes are not longer of the imaginary. And if they are, it’s from a paternalistic or victimizing perspective. I try to present things directly, I try not to present things in a fanciful way. Nowadays, the most prestigious cinema, the one that wins Oscars, film festivals, is always the one that belongs to fantasy idealization, because it is encoded from non-human debugging if not by Walt Disney's gaze.
NOTEBOOK: Yeah, that sounds familiar...
REYGADAS: Sadly, contemporary cinema today is something more like the director understands itself as a master of ceremonies, all the time telling you what to do, as if we’re all dancing La Macarena. I wish people could just sit down and watch, without having to try to encode all the time. We are so used to reading codes and not used to reflecting on them. I think that the intention of the cinema should be to show events only and that the viewer can fill the glass with your feelings, thoughts, values, principles. But we live in a world of perpetual codified audiovisual content built only for us to spend a good time, full of axioms. It is very easy to lose yourself in it and not only see what is in front of you. Cinema is like life, something that just appears, as a landscape, and each one associates with it or observes it as it can or wants. My intention is not to press buttons to tell you what to think or feel as if I were Spielberg. I prefer the cinema understanding it as a painting, something that someone can pass by in front of him or stay for days contemplating it, write about it or replicate it. Observing is more beautiful than just looking. Not decoding, because that does not exist in the origin. There are things that don’t want to be de- or encoded.