Those hoping the narrative wackiness of “Post tenebras lux” was an aberration in Carlos Reygadas’ career might long for the earlier film’s Dadaist jumps after watching “Our Time,” a maddeningly over-indulgent bid at self-analysis on screen that even the director’s shrink might find banal. Once again corralling his family into the picture, the director stars as a rancher-poet whose ideas about open marriage are challenged when his wife (naturally played by Reygadas’ wife Natalia López) rather too much enjoys an affair with their American horse-whisperer. Shots of testosterone-charged bulls are flagrantly inserted to ensure audiences get the mundane commentary on masculinity, though they’re far preferable to scenes between husband and wife.
The director’s collaborations with cinematographers have always resulted in visuals of remarkable, unnerving beauty, yet even in this department “Our Time” has less to astonish than in previous films. Die-hard acolytes will argue that the camerawork transcends or even complements the storyline; most everyone else will wonder what happened to an auteur whose work was awaited with such eager anticipation.
Reygadas’ preoccupation with masculinity has long existed as a thematic element though never before to such a degree as here, and given his on-screen presence as well as his family’s, it’s to be expected that everyone will wonder how much he’s mined his personal life. Even if it’s all complete fiction, with no parallels to his life, the story (like almost all wife-swapping dramas) is tediously commonplace and as usual in such things, the woman has little agency, her actions dictated by mercurial moods and a corrosive need for pleasure.
The opening plays like an attractive but less dazzling companion to the start of “Post tenebras lux,” with scores of children of various ages playing in the shallow muddy waters of a small lake, set against a widescreen background of distant hills and an extinct volcano. Pre-schoolers are divided by sex, while the teens, exuding the confidence and maturity of privilege, mix and explore in the heat of the school break. In the first of many observations on male/female behavior, the younger boys sneak up on the girls in their rubber dinghy, upturning the peacefulness of the setting.
Most of the kids are never seen again as the focus shifts to ranch owners Juan (Reygadas) and Esther (López). He’s an internationally acclaimed poet who prefers the cowboy life of horses and bull herding, while she manages the property, employees, and their three children, Juan (Yago Martinez), Gaspar (Eleazar Reygadas), and Leonora (Rut Reygadas). When horse-breaker Phil (Phil Burgers) finishes his work at the ranch, Esther drives him into Mexico City and stays the night, arousing her husband’s suspicion. Tranquility is shattered, signaled by a gruesome scene of a bull goring a mule to death (how’s that for subtlety?). Once home, Esther’s contented smile and lack of concern regarding the eviscerated animal lead Juan to snoop on her cell phone, where he discovers multiple contacts with Phil.
He shouldn’t be too upset since he’s long suggested an open marriage, but Juan’s hurt (he says) that she didn’t tell him about the affair, especially since he considered Phil a friend. Esther’s too much in the throes of sexual fulfillment to appreciate the depths of her husband’s distress, her beaming face a clear sign that she’s getting what she needs. Once her lover departs though, she turns moody, not helped by Juan’s randiness and disingenuous insistence that she relax and enjoy life.
At a certain point, Leonora, in her childish voice, narrates the trajectory of Juan’s emotional state, and at another moment we see Phil’s email to Juan being typed out. Everything’s above-board and out in the open for both audience and character, though why have a child speak in voice-over about adult situations? In a further masochistic act, Juan arranges for Esther’s ex-lover Santiago (Andrés Loewe) to have sex with her while he watches from behind a slatted door, but Esther’s not satisfied, pining for Phil and finally beginning to think about what she wants.
No doubt Reygadas finds meaning in every second of the nigh-three-hour film, but for audiences, the self-indulgence on display is a real patience-tester. There’s an especially excruciating scene with Esther and Phil naked in bed (a painting of the Virgin of the Apocalypse pointedly situated above their heads) and Juan sitting across from them talking while making insufferable smacking noises with his lips and tongue. Later on, Juan seems to connect with what’s really meaningful when he visits his dying friend Pablo (Joaquín Del Paso), but are the hippie friends around them who are chanting “Namastase” meant as a joke?
To be sure, there are striking moments — ironically, all of which pull us out of the film rather than bringing us in deeper. A concert sequence with percussionist Gabriela Jiménez performing Gabriela Ortiz’s “Concerto Voltaje for Timpani and Orchestra” is an exciting whirl of intensity and sound, while a beautiful plane sequence that begins in the countryside and ends on the runway in Mexico City is a panoramic delight. Even the final shots of bulls in the early morning mist rutting about can be appreciated for their undeniable aesthetic qualities, but then an image of a bull forced off a cliff by an alpha male merely spells out masculine toxicity in yet another tediously obvious way. Has the solipsistic Juan — or is it Reygadas? — learned anything about countering his machismo rather than merely identifying its destructive traits?
This is Reygadas’ first film working with the DP of “Neon Bull,” Diego García, and the results are very much in line with the director’s earlier collaborations, though there are fewer moments of jaw-dropping wonder, and certain scenes are simply murky. Quite often, colorful lens flares reflections call attention to the process of filming, which no doubt will generate a major debate on their purpose among fans. As always, sound design is superb, ensuring that the lowing and bellowing of the bulls are a frequent background accompaniment.