Life as It Is: A Conversation with Carlos Reygadas
It’s a drab, late-October afternoon in Bucharest. Local journalists and critics have been ushered into a café across the street from Cinema Pro — one of the capital’s largest venues — to conduct interviews with the guests of Les Films de Cannes a Bucarest, an annual retrospective led by Romania’s Palme d’Or-winning director Cristian Mungiu. I’m waiting for Carlos Reygadas to finish his interview with a team of young critics writing for the local film university’s magazine as Gaspar Noé (whose film, Climax, has just screened in front of a packed auditorium, with Reygadas and Asghar Farhadi in attendance) walks past our table. Ever the maverick, Noé interrupts the discussion, setting his hand on Reygadas’ shoulder while cheekily glancing towards the young critics, joking loudly: “Stop lying, Carlos. Tell the truth!”
What would lying entail for a director who already seems worn out after touring his newest film, Our Time, which premiered just two months ago in late August as part of the main competition at the Venice Film Festival? The unflattering press he received at most venues seems to have rendered him somewhat wary of interviews and the media in general. Often without being prompted, Reygadas harshly denies the accusations of machismo and misogyny that appear in most reviews of his film, along with the notion that Our Time is about himself (as he also plays the main character, seemingly akin to Cristi Puiu in Aurora). While the film does indeed discuss a couple’s power dynamics (as most of Reygadas’ films do), his style has changed a lot since his seminal 2002 debut, Japón — a dark, violent work associated with the New French Extremity movies championed, amongst others, by Gaspar Noé himself — turning increasingly towards slow-burning pieces that scrutinize domestic relationships, infidelity, and the limits of love.
For the better part of the interview that takes place before ours, I notice that when Carlos begins to answer the questions he’s being asked, he seems to start off by denying the reporters’ observations: he obstinately refuses to discuss the influence of Christian spirituality in his films and brushes off many elements as being simply a part of life itself, thus implicitly requiring him to represent them. This attitude would also carry over into his masterclass, confounding the swathes of film students that discovered Reygadas’ own interpretations of his work, rejecting traditional models of decoding symbols, metaphors, and situations. “Some people say that cinema is dead,” he mused at some point during the panel, “but I think that it’s not even born yet.”
I’d already decided to forego the typical arsenal of questions one asks a director — Where did this idea come from? How do you write your scripts? How do you work with actors? Etc. — knowing that countless other journalists have already asked him (and all major directors in general) these precise questions ad nauseam. As such, the following is rather more of a conversation than an interview, in which I tried to gauge some of Reygadas’ leitmotifs, his worldview, and his process of transforming his Weltanschauung into cinematic thought, rather than concentrating on the purely technical aspects.
What did you think of Climax?
[Laughs] Actually, it was… did you also watch it?
It was quite an experience to watch it before my film. It made me think a lot about what I do. Even seeing Gaspar on stage… I realized that there can be a great diversity in cinema when it is genuine. Gaspar is a very genuine, very authentic director.
It is a very different kind of filmmaking compared to your own.
Absolutely! Which is something I appreciate. I thought it was a bit long at the end, but I enjoyed it.
In regards to your own films… Watching them, I feel that they’re about this very specific moment of decomposition. Things are coming apart at the seams in the characters’ lives. There is a sort of decay, a downfall in all of your films. What’s the attraction for exploring this?
Well, even starting from the Greeks, especially Aristotle… the simple narrative, not just the literary one, but any kind of narrative requires cosmos and chaos. This is why everything happens. You go from cosmos to chaos, and then back again — cosmos being the status quo. I think I make films in that way, you know? I’m not an expert in describing cosmos.
I think I want to see humans in the complicated periods that they have in life. Everyone does. Basically, all films are about this downfall, one way or another. There are some examples that are not exactly like that — probably mine are a little bit more accused of being this way. I don’t know why. Maybe one day I will be able to do a film that doesn’t include any kind of downfall and to make it as interesting as if there was one.
Not all of them are precisely like that, I think. For example, the ending of Silent Light (2007)… there are nuances.
No, but there’s a conflict. It starts with a man crying because his heart is broken, and he is going to break his wife’s heart. That is a terrible downfall. I think conflict makes you want to say things. This is probably the answer — I’d never thought about what you’re saying. Probably, if there weren’t downfalls in life, I wouldn’t make films.
The fact that your films mostly take place in natural settings sort of purifies this conflict. There is not much to distract from it; the viewer’s attention is much more concentrated on it. Do you consciously avoid setting them in the midst of civilization?
I suppose that is because that’s where I live, and that’s where I spend a lot of my life, and I like the countryside more than the cities. But most films take place in the city — and I’m sure that most people don’t get asked about this because most journalists are also from the city. That seems to be the “natural” environment for most filmmakers and most critics, but since I come from the countryside, that’s a question that arises. We only talk about what we know. An Inuit guy would probably film the snow.
Seeing as the films are set in nature, you open up this possibility of using animals as part of your discourse. They bring this element of unpredictability to your cinema.
Yeah, I know, but it’s not what I really want to do. It would be more like… for example, the Italian directors from the 1960s and ‘70s, [Michelangelo] Antonioni, [Ermanno] Olmi, and of course, [Pier Paolo] Pasolini, they made a lot of films around factories, around wastelands. The sound of the factory horns, of the machines — it was all very important for the films too. They lived in these places and so they were very concerned about these kinds of atmospheres.
But I’ve never tried to make a point about animals. Just as I said in the earlier interview about religion and sex, I don’t want to make films about sex, probably Gaspar [does]… but we all have sex! Or if we don’t, we masturbate. It’s part of our lives. Unless, if you are the perfect storyteller, like [Alfred] Hitchcock, then you forget all those things. His films, set on a beautiful stage, made in a studio… he included those elements only if he thought about them. So that’s why I consider that kind of cinema as being a lesser kind than the one that captures life. I think that if Martians came to Earth in a thousand years when we’d all be dead, and they found what we left behind, they would probably prefer a film by [Abbas] Kiarostami than a film by Hitchcock. I think this capacity of cinema, to carry the actual material of life, is an amazing capacity. I would prefer to see such a film, but maybe that’s banal.
I asked because your films always include violent episodes, many of them using animals in one way or another. I saw this as a way of exposing the violence of humans.
Not really, it just happens that our world is extremely, extremely violent, but you don’t usually see it that way. I do or you do — shirts made in Myanmar or Bangladesh [for example]. We eat meat, oil made from animals. We live in a world where economic competition is very cruel towards people, people who are working very hard, who are afraid. All of life is violent, extremely violent. We normalize that violence and it comes under a shell of rules. Most people are very hypocritical about this — if they would see an animal being killed, they would go berserk, but they’re very happy to eat hamburgers, most of them. We just don’t want to acknowledge a lot of the things that make up part of our lives. That’s why entertainment is such an in-demand product. Life is similar to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World; it’s just more complicated.
Regarding this violence, a lot of it also occurs between your characters in various forms — from small outbursts that could barely be considered violent, symbolic violence to actual violence.
I just want to be loyal to life, to what I see. But I think that there is a lot of love too, more than there is violence — in real life and in my films too. We fail all the time. We try to live in love but we fail, then we try again, fail again, and so on. I definitely see much more love in my films than, say, dark forces.
You clash people from very different backgrounds. People from the cities, especially in the past couple of films, and people from the countryside. There is also a sort of ethnic conflict, between mestizos and natives. How do you transform these tensions into cinema?
I don’t do anything special; I was born in a place that was a former colony, and that was destroyed by European invaders. Again, we try to minimize the impact of these invasions. It’s not about throwing the blame as they do in Peru, it’s just an explanation for things. The fact that a place has been conquered has many implications. It’s not as simple as just saying “the whites are the rulers, the others are ruled.” It’s complicated, but essentially those things are still there. But that is history, and I want to talk about what is in front of me. So if I were to make a film in Rhodesia in the 1970s, you would probably see apartheid in the movie.
As you were saying to the critics that interviewed you just now, you claim that you just let the camera record things as they are.
It’s good that you asked about that. I don’t do that — it’s rather an internal disposition. I compose pretty much everything and I’m there. I don’t randomly capture images. It’s difficult to express this, and then it’s also difficult to understand. Everything that you see in my films has been designed. There are storyboards that are very similar to what you see in the films. It’s an internal disposition, not the mise-en-scène itself. Sorry to mention Hitchcock again, but I think the system I use is similar to his because I pre-visualize everything. But there are accidents that happen, the unexpected. This might sound banal, but if you were a filmmaker, you’d see how many small decisions you have to make all the time. Is the bottle here or there? Do I show this or that? Everything — everything you’re wearing, the way you’re going to talk — everything is meaningful and expressive. The viewer has such a capacity to observe and to hear, to create meaning, that everything is meaningful to an incredible extent. You can compose everything, but still, there can be so many unexpected things. And, in the end, you must have this sort of humbleness, which is about making sure that the unexpected comes into play. But it’s not about just leaving the camera [on] — that would be a superficial kind of unexpectedness. I’m talking about something far more subtle, which can actually give your film a mysterious feeling. You’re letting the mystery come through, but the mystery is not evident, it’s very subtle, almost invisible.
Each of your films uses different aspect ratios. I’m curious to find out why you decided to experiment with different formats and how this affects the way you think about composition.
Each film means a different thing. My previous film [2012’s Post Tenebras Lux] was shot in a valley with very tall mountains, so if I were using CinemaScope, which I usually prefer, you’d never see the horizon. This time I shot in a valley [with no mountains], so I could go back to a wider format. But I must say that there is something very, very special about the classic, academic ratio, something that makes things round. I’ll probably use the academic ratio again in the future. I like it very much. It’s just like painting; whatever the subject is, you need a different format.
Moving on to Our Time, you cite a lot of works in your film. A lot of paintings and murals, a lot of music. It’s quite different from what you’ve done in the past in this respect. Why did you choose to incorporate all these elements?
It’s just their world, the world of these people. It’s like with the cows, or the cars, nothing more. The difference is that a car is something that you use while a painting is something you experience. But my personal feeling about them is similar; they’re the things that surround us. The apes, they just build houses, make traps for food, have sex, and shit. We make things, but they are more than practical — the objects we make reflect thinking and design. And design can be ego-driven — someone may want to make something special and unique.
How did you decide to include yourself as an actor?
It’s a trivial decision, really. I didn’t think of the film as a story about myself; I couldn’t find an actor for the role. I did actually work with an actor and shot for two weeks with him, but then I scrapped the material because it wasn’t working. Then I just thought that having to work for three years and to have to make an agenda with someone, that would know how to do the work that is specific to the countryside, and also to be credible as a writer… it wouldn’t have been easy to find such a person, so I decided to do it myself. Ideally, it would have been someone else, not me. But I’ve learned a lot from this, and now I’m fine with the fact that I played the role. Originally, it was just an emergency.
But then you have that scene where the protagonist spies on his wife while she’s sleeping with another man. He arrives early to the man’s apartment and starts arranging the lights, the bed, the room where the two will have sex. I felt that was a point where you came very close to the character, referencing yourself as a director.
These things are strange, but very often it happens when one partner in a relationship is unfaithful, the other one asks things like, “Did you kiss them? How many times did you have sex?” What purpose does that serve? It’s absolutely irrelevant when it comes to unfaithfulness itself. But we ask those questions because we are curious. We want to see things and to hurt ourselves, in a way, but also to imagine, and it’s probably also something that turns people on. Jealousy and control are kissing cousins. It’s something very natural; [in the film,] it’s taken a degree further than what most people would do, but it’s classic human behavior. Men are more prone to being imaginative, but I’m not saying this in the positive sense. There’s a better term for this in Spanish, which means something like “stupid dreaming.” Women, also because of our history, are more in contact with reality. That’s why most consumers of pornography and video games are men. Voyeurs too. Maybe it’s because men are more desiring, fighting for the females, and then females are used to being desired. Males develop this idea of imagining the female then.
On the other hand, she is quite an emancipated character.
The woman? Totally! That’s why I’m so bothered that the stupid American reviewers talk about machismo in this film. I just don’t understand it. It’s just their prejudice, you know. They used to be very oppressive towards women, and now they go berserk about these things, but they are very oppressive, still. I think there’s no machismo in this film. In all the feminist agendas since the 1950s… she doesn’t fall into the category of being a woman crushed down by a macho man at all. The people who think this feel guilty.
Speaking of the reviews, a lot of them were preoccupied about this very fine line between fiction and reality in the film, about its autobiographical elements. It’s a fiction film, yes, but on the other hand, there’s this saying by Jean-Luc Godard that every fiction film is a documentary about its own actors.
Not exactly, well Godard always has statements that are too abrasive for me. But I see his point, in a way. For me, it’s more like writing an essay than trying to portray my own life. It’s definitely more like an essay about love and unfaithfulness in today’s world.
But you are using instruments of reality itself while you’re making films.
Of course, in everything that I do. But also in Silent Light, which is a film in German with some people whom I never saw before shooting the film, who have a different religion than mine, I don’t even know their language… that film is very autobiographical. But superficial critics think that, because I’m there, it’s more autobiographical than others. Silent Light is my most autobiographical film. But everything that you do and write — and this is where things connect to what Godard says — is somehow autobiographical because you’ve lived it, you’ve thought about it, you cared about it, imagined it. So yes, everything in my films comes very close, is born in me, in a way.
Carlos Reygadas’ Our Time premiered at the 75th Venice International Film Festival and is now traveling the festival circuit.