Fiction, 177’, Mexico
Carlos Reygadas directs and stars as a successful poet and rancher named Juan in a rhythmic portrait of a marriage in crisis, played out against the disciplined and violent background of a bull rearing ranch. Juan’s wife Esther, played tenderly by Reygadas real-life spouse Natalia López, begins having an affair with a worker—a chummy gringo called Phil.
The Hollywood Reporter’s David Rooney criticised the films “prolix” 3 hour runtime for making him feel like he was “trapped in somebody else’s crisis unfolding in real time.” It is for, though not limited to, exactly this feeling of witnessing the tense tribulations of this couple’s dark hour that the film never seems to drag. It instead conjures a trance-like tempo through its performances, meditative style and editing that dissolves the audience's sense of time, and does so within the first ten minutes: an extended sequence of two sets of kids, playing and relaxing by a body of muddy water somewhere on the family-owned land. The camera remains low with the first group who have an average age of around 9, lower than the eye-lines of the children themselves—presenting them as giants as they splash around innocently in the water, find pieces of bone stuck in the mud and plot against each other: “Let’s attack the girls,” one of the boys says, introducing us to a central idea of the film. With the second group, all of them teenagers, we meet Juan’s son, also called Juan, whose crush wanders into the distance with her boyfriend after having flirted with Juan moments before. In just this opening scene we see the movement from naiveté to complex jealousy, and towards an early display of masculine envy and resentment.
With Juan Sr. and Esther, jealousy becomes obscured and sexualised as their free, open and progressive relationship boundaries begin to turn sour and poison their communication and trust for each other. While the film contains little exposition, it is revealed after the fact that the couple have an open relationship—with the mutual understanding that they are both honest about who they sleep with. Phil is introduced as a friendly American, who provides light comic relief for the first few scenes, which are weighed down by the gravity of the landscape we’ve entered. But this power dynamic of employee and employer slowly unravels as Juan’s male intuition, and insecurities, lead him to believe that the laughter displayed between Esther and Phil is far from harmless banter. And he is proven right upon confronting Esther, who has broken their trust and slept with Phil without first consulting him as they had agreed. Although it is not the sexual element that challenges Juan’s manhood and threatens the family he has built—but the fact that his wife felt the need to hide her attraction for Phil from him. This forces the question—is she falling in love with another man? Have Juan’s hedonistic values backfired?
What follows is an escalation of Juan’s constant self-doubt and paranoia, leading to passive aggressive argumentation which only pushes Esther further towards hating the man she married. But despite their turmoil and intense altercations, the couple still address each other with “mi amor”, either signalling the habits of their daily routine, or in fact proving a deep-seated and motivated love for one another; something that overrides desire.
The relationship drama takes place against the terrifyingly ferocious behaviour of the bulls on the ranch, constantly engaging in battle with one another—sometimes to the death. In the first half, two cowboys witness such a fight, but soon find themselves frantically running for safety when one of the animals, riled up from winning against his opponent, charges their horse and carriage, before proceeding to bloodily slaughter the mare in a blind rage, leaving her steaming entrails dispersed across the grass as the remaining cowboy trembles behind his wooden cart. This simple symbolic motif was criticised by Variety’s Jay Weissberg as being chunkily inserted to “ensure audiences get the mundane commentary on masculinity.” And while the imagery is definitely cliched, I feel as though the realism and rawness of the film averts this potential issue—it’s not forced, but contemplative.
There are two scenes where Juan secretly watches Esther fucking another man—one of them her lover, Phil, and the other a long time mutual friend of the couple. In these scenes, it's not clear whether or not he’s driven by jealousy or desire, whether he’s curious or aroused. His incessant confrontation of Esther over the affair would point to the first, but his lack of intervention and sense of intrigue might imply the latter. Even Juan does not know the reason for his actions, which are nonsensical and masochistic.
Later, Juan is given an opportunity to consider what may be truly meaningful when he visits his dying friend at his home, recalling an early scene from Antonioni’s La Notte. Juan cries, prompted only by a sense of his own mortality, and the self-pitying belief Esther would fail to unconditionally care for him, in the way his dying friend’s friends are, if he were himself on his deathbed.
This purity is amplified by claims of autobiography, something that Reygadas himself has evaded most, if not all, questions regarding. AV Club’s Mike D'Angelo writes that the film “plays like therapy,” and it certainly feels like it does. But I don’t view this as negative—is this not one of the most basic qualities of storytelling? Additionally, the film has attracted accusations of being “shallow and self-indulgent” (The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw), and while one can certainly empathise with this reading, it would appear to me that Reygadas’ choice to play the protagonist himself is less of an ego-boosting move and more of a way in which he could force himself to reflect upon and interrogate his own masculine pathology through events that he may or may have not experienced personally. After all, Juan is shown to be an obsessive, self-loathing wannabe alpha who is in the end humiliated by his own lack of conviction; this is not a vanity project—even less so if it is based on reality.
The film’s lingering, self-conscious camerawork that is drowned in vibes of Italian neorealism holds on an empty frame that a character just occupied, continues tracking-in long after a scene is over and points us to details of a location that would otherwise go unnoticed. While these techniques aren’t particularly new, they’re refreshing. The camera is not only natural, but is nature itself: unforgiving and mostly uninterested in the dramas of human life. As are the bulls on the ranch, led by their instinctually programmed needs and desires, as are we—despite believing the contrary.
Outside of the central conflict and life at the ranch, there are several moments that again point to the transience of our existence: a sequence from a fixed camera beneath a plane, a sort of ‘POV,’ that takes off in the Mexican countryside and lands on an airport runway in the capital city, and a drawn out, somewhat bizarre classical concert scene, that features percussionist Gabriela Jiménez playing Gabriela Ortiz’s Concerto Voltaje for Timpani and Orchestra, after which we hear in voice-over the secret, lustful texts that Esther is sending to Phil.
The film raises and explores the complications of the open relationship, and particularly draws us to the question of: what if one of the partners in such a relationship falls in love with somebody intended to only be a sexual partner? Can the flexible sexual ideals of the characters’ marriage, which are initially agreed upon for the greater good and continued longevity of the union, have the opposite effect to what was intended? It also brings to the fore ideas of our fantasies, and the dangers of their actualisation. Are we forever to be caught between our Otherly sexual desires and the ego security that faithful monogamy can provide?
Reygadas’ sixth feature film is definitely not for general audiences and may even agitate loyal fans and seasoned arthouse viewers. But at the very least, Nuestro Tiempo is the work of a director willing to lay himself bare and explore the failures of hedonism, masculinity and pride.
— George Louis Bartlett