Director Carlos Reygadas
OUR TIME (Nuestro tiempo) C+
Mexico (177 mi) 2018 ‘Scope d: Carlos Reygadas Official site
Bulls, balls, and bullying, a portrait of toxic masculinity and Mexican machismo, revealing the hold it has on a culture and the nervous anxiety it causes in others, starring the director himself in the lead role and his real-life partner Natalia López as his wife (breaking from her customary role as film editor), shot at the director’s own ranch where he raises bulls, featuring his own children and animal livestock, becoming an overly self-indulgent escapade into male domination which really masks the underlying insecurities that feed into it. Interestingly entitled “Our Time,” this overall sense of male insecurity may be the driving political force across the world at the moment, fueled by despots and autocrats that are making a mockery of the “free” world, which is in such a state of unsurpassed anxiety and instability that it’s causing Czar-like figures to rise to power, ruling with impunity. But that’s not likely the intent, simply a coincidence, as the film has a much more personal message, challenging the idea of personal freedom (or open borders), suggesting humans may not be suited for it. If Reygadas wasn’t such a powerful filmmaker, this might dovetail into an impassioned melodrama, instead it’s an attempt at transparency within a marriage, one with no monogamous restrictions, so sexual partners are expanded beyond the marital framework, allowing sexual curiosity to grow and expand within the marriage under the idealistic belief this will make their love grow even stronger. Not sure where this idea stems from, but it appears founded upon male wish-fulfillment fantasy, the idea of having free access to multiple partners, suggesting a ménage à trois doesn’t go far enough, but this assumes the woman remains true to one man, as the moment she starts to explore her own sexual possibilities, the man cries foul, as unlimited access doesn’t feel so good under those circumstances, as most men fail to accept unlimited freedom, falling victim to their own jealousy, insecurities, and inherent weakness. While it resembles the expansive scope of Bergman’s introspective SCENES FROM A MARRIAGE (1973) that flies into a rage of marital discontent, here it breaks down with the husband turning into a sniveling coward who is both intensely curious yet equally repulsed by his wife taking pleasure with another man. The degree to which he fails so miserably turns him into the lecherous Fernando Rey from a Buñuel movie, whose sexual obsessions are so overpowering that they become ridiculous, as his moral hypocrisy (a stand-in for the church) becomes comical. That’s not likely the desired intent by Reygadas, who offered hints of this in his previous film, 2012 Top Ten Films of the Year: #2 Post Tenebras Lux, where the wife in that film indulges in sex with strangers in a group sauna where everyone’s naked. There it’s an isolated instance, but here it’s the central focus, as their entire marriage hangs on a thread from this sexual experimentation, with woman viewed as interchangeable parts for a man, yet women aren’t allowed to achieve this same level of promiscuity, as it drives the man bonkers. While it’s meant to be a serious exposé, who but the wealthy have the luxury to indulge in this kind of “freedom of expression,” making this is an overly awkward and thoroughly uncomfortable experience.
Stylistically, this is the same Reygadas, resorting to powerful imagery that commands the screen, shot by a pair of cinematographers, mostly Diego García, with additional work from Adrian Durazo, easily capturing the rhythms of life on a bull farm, with Ester (Natalia López) managing the farm while Juan (Carlos Reygadas), who also happens to be a highly regarded poet, selects the bulls and the cowboys that work with them. With the appearance of a loving relationship, raising their children and working with the hired help adds to the overall picture of family life, yet working with bulls is exceedingly dangerous work, shown in graphic detail when a bull gores a helping mule, then pummels it repeatedly, showcasing his massive strength. From that point on, viewers are very aware of the bellowing sounds of the bulls off in the distance, much like the soundtrack of Béla Tarr’s opening scene in SÁTÁNTANGÓ (1994), as their grunts and snorts are heard throughout the film, and while never shown, this must include highly physical mating sessions that fill the quiet of the night air. The film opens more innocently, however, following a group of kids hanging out in a large mudhole that they call a lake, though it appears you can stand just about anywhere, so the boys end up in a mudfight while the more civil girls sun themselves on a raft. Eventually the boys target the girls, with a few of the older ones drinking freely and heading off as couples into the outskirts away from prying eyes for sexual interludes. In this way, the film contrasts the behavior of children with that of the animals, with a central focus on the open marriage concept discussed by Juan and Ester, with Juan openly upset when she refuses to share the intimate details of an overnight trip into the city. His possessiveness is apparent, as is his overcontrolling nature, where his constant demands place a strain on her mental health, as she grows tired of always having to answer to him, never having a moment in peace. What’s immediately obvious is that a man like Juan and open relationships do not go together, as he’s too tightly wound and insecure, jealously checking her cellphone to examine her emails, literally spying on her, then offering this as proof that much more happened than she was willing to admit. Surprised at having to deal with his insulting provocations, Ester is put in a painful position. While she obviously enjoyed herself, having an exclusive affair with another man, she hated having to put up with the constant nagging husband who was relentlessly persistent about requiring salacious details that she wasn’t comfortable sharing with him. This becomes apparent in the first hour of a three-hour film, becoming cringeworthy after a while, as this behavior repeats itself mercilessly for another two hours, where the delusional aspects of their relationship are accentuated, creating irrational expectations that might have made sense at one point in their marriage, but it’s time to reconsider. Instead, they push on, oblivious to the internalized hurt and pain they suffer, all self-inflicted, never once examining their own unreasonableness in opening up their marriage, as it’s clear that’s something Juan no longer wants, yet it all plays out with Ester as the sex toy of two men, still feeling like the film is a male fantasy gone wrong.
The story itself is overly simplistic and uninspiring, rarely delving into Ester’s motivations, as her sniveling husband is hardly the man she fell in love with, replacing that with some younger version of masculinity, though one is hard pressed to realize how this is going to solve any of their problems, as instead it only intensifies. Reygadas uses a strange device of using children’s voices to express an inner narration for both Juan and Ester, which may have intended to suggest the childishness of their behavior, but the adult or more mature aspect of their thoughts is clearly undermined, with viewers feeling little sympathy for either character, which is what makes this a difficult sit-through, as it’s not really going anywhere, overanalyzed, feeling repetitive and intrusive, putting viewers in the awkward position of voyeurs staring into the window of a troubled marriage like peeping toms. With mathematical precision, Juan then starts behaving more and more irrationally, literally peeping on Ester and her lover, staring into windows, devising a contraption that prevents a door from fully closing and then positioning himself with a view of the bed, becoming comical in just how pathetic his actions are, yet at the same time, he contacts the lover and attempts to coerce the direction of their relationship that is more favorable to him, all done behind the back of Ester, with men devising schemes to control the outcome. This element of cowardly desperation, basically cheating in order to change the rules of the game and effect a more favorable outcome, is inherently repugnant, a moral abomination, but this is the level Juan will stoop to in order to get what he wants, though clearly, he’s simply making a fool of himself, clouding his panicked response with binges of moral self-righteousness. While there are rare moments of eloquence, an exquisite airplane landing sequence, for instance, or a strange internalized glimpse of carnal love accentuated by a close-up view of a truck’s motor, most of this feels like doomed exasperation, with Ester going on this lengthy monologue describing how he was once the man of her dreams, how she was caught up in the intoxication of the romance, caught up in his spell, believing they were sharing a life together where the love would never end, but now it feels as if their marriage is on a precipice, where it’s up to her to decide the next direction, feeling newly empowered in a way that never existed before, yet uncomfortable in the role, as her husband has been reduced to Looney Tunes. One of the more compelling scenes is Ester’s night out with a female companion, going to the symphony for a rare timpani concerto, Gabriela Ortiz’s “Concerto Voltaje for Timpani and Orchestra,” featuring a flamboyant performance by female percussionist Gabriela Jiménez (that was not in synch with the music), yet what was memorable was a discussion between the two women, with Ester revealing, “We know our husbands all too well. They refuse to leave their fucking ranches.” This little nugget of information reveals how isolated Juan has become, alone on his island, with The Emperor Jones (1933) delusions of grandeur. The obvious question, immersed in marital dysfunction, is whether she wants to be a part of it anymore, as it’s painfully clear where he stands, sinking like quicksand in his own petty anxieties, not a pretty sight, but they share a family connection. Like the opening sequence with children playing, the final sequence takes place in the pasture lands with the bulls, shot in a morning fog draped over the landscape to an instrumental section of King Krimson’s “Islands,” King Crimson - Islands - YouTube (4:48, picking up around the 2-minute mark with a piano interlude, including a horn section occurring around 2:30), with the male bulls forever fighting each other in pursuit of the cows, resorting to violence, fighting to the death, if necessary, which is an inevitable part of their inherent behavior and primal instincts, irrespective of the outcome.