Wednesday 17 July 2019

At play in the fields of the Lord: "Our Time"

Now this is some old-school counterprogramming: a film so far removed from a Disney x Beyoncé redo of The Lion King as to seem beamed in from another era, another universe entirely. Carlos Reygadas is the Mexican writer-director who emerged in that millennial moment when the movies were nudging (and, in certain cases, vigorously frotting) against the boundaries of accepted representation. In between a lot of what came to be defined as slow cinema, he gave us gerontophilic sex in 2002's Japón, unsimulated sex in 2005's Battle in Heaven, and rather joyless swinger sex in 2012's Post Tenebras Lux, an occasionally atmospheric yet often strained upper-case Art Movie in which Reygadas appeared to be working through some deeply personal hang-ups, possibly of most concern to him and his nearest and dearest. His latest film, arriving on UK screens after receiving an understandably mixed reception at last year's Venice festival, pushes further still in this direction. Our Time runs just shy of three hours, is discursive as all hell, and has at its centre a marriage between a couple of ranchers played by the director and his real-life wife Natalia López, tested when the latter takes up with an American ranchhand. You could, I'd venture, depart after the opening half-hour - mostly consisting of footage of the ranchers chasing their livestock, or bulls charging after the ranchers - and be confident about knowing the film's theme. Wild hearts run free. It's only natural.

To do so would be to miss plentiful evidence that Reygadas is a great landscape artist manqué. There are scenes in this director's earlier works that have lodged in the mind, not because of the words and actions of the characters within them - people being routinely the least interesting element in Reygadas movies, rarely more than crash-test dummies bussed in at the last minute to be stripped or otherwise humiliated - but because of the worlds they looked out onto: Japón's craggy hillsides, the flooded fields of Post Tenebras Lux. Reygadas has always done his best work as the sun is coming up or going down, when those worlds appear newly anointed or ominous; he sees the promise in our surrounds, and then the lurking existential terror. Our Time is, at root, a domestic drama - more Scenes from a Marriage - tempted outside to play under 2:35: 1 skies. As one of the lovers' texts has it, with regard to the pair's illicit couplings, "It's always more exciting outdoors", which we can see for ourselves - though those words start to ring somewhere between ironic and entirely hollow in the course of the long, generally lacklustre advert for polyamory that follows.

Much of Our Time's shortcomings as drama stem from Reygadas's self-appointed "uncompromising auteur" status. It would be possible to countenance a pithy two-hour account of consenting adults attempting to finesse and childproof the sharper points of a love triangle: Liv Ullmann achieved something in this vein with 2000's Faithless, though that was a project driven by the wracked, self-lacerating conscience of its screenwriter Ingmar Bergman, wisened enough to know that, however enthusiastically we might try, three into two doesn't easily go. Reygadas, by contrast, gives himself a lot of time and space to fill - too much, it transpires. In last year's The Wild Pear Tree, the Turkish writer-director Nuri Bilge Ceylan took three hours to knot together his signature landscapes with the internal growth of a brattish would-be author; the film had a credible sense of tangled life unfolding organically before us. There is so much of what Nicholas Parsons would deem deviation in Our Time - the highlights of a timpani concerto, shots taken from inside the bonnet of a moving car and on the wing of a landing plane, lessons in the finer points of ranch management - that it quickly starts to seem a ruse, an acknowledgement that what's going on at the heart of the picture really isn't all that major: a not untypically squalid breach of trust that gets shruggingly worked out over glasses of wine by characters who at all points in this affair present as far less passionate than the animals, even the trees around them.

As performers, Reygadas and López prove a modest step up from the lumpen non-professionals this director has typically stuck himself with, convinced he can fashion marble from clay: comparatively urbane bohemians, they at least appear comfortable before the camera, even when asked to lay bare souls and other body parts. Yet they never quite convince as anything more than thinly veiled sketches of whatever it is they themselves had to work through in their own relationship before the cameras started rolling (the "our" in the title appears especially significant), and so the movie only rarely appears like anything other than a thinly veiled excuse for this filmmaker to indulge his fantasies of watching and filming his other half getting off with another man. (I mean, fine, whatever works - but I've got ironing to be getting on with.) The most vivid moments in Our Time - the stuff you remember, even as you happily leave the rest to the director's personal spankbank - involve the film's younger players: the teens of the prologue, frolicking on a beach as signifiers of the innocent simplicity of youth, and the Reygadas-López children, cast as versions of themselves, whose sporadic, school-assignment narration of these events (a sort-of "Who My Parents Did On My Holidays") both lends the drama a semblance of shape while giving it the faint air of one of those Judd Apatow domestic comedies, removed of any identifiable traces of humour. In their place, an agonised narcissism, with which viewers will have to wrestle for three hours. When the wife first hooks up with her beardy, unprepossessing lover - the only scene outside some fairly lame last-reel chairthrowing where López doesn't appear impossibly wan - she does so gazing into the mirror. In its own way, it is as emblematic as all the business with bulls and horses that bookends the film - and it takes an awful long time to get from one example of animal behaviour to the next.

Our Time is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Curzon Home Cinema and the BFI.

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