Early into Carlos Reygadas’ Our Time (Nuestro Tiempo), the camera follows Esther (Reygadas’ spouse Natalia López) as she drives home to her ranch, husband Juan (Reygadas himself) and kids. Esther is coming home from a motel where she met and slept with Phil (Phil Burgers), an affair Juan is slowly coming to terms with and will later encourage, in a toxic cuckolding game that will anchor the most part of Our Time’s whopping 173 minutes. The camera stays on her face, and then, as in a magic trick, moves into the car’s engine. It’s a moment of ineffable beauty: Esther drives home, enamored, a mellow tune engulfs the car, and a whole world vibrates inside of it, filling the screen with a cacophony of pistons, valves, and energy.
The scene comes at the end of Our Time’s first act—if the word could ever apply to Reygadas’ loose narratives—and embodies the visceral quality of the Mexican’s Post Tenebras Lux’s follow-up: an ability to dig into the world captured on-screen to incredible depths. By the time Esther drives home, Our Time has followed a group of kids playing mud wars at the hacienda’s lake; a couple of teens making out around the estate; bulls being tamed over mezcal shots; Esther meeting, flirting and falling for horse whisperer Phil; and percussionist Gabriela Jiménez performing Gabriela Ortiz’s “Concerto Voltaje for Timpani and Orchestra,” with the camera abandoning the concert hall to capture glimpses of Mexico City’s rooftops, and the crowds shuffling below them.
They are moments of jaw-dropping beauty and intensity, amplified by director of photography Diego García (of Neon Bull fame), here working with widescreens that capture the sprawling landscapes around the hacienda in Mexico’s state of Tlaxcala, alternating static shots where rancheros and bulls run into arid immensities with free-flowing camera movements of Malickian wonder, as when the lens follows the kids idling about a lake baked dry, with an “ill wind” blowing on their faces, and black clouds lingering above the muddy waters.
Life breathes through the shots, and for a good half hour Our Time unfurls as a kind of ethnography of a remote community, where men and bulls share an ancestral bond, and revered poet Juan (who owns the hacienda) and his wife Esther (who runs it) serve as entry point into a portmanteau that initially promises to be just as interested in capturing humans, beasts, and the vast empty spaces entrapping them. Except by the time Esther’s drive home ends, Our Time embarks on a decisively Reygadas journey.
If the autobiographical thread running through the Mexican iconoclast’s Post Tenebras Lux had been tempered down somewhat by the use of stand-ins (with Adolfo Jiménez Castro to fill in the director’s shoes as Juan), Our Time takes auto-fiction to an altogether new level—Reygadas casting himself and family to conjure up a tale of toxic love and masculinity that looks like an expansion of Juan’s cuckolding fantasies in Our Time’s predecessor.
Ostensibly liberal and open to her wife enjoying the company of other men, Juan gets paranoid after Esther’s liaison with Phil shifts from fling to love—a scenario the open marriage never considered, and which forces Juan to accept the affair as the sole means to rescue their own moribund relationship. “You’ve opened a door,” he writes to Phil, “and now you have to come in.” But in Reygadas’ convoluted script, it is not at all clear whether Juan truly suffers at the thought of the deal moving further, or whether he takes some perverted pleasure in it—a possibility warranted after the poet recruits an old time friend to have sex with Esther while he peeps from a closet—and we watch them with him, in a voyeuristic point-of-view that finds a delightfully ironic counterpoint only seconds later, when we cut to an audience staring back at us as Juan speaks to them during a conference.
To be sure, the whole triangle does feature some striking inventions. Building on the auto-fictional terrain, Juan has his daughter act as a narrator tasked with spelling out the man’s ills, and there is a compelling sense of poignancy in Esther’s soul-searching journey, culminating in a moment of reckoning where she finally opens up to Juan about her own needs over and against the husband’s wounded machismo. But the drama is often cast in a self-indulgent, self-absorbed light, turning Juan’s quandary into a patience-testing solipsistic game, where the three participants are kept at an arm’s length (like animals to look at), and the cuckolded man’s paranoias and sexual fantasies become a numbing leitmotiv.
As Esther struggles to vindicate her own independence beyond a wife-mother role, Juan’s alpha-male virility comes under threat—a running theme that finds an echo in the bulls’ own fights. But while Reygadas teases out the aberrations of Juan’s machismo at great length (most acutely in a Skype heart-to-heart between husband and wife, where—oblivious to Esther’s sorrows—he asks her to strip) there is no evidence that Juan fully understands their scope. What to make of a film that featured some of the most harrowing scenes of this year’s Venice Film Festival, as well as others of excruciatingly self-absorbed narcissism?
Our Time is a film whose individual parts function better than the whole. There is plenty of room to criticize it as an endurance test, but glossing over the wonders nestled inside it would be a myopic disservice. Well into the love triangle, Reygadas offers a bird’s-eye view of Mexico City, the camera fixed on a plane’s landing gear as it makes its descent on the capital’s airport, Esther speaking about her urge to look after herself in a letter addressed to Juan, which Reygadas has her read in voiceover. We watch the city glitter from above, lulled by the plane’s point-of-view and her soothing voice, the houses getting bigger until the aircraft lands on the runway. Our Time may be a patchy ride, but moments like this make it well worth it.