Sexual Transgressions of Carlos Reygadas

March 5, 2018 § Leave a comment

Two feature films into his still relatively young career, Mexican writer-director Carlos Reygadas had already developed a reputation as a provocateur, particularly following the hostile Cannes reception of his drolly scathing sophomore effort Battle in Heaven (2005). With his debut, Japón (2002), Reygadas displayed a tendency to  punctuate weirdly nauseating narratives of painful self-reckoning with moments that approach the sublime, the transcendent. But he also betrayed an impish desire to wheedle his way under the viewer’s skin with blanched and turbid cinematography, unglamorous sexuality and violence against animals. So when Battle in Heaven landed on the Cannes Croisette, opening with the image of a young woman explicitly fellating an older man in what appears to be a nondescript grey chamber, Reygadas’ status as Mexican cinema’s enfant terrible was confirmed, with words like ‘graphic’ and ‘transgressive’ becoming frequent descriptors of his output.

Oddly enough, Reygadas’ rise to international prominence in the early 2000s occurred around the same time that a cohort of filmmakers, from Catherine Breillat to Michael Winterbottom, were making serious attempts at exploring the extent to which uncensored, often unsimulated sex could be legitimised in non-pornographic films, from the blush-worthy moments of carnal vulnerability in Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy (2001) to the gaudy intravaginal coital shots from Gaspar Noe’s Enter the Void (2009). And while the aforementioned example from Battle of Heaven may proudly sit with such rebellious and irreverent company, it (and the final scene from the same film) remain striking anomalies in the Reygadas filmography: the only instances of explicit penetration, whether achieved with flesh of prosthetics. Yet, the image of Reygadas as a ‘transgressive’ filmmaker remains despite the relative brevity and overall coyness of the sex scenes in his films, all four of which indeed contain sexual content.

It may simply be that Reygadas’ subtly pugnacious formal choices have earned him the title of ‘transgressor.’ Or perhaps it’s the quietly damning depictions of class and gender dynamics in contemporary Mexico, or the disconcerting emotional texture of his films — the sense that his characters exist in a dead zone between obligatory religious morality and austere amorality. While all these are true to some extent, the perceptions that Reygadas’ use of sex is not only ‘graphic’ but ‘transgressive’ remains a curious one. Is this filmmaker skirting the boundaries of sexual explicitness in a manner akin to some of his peers, or are his sights set on different boundaries, with a view to pushing a different set of buttons? In this video, I explore this question.

* originally published on Fandor Keyframe in 2016

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