Battle in Heaven

un film de Carlos Reygadas

To step out of line with the parade of oh-so-creative monikers that were the French, Czech, British, Japanese, Polish, Iranian and Korean New Waves, the Mexican New Wave, ushered in by Alejandro González Iñárritu's Amores perros in 2000 and solidified by Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también in 2001, seems - somewhat in tune with the debate over recent immigration issues - as if it is breaking at the shores of America - or, more specifically, at the shores of Hollywood. Both Iñárritu (21 Grams and the upcoming Babel) and Cuarón (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and the upcoming Children of Men) - the Truffaut and Chabrol of the Mexican New Wave - have suddenly gone alien, and aligned themselves, not with the film industry in Mexico City, but instead with the big money of Hollywood California.

Not to give these guys too much of a knock - after all, Cuarón's ride on the Harry Potter bandwagon was the most artistically sound of the franchise so far (or at least as artistic as Harry Potter can possibly be in the light of its immature nature) and Iñárritu's 21 Grams was far from your typical studio fare (it was semi-independently financed) - but their semi-abandonment of Spanish-language cinema (Cuarón was just Executive Producer on Mexican import Duck Season and is currently at work on a Spanish dialogue US/Mexican co-production as well as having dabbled in Hollywood in the past; and Iñárritu has producer credits on a recent Mexican documentary) takes the two potential parental figures of the Mexican New Wave and transplants them far away from the Mexican landscape, leaving, I suppose, the Mexican enfant terrible, Carlos Reygadas, to mind the store.

Raygadas, my personal favourite of the Mexican New Wave - and, with his more experimental bent and seeming desire for controversial outbursts, the Jean-luc Godard of the movement - first burst upon the scene with his 2002 debut, Japón - a film that split critics betwen the two distinct (and sometimes militant) camps of 'that damn dirty filthy purveyer of putrid porn' and 'what a strangely majestic, potentially dangerous auteur-in-waiting'. Well, the waiting is over. The danger that was evident amongst the undertones of the largely severe, yet wait-n-see attitude of Japón, are right upfront and smack fucking dab in your face in Battle in Heaven.

With the audaciousness of a Breillat or a Noe or even a more recent Tsai Ming-liang, or perhaps a Vincent Gallo (or at least the image of what Gallo wants to be and may someday accomplish), Reygadas opens his film with a swirling (dare I say, Godardesque?) tracking shotof an extremely attractive young woman in mid fallatio of a fat, old, ugly man, who stands motionless throughout it all.

In actuality (or at least in the film itself), the young woman is the rich and spoiled daughter of a military General who is never seen throughout the film - as well as playing at a Belle de jour secret lifestyle - and the man is her dispassionate chauffer. The dilemma - for we as the viewers - is the question, "is this a real event or is this just a fantasy of the man's imagination?". In all seriousness, the answer never matters, for this is not really a film about thise woman and this man, but instead it is a film about the end of a man's life and his final search for death. A lost soul, who has committed a great crime (and will commit another), this tired, seemingly emotionless man is in search of a way to end it all - without of course (he is Catholic after all) taking his own life.

An emotionally surreal film (one Buñuel would be grinning about if he were still alive and kicking), Reygadas takes us deep inside the kinky (albeit disgustingly so at times) tableaux world of these quiet characters and allows us to romp freely about at all times. There is one scene - midway through - where we see the ugly man, prone and motionless on a bed, and the beautiful woman on top of him. They are having sex and the camera pans away from them, out the window, taking a 360 degree spin throughout the buildings and courtyards outside the room, catching bits and piece fragments of other conversations, before ending exactly where it had started, only now the woman is motionless as well. We then watch, as the woman dismounts and lays beside the man, as she slowly takes his hand in hers and his penis wimpers away to its natural state. This scene is not wholly unlike what Hitchcock had accomplished at the beginning of Rear Window - if, of course, Hitch had ended his scene with a naked Raymond Burr being laid upon by an equally naked Miss Torso. What this scene may represent is the strange - almost asexual - love this woman has for this man, despite his obvious inferiority in both looks and social stature. A love that still will not save him in the end.

As potent as nearly any Buñuel work, Battle in Heaven is the perfect stepping stone sophomore film in the still young career of a Mexican New Waver who doesn't seem to have any desire to head north, across the rather trepidation laden border, and on to Hollywood USA. [05/16/06]