C'mon pilgrims

Carlos Reygadas and Claire Denis keep film mastery alive

By Johnny Ray Huston

› johnny@sfbg.com

The best films resensitize you, making acts as simple as walking down the street or even breathing seem new. Such is the case with Carlos Reygadas's Battle in Heaven, an audacious collection of slow, circular pans and long tracking shots that travel ever deeper into the mysterious relationship between a chauffeur named Marcos (Marcos Hernández) and his chief passenger, a general's daughter named Ana (Anapola Mushkadiz, the pseudonym of a girl from Mexico's ruling class). Battle's journey is a fatalistic one, yet Reygadas — making Brian De Palma seem understated — manages to get himself and his characters into vulgar mischief along the way. More impressive still, he does so without losing a profound sense of devotion.

Reviews of Reygadas's sophomore feature usually gloss its surfaces, viewing the film's opening-credits blow job and later graphic sex scenes as mere grist for the latest post–Brown Bunny outrage. Even a slightly more insightful but still too obvious discussion of Battle's class and body-image provocations is relatively blind. (Horrors! Reygadas shows ordinary people fucking or, even worse, a rich, young, skinny person fucking a poor, older, fat one.) Such angles don't note the ways the director trumps the comparatively humorless Bruno Dumont in his Bresson-inspired scrutiny of nonactors — visualizing physicality so intimately that its representation is both existential and spiritual. They also scarcely graze the technical virtuosity and psychological acuity of his portraiture.

The bedroom encounters between Marcos and Ana — a sleepy-lidded Venus with shells in her dreadlocked hair — or between Marcos and his wife (egg-shaped Bertha Ruiz, who looks like she stepped out of a surrealist painting) reveal his love for both women and their distinctly manipulative mixes of affection and disdain for him. The truth — or a lie — resides in sexual position, postcoital conversation, and the tiniest parting gestures, whether they be fingers running through the tendrils of a mullet or one hand loosing itself from another. (A depiction of a drooping erection seems to nod to Blissfully Yours, another recent bravura feat of building drama from documentary elements.) Reygadas is gifted at beholding the macrocosmic and the microscopic; under his always intimate gaze, Mexico City is just as alive, and as impulsively ruthless, as these characters are.

With his debut film, 2002's Japón, Reygadas announced himself as a prodigious talent, though perhaps too somberly and self-consciously; that film's pace and bombastic final shot flirted with turgidity. Comparatively, each sequence within Battle is a beautiful but monstrous bloom — time and again, a scene commences immersed within one bizarre yet everyday perspective, only to shift its eye over to a completely different nearby universe and then return to where it began. Reygadas constructs an absurdist ballet from the beeping of clocks and the movement of crowds through a subway tunnel. His view of the natural world — a tree teeming with birds, for example — is as uncanny and frightening as the one found in Clarice Lispector's short stories.

Drawn to visions of windblown flags, both Battle in Heaven and Claire Denis's latest film, The Intruder, set their unsparing sights on the final pilgrimages of doomed protagonists. But whereas Reygadas's movie reveals the cruelty that upholds nationalist pride and prejudice, Denis explores the equally murderous crannies of a fractured colonialist psyche. Based partly on a book by Jean-Luc Nancy, Denis's movie pinpoints the organ transplant of Trebor (sun-spotted Michel Subor, whose performance in the "lost" 1965 film Le Reflux provides flashback material) as an offscreen nexus while casting a ravishingly cold eye on the fantasies and realities of his continent-hopping domination. Nothing if not elliptical, much of the film's action here may reside inside its main character. Trebor seems to lose even more of his mind as he receives a new heart — does he have to kill a son (Grégoire Colin) or claim one to add a few extra days to his lonely hunter's life?

Rhyming images of cold steel boxes in banks and morgues, The Intruder has been heralded as a career-to-date classic in many corners, perhaps because it comes after Friday Night, a film many Denis admirers regarded as a trifle. In fact, I'd venture that Friday Night's near wordless rapture figures just as strongly within Denis's follow-up as the more obviously linked study of racism in her first film, Chocolat. Without a doubt, this is a cumulative work, with Beau Travail's Colin and Subor returning for another round of friction, and with the appearance of auteur totem Katia Golubeva allowing Denis to add her own feminist take on Leos Carax's and Dumont's visions of Golubeva as a post-Soviet death angel. No reviews of The Intruder that I've come across note that the film also extends and expands upon Denis's repeated focus on vampiric characters, whether they be literal bloodsuckers (as in Trouble Every Day) or older people alternately feasting upon youth and staring at mortality.

The Intruder is Denis's art-rock moment as a filmmaker — one of its locations just happens to be home to a major film fest (Pusan), for example — and as such it gets an appropriately '70s score from S.A Staples of Tindersticks. Indulgence does this rather chilly veined filmmaker a world of good, even if globe-trotting greed is exactly what she has set out to dissect. On a final, ominous note, I have to wonder if this ravishing, challenging work, a contemporary counterpart to Antonioni's just revived The Passenger, will be the last film released by Wellspring Pictures. The company was recently bought and renamed by the Weinstein brothers, notorious for holding some of this young century's best films hostage. I was the only local critic present at the press screenings of both Battle in Heaven and The Intruder, and I can't help but take such signs as proof that outside the festival circuit, what was once called "art film" is dying, even as Denis and Reygadas prove that the last thing the form needs is a heart transplant. *

BATTLE IN HEAVEN

Fri/31 through Thurs., April 6

7 and 9 p.m. (also Wed., Sat., and Sun., 2:30 and 4:45 p.m. )

Roxie Cinema

3117 16th St., SF

(415) 863-1087

$4–$8

www.roxie.com

films.tartanfilmsusa.com/battleinheaven

THE INTRUDER

Fri/31 through Thurs., April 6

7 and 9:35 p.m. (also Wed., Sat., and Sun., 1:45 and 4:20 p.m.)

Castro Theatre

429 Castro, SF

(415) 621-6120

$6–$10

www.castrotheatre.com

www.wellspring.com