April 02, 2006

Subject for Debate: "Battle in Heaven"

Help me, if you will, with a problem that's been bothering me ever since Friday. That is, ever since the good folks at Exclaim sent me to the TIFF screening room to see Carlos Reygadas' latest freak-out, Battle in Heaven. It's frequently questionable; it's often spurious; it largely makes no analytical sense. And yet, somehow, I find myself loving it, in spite of my critical faculties and better judgement to the contrary.

From the first frames, it doesn't take long to see where Reygadas' head is at. He starts off with an ordinary-looking, middle-aged fat man being fellated by an impossibly good-looking young woman. I had been primed by the advance reviews that the fat man was working-class and the young woman was rich and privileged, but the director doesn't let you know until our man is seen following marching military police lovingly raising the Mexican flag. Then we discover that he's the driver for a general (the girl is the general's daughter) and that he's kidnapped a baby for the ransom- only to have the kid die on him. As he stands with his (even fatter) wife as she sells novelties and jellies in a train station, it's obvious that he's not going to get ahead.

So far, so good- a bit obvious (beyond that opener), but solidly in the Oppression is Bad camp. But as he drives that young woman around, it's discovered that this particular general's daughter has a double life as a prostitute. She even offers one of her smokin'-hot co-workers up for him, but he can't get it up for her: our man only has eyes for the General's daughter. Despite the fact that he's been driving her since she was tiny. And it's here that the sticking point comes: what does the girl's particular debasement mean? And how does it complicate the dichotomy of rich vs. poor?

It seems that Reygadas is seizing on the idea that to be rich is to be a young, beautiful girl who is completely unattainable. That is, he places himself (a male director) at the epicentre of oppression and the object of his desire as his master-tormentor. Which is not a good thing. Using one's own sexual frustration as the vehicle for materialist critique is under-the-table all the way: it says more for the frustration than for the critique. You can practically see him nudging the men in the audience and saying "ain't capital a bitch?" and then pointing at the girl. It's reductive, it's shallow, and it doesn't do his cause any favours.

And yet, I found myself enthralled by the film, much more than a Marxist Letters to Penthouse ever could. Every shot is interesting, every cut a provocation; there isn't a dull or predictable association in its visual/editorial arsenal. There's a long sequence shot through the driver's windshield with overlaid with the girl talking to a lover on her cell; her obliviousness and the subjectivity of the camera says it all for being an ignored entity on the fringes of the wealthy and powerful. And Reygadas' total frankness with bodies makes the sex scenes like none you've seen, with bodies explored (or more to the point, presented) with nonchalance and regret. The whole thing is weird with a beard, and with one of those infuriating Bruno Dumont endings that you'd view with contempt if it didn't make you feel thrillingly awful in ways you never thought possible.

So my question is: do the fringe benefits of a bravura plastic artist make up for his not-terribly-bright social reading? Or is the window dressing just distraction from the hole at the centre of his argument? I open the floor for opinions.


Bemis said...

As Hitchcock would say, you were aroused by pure film. And yes, I think a film's greatness can lie in the periphery rather than the thesis; this is true of some of the greatest films ever made, Apocalypse Now being the clearest example I can think of (it's amazing how that film can be referenced to make a point in just about any film discussion).

Alex Jackson said...

If you like the film despite your best critical faculties and better judgment it would appear that your best critical faculties and better judgment would have to be revised. Right? As much as I oppose the knowledge-centrics, if you look at this in terms of the scientific method, you come up with a hypothesis, you do the experiment, if the data doesn't support your hypothesis, you throw it out and start again.

Or it's possible that we could get away with not revising the hypothesis and just say that filmmaking can compensate for bad motivations if the filmmaking is particularly strong.

Anonymous said...

“Do the fringe benefits of a bravura plastic artist make up for his not-terribly-bright social reading? Or is the window dressing just distraction from the hole at the centre of his argument?”

Michael Mann usually presents this quandary to me. A stunning visual artist possessed of obvious intellect (judging from some of his commentaries anyways) but, one who relies on a particularly virulent strain of Hemmingway-styled (or Mamet-lite if you prefer) bupkus to infest most of his recent films. How can I sit transfixed by Diane Venora’s faintly ludicrous speech to Al Pacino (where she typifies him as some sort of great, avenging-man beast before shooing him off to chase the robbers) while still innately understanding that the central theme that runs through virtually all of Mann’s work (“A man’s gotta do what etc…) is clichéd at best and profoundly silly at worst. When I first saw "Heat" I described it to my mom as a "Study of Masculinity" to which she replied: "Wow. We don't get many of THOSE do we? Nonetheless, I've still seen it several times. Perhaps it’s the inherent seriousness with which Mann examines his favoured thesis that allows him to get away with this stuff—not even the hint of satire in his stuff.---kind of like getting Chagall to draw a “Boys Own Adventure” comic . Easily unpacking Mann’s empty crate is typically difficult, as Mann’s films are just so gorgeous to look at (and he uses music better than virtually any current American filmmaker). “Collateral” may just be the best looking bad film I’ve seen in recent years—and I though I’ve forgotten most of the inane plot machinations of that film—I still remember that Coyote crossing the street, eyes aglow like silver dollars. Look, a lone wolf…maybe the men in this movie are….LONE WOLVES too! Auugh…pretty pictures, pretty pictures…

Btw. I own all of Mann’s films and watch them regularly. A man’s gotta do….

sabine said...

Is the thesis so important? The whole film as you describe it sounds to me like something my Argentinian ex-boyfriend would have understood on the spot. A story where sensuality/sex/longing supersede all other readings and an understanding that a woman, any woman, whether rich, poor, prostitute, general's daughter, whatever, can't be "had", because she has a life of her own that is quite unfathomable.

I'd guess that cliché runs deeper than the actual social commentary - which I find is true for many Latin American novels, too. The social background may be there but it's the relationships that are rich and dynamic yet somehow run parallel to social reality as a more analysis-oriented mind would perceive it.

Jefferson said...

Y Tu Mamá También made a statement about class striation in Mexico that I took to mean "the upper and lower classes can only really get it on together by lusting for the same unattainable object, and even then they'll only end up more alienated from each other." I'd have to see Battle in Heaven to know if it's offering a complementary thesis, but I can say that if US filmmakers studied class with the same level of thought as their Latin American brethren, Larry the Cable Guy would never have gotten a film deal.

Anonymous said...


I just want to say that I thought Battle in Heaven was a great film as well. Unfortunately, I haven't completely figured it out. The film took me vicariously to Mexico City and everything on the screen felt so real even though it often bordered and crossed the line into the absurb. Lots of tunnel metaphors with subway stations and overpasses coming in and out of the picture. Symbolism up the ying yang to chew on for sure.

I need to see it again for a proper dissection. He may have been in purgatory the whole time. There seemed to be an existential battle in "heaven" for his soul the whole time being waged between external and internal forces.
Perhaps he was dead the whole time and was trying to somehow come alive by having sex. Lots of white light. And to boot the girl was absolutely gorgeous. I was entranced from the very start. His blinded spiritual journey through the streets was amazing. Most memorable scene sequence I've seen on screen all year. 5/5 for me.

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