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.