Sydney FF 2019: OUR TIME – Review by Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

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Chances are, if you’ve seen a film by acclaimed Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas before you’ll have a pretty clear idea what you’ll make of his latest feature Our Time before you even watch it. Tedious navel-gazing or ponderous poetic reflection? As is now seemingly par for the course with Reygadas, opinion is largely split, although Our Time does not seem to have drummed up quite the impassioned positive responses as his last feature six years ago, the more experimental and audacious Post Tenebras Lux from 2012. It may simply be a case of better the (animated) devil you know.

It’d be an impossible job to respond to Our Time without acknowledging just how explicitly Reygadas’s “our” refers to himself and his family; while he plays the films poet-turned-ranch-owner protagonist Juan, his wife Esther is played by Reygadas’s real-life wife, Natalia López. Yet despite the undisguised determination of the filmmaker to place himself physically at the centre of his film as much in front of the camera as behind it, the film’s beautiful opening scenes keep him hidden well from view. Cutting after its silent opening credit sequence to the happy chatter of children playing near a picturesque pond, we see gendered rituals between boys and girls of different ages played out with almost tribal reverence. The older kids – teenagers – have moved on from such conflicts, instead turning their attentions to their burgeoning sexuality, with the help of beer and the lack of their parents’ rules and regulations.

This introduction is vital to framing the gender dynamics and sexual rivalries that will construct the bulk of the film that follows. Our Time tells the story of Juan and Esther who, although ostensibly in an open relationship, are revealed to have more complex issues of trust at stake when Esther’s attraction to and consequent sexual relationship with visiting American ranch hand Phil (Phil Burgers) intensifies from a casual fling to a deep affection.

The film alludes from the outset that it is Esther who has all the markings of a control freak, micromanaging her housekeeper on how to prepare dinner for the children. Yet Esther is efficient, precise, and clear about what she wants. She is in control. At the same time, as Juan realises precisely where things stand between Esther and Phil, he finds himself acting in ways well beyond the open-minded progressive man he thinks he is: he spies, he connives, he manipulates, and it is increasingly impossible to ignore – even for him – that the man he imagines himself to be and the man he actually is are perhaps not as aligned as he assumed. Angry, jealous and suspicious, he becomes increasingly paranoid if she texts too much or if she seems defensive. “You’ve never spied on me before”, she tells him calmly. “You’ve never lied to me before”, he answers.

Turning to an unlikely ally in his attempt to return the situation to normal, Juan simultaneously enlists Phil as an ally through a carefully executed strategy of guilt and a demand to act responsibly, while increasingly playing the victim card with his wife, accusing her of dishonesty and selfishness, cruelly and self-righteously reminding her they do not live in what he calls “Estherland”.

In perhaps typical Reygadas fashion, however, the complexities to the narrative of Our Time are played out as much (if not more) through stylistic choices than pure plot and dialogue as such. For instance, the film darts between a number of different voice overs – Esther, Juan, their daughter Leonora, Phil – and there is a strong epistolary aspect to the film’s storytelling style, given shape in emails and letters that are narrated as much (if not more) by the recipient rather than the sender. These messages and voice overs are fascinating because of their status as consciously contrived constructions; they reveal in many cases what characters wish to believe is true rather than what their actions say is actually the case. The film is driven between these kinds of competing ‘truths’; of what we want to believe versus what is actually the case.

These ‘truths’ are often snatched covertly under the shadow of dubious morality; a number of Esther’s sexual encounters we see through Juan’s eyes, as he spies on her both with Phil and another man he has set her up with in an attempt to distract her from the American.

Juan is a curious variation of the jealous lover figure; less macho bravado, it is the façade of progressive chill that proves to be where he struggles most to keep the performance up. Esther at least can let go enough to scream and throw chairs, but Juan is trapped by the dishonestly of reasonableness. He’s a man who can write about complex emotions as a poet, but when faced with emotions he clearly can’t control he does almost everything he can to present an outwardly facing face that suggests otherwise.

While perhaps not as spectacular and certainly more pedestrian in many ways than Post Tenebras Lux, while we might lose our animated demon here the devil is in the (passive aggressive) detail. Less the self-indulgent circle jerk some have accused it of being than an expose on the potential hypocrisy of supposedly woke, progressive masculinity, Our Time is as much a critique as it is a potential confession.

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Alexandra Heller-Nicholas

Alexandra Heller-Nicholas is a multi-award-winning film critic and author who has published nine books on cult, horror and exploitation cinema with an emphasis on gender politics, including the 2020 book ‘1000 Women in Horror, 1898-2018’ which was included on Esquire Magazine’s list of the best 125 books written about Hollywood. Alexandra is a contributing editor at Film International, a columnist at Fangoria, an Adjunct Professor at Deakin University, and a member of the advisory board of the Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies (LA, NYC, London).