Battle in Heaven
It is true that films generally work off the probable, on the justifiable likelihood of certain outcomes where plot logic is vital. But occasionally films are, if you like, more interested in the 'possible', with plot logic tenuous, character psychology dubious, and off screen events as significant as on screen drama. Whether one cares for a film like Battle in Heaven, it would seem pointless to reject it on the 'probable'' grounds it is not working on, and surely more fruitful to create a critical superstructure to understand the position it may be coming from.
Opening and closing on images of a young woman giving fellatio to a middle-aged man, characters who within the film proper are a rich, bored part-time hooker, Ana, and her father's chauffer, Marcos, Carlos Reygadas's film creates a possible world within which a relatively actual world can take place: a diegetic story set in Mexico City where Marcos and his wife have kidnapped a baby who has died in their care. The probabilistic story would have indicated good reasons why this couple have kidnapped the child, would have shown the kidnapping, observed the poverty that gave rise to it, and the tragic accident that resulted in the baby's death. The couple would be on the run from the police whilst at the same time searching their souls, and might perhaps die in a shoot-out with the cops, and the viewer could pity the characters whilst accepting justice needed to be done.
Yet this is not the story Reygadas tells; he is interested less in moral likelihoods, and more in attentive possibilities. He doesn't ground Marcos's crisis in narrative event, and kinetic drama, but uses Marcos as an 'attention span': as someone that can provide the film with its ethical vista, with its interest in the peripheral details of city living that erodes a soul much more commonly and regularly than the narrative through-lines that show characters in extreme situations and on a learning curve out of that extremity. In the latter, the film would create a cathartic scenario consistent with narrative traditions that go back thousands of years; but how could such a tradition make sense of a densely urban reality where the ethical problems are often minor yet frequent, how to find a form that paradoxically points up the minor that is generally a problem, over the major that is specifically one? In other words, kidnapped babies are exceptional events; humiliation and exhaustion mundane daily occurrences. What is finally closer to our reality? When for example the British filmmaker Peter Whitehead reckoned "film can be the medium by which we regain contact with the world," it resembles Reygadas's decision to focus not on the hyperbolized crime, but on the symptoms of despair in urban living.
In such an approach sound and image become problematised; they don't serve narrative givens, but speculative observations. In one early scene Marcos and his wife are standing at their stall in the underground, where they sell sweets, cakes and alarm clocks. His wife tells him the baby is dead, and the film fades out the sound of the numerous alarm clocks that have been going off, and the sounds of the passing people fade in. In interviews (Talking Movies, The Faber Book of New Mexican Cinema), Reygadas has talked of objective sound and subjective sound, but here he seems interested in two types of objective sound that nevertheless allude to subjective states. The difference is between extended sound and contracted sound, the aural that stays very close to a character, and the aural that extends far beyond him. In the contracted sounds the alarm clocks are close, and part of Marcos's immediate, every-day reality. The sound he hears when the alarm clocks fade out isn't embodied immediacy but disembodied attentiveness. As Marcos watches the numerous passersby, as he sees a man carrying his own urine in a medical bag, as he sees a woman chastising her small boy, as he watches numerous school-kids pass, Reygadas doesn't quite slip into subjectivity, but he does take Marcos out of his immediate reality: the sound of the alarm clocks keeps him in the dimension of his life; the more ambient sounds of strangers allude to existences beyond his own.
If we've indicated though that Reygadas has no interest in the probable story, how are we to explain the possible story he tells? What underpins it? The film seems to be a threefold examination of man: of one's physical pleasures, social needs and spiritual demands. The furling and unfurling of the flag at the beginning and end of the film alludes to the social, as do the numerous small social situations the film observes, including Marcos stilettoed on the tube while looking for his glasses but taken for a pervert, or the scene where rich kids urinate in the boot of their car before the maids take out the suitcases. Meanwhile there are the numerous religious allusions throughout, including a picture of Jesus's wounded side, and a group of people trying to ring a church bell, taking care of the spiritual. Then there is the sex between Marcos and his wife or between Marcos and Ana, as Battle in Heaven explores the problem of sex, society and spirit. These are however not integrated explorations, but disintegrating investigations, as Reygadas attempts to try and understand how out of joint existence is by making a work that is itself out of joint. When in one scene Marcos picks Ana up at the airport, Reygadas in a series of long takes follows Marcos's drive through the city in shots that echo the Straubs' great History Lessons, where a young man drives through the streets of Rome as the Straubs occasionally intercut the sequences with dialogue exchanges of the young man in modern dress interviewing in Ancient Rome various power players in the State. In a fine chapter on History Lessonsin The Material Ghost, Gilberto Perez says "a broken form, a montage of scenes and elements of scenes, serves in Straub and Huillet to keep from being turned into fiction, from being subsumed in the world of fiction, the documentary details the camera and microphone have recorded." Reygadas would seem to share this desire to keep fiction at bay, and this is central to the 'possible' cinema we have been invoking. If 'probable' filmmaking often desires to keep the real out of the frame; the cinema of Straub and Huillet, and Reygadas, wants to find ways in which to let it into the shot. In an interview with Jason Wood in The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema, Reygadas says "I like Roberto Rossellini very much, the conditions in which he had to shoot with whatever was there. Rossellini was a master at using the world..." It is in the great tradition of 'possibilistic' observation - evident also in the scenes with Ingrid Bergman driving through Napoli in Rossellini's Voyage to Italy, Jeanne Moreau's walk in Milan in La Notte, De Niro's negotiations of New York in Taxi Driver - that Reygados is here working.
This desire to use the world can of course lead to the filmmaker having a weak grasp of story, but why can we not equally say of filmmakers who are good on plot that they often have a weak grasp of reality - that they don't know how to use the world? Think even of a term in common parlance like setting the scene, or a term from dramatic theory like the 'obligatory scene'. In the former instance the milieu isn't explored, the scene is set; in the second the character isn't free, the demanded scene, the one that brings together various plot elements, must be played out. This isn't to denigrate the probabilistic with their scene setting and plot obligations, but how often do we watch a film and feel there is no epistemological urgency in the space, and at a certain point almost no narrative freedom for the characters? In romantic comedies like Notting Hill, or dramas such as Public Enemies, whether fiction or based on fact, the probability factor is high. In Notting Hill we know that the couple are made for each other, and director Roger Michell's purpose isn't to create numerous possibilities, but to create plausible obstacles: how to keep the relationship messy until the end? In Michael Mann's film we're equally sure that John Dillinger will end up dead, the film's purpose is to shape the narrative in such a way that we know that Dillinger is doomed, and still feel the tragedy of that inevitability: aware that he was loved deeply, and that the people killing him are no better than he is.
In his Journals, the French novelist Andre Gide talks of "...the effort to construct a plot, in order to stretch before the reader that motley embroidery, which, for a time, shimmer before him and veils reality." But he also adds, "on the other hand, it is to that reality that I want to recall him constantly, to reveal it to him in a slightly better light, to present it to him as even more real than he has been able to see it hitherto." Gide was writing this in 1928, and was seen as an important but not especially experimental novelist. He still believed in the significance of narrative event, the sort of significance that would be tested by a later generation of novelists like Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Simon and other practitioners of the Nouveau roman, where spatial exploration became more pertinent than narrative delineation. Reygadas is still a filmmaker interested in narrative, but it is constantly giving way to the detail that doesn't further story but counters it. In Hitchcock films the detail usually pushes the story forward - the glass of milk in Suspicion, the necklace in Vertigo, the gathering of birds in The Birds. Hitchcock, the master of probabilistic storytelling, always knew how to accelerate story with the simplest of detail; Reygadas's details keep holding the story back and pushing the abstract enquiry into questions about Mexico City forward.
We can see this in a couple of scenes from Battle in Heaven, where the observational detail is attended to and then ignored, and where in another film it would become a plot point. In the first, Marcos loses his glasses on the underground, and shortly afterwards goes and picks Ana up from the airport. Here is a man driving a car without his glasses, and it is easy to imagine the sort of tension a narratively oriented filmmaker would get from such a sequence. It's already known at this stage the kidnapped child is dead, and we may expect the combination of Marcos's poor eyesight and preoccupied state would make the journey across the city a precarious one, with Ana unaware of why Marcos is driving erratically, but the viewer well aware of the reasons whilst still fretting over Ana's life. Instead the loss of the glasses is more or less ignored on a narrative level, but adds to Marcos's sense of dislocation on a perceptual one as the world becomes vaguer, less distinct, while at the same time not at all undermining the attentive gaze the viewer shares with Marcos. To have put us into Ana's potential fret in such a moment would of course have undermined completely the problem of exploring Mexico City as a spiritual, political and social problem as the long car journey offers an examination of Mexican society.
The second scene comes near the end of the film, with Marcos leaving Ana's apartment after he has asked for a word with her. He needs to speak to her alone and her boyfriend leaves the apartment to pick up the paper. Marcos has earlier in the film told her about the baby's death, and she insists that he has to give himself up. He leaves the apartment and we might notice as he does so that he has left his jacket, and expect him to return for it a moment later. As he stands in the hall we may initially think he stops, having realized he has forgotten his jacket, but then we notice he has wet himself as his jeans become soaked in urine. He goes back to the apartment, grabs a kitchen knife and stabs Ana to death. With neither concrete motive offered, nor suspense generated when he returns to the flat, we see once again that Reygadas has eschewed the devices of dramatic expectation.
But while this all very well, aren't we still entitled to ask what is gained from such eschewals? The director of three features, Japon, Battle in Heaven and Silent Light, Reygadas is clearly interested in what Paul Schrader, in his book Transcendental Style in Film, has called a 'transcendental style', and it is a point fellow Mexican filmmaker Alfonso Cuarn generously proposes in The Faber Book of Mexican Cinema when invoking Schrader in relation to Reygadas and saying "for me, that's the most difficult thing to do..." This is a style where, in Schrader's words, one seeks to express "spiritual emotions", and it is as though in form and content the filmmaker needs to escape conventional psychology and action to bring out the inner architecture of the soul. As the great Danish spiritual philosopher Sren Kierkegaard proposed, "certain movements of the soul disarm psychology." By this reckoning we could believe that the great spiritual filmmakers - from Dreyer to Bresson, Tarkovsky to Sokurov, as well as contemporaries like Bruno Dumont and Lisandro Alonso - are arming the soul, trying to find a means by which to express the readily inexpressible. Book-ended provocatively by the fellatio Marcos receives from Ana in some perverse heaven, Reygadas could be dismissed as a purveyor of an anomalous soul-porn, but it's as if unlike the filmmakers Schrader invokes (Dreyer, Bresson and Ozu), he wants, like Dumont in L'humanit and Flanders, not to work with the body/spirit divide, but to create out of the focus on the flesh (the bodies of Marcos and his wife, Ana and another prostitute) a certain fleshy inexplicability, a mind in torment and a body raging with needs and desires.
This isn't simply a transcendental style; but a transcendental anomaly. In an article on Bresson in Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag talked of a "reflective, as opposed to an emotionally immediate art", adding later in the piece, "ultimately the greatest source of emotional power in art lies is not in any particular subject-matter, however passionate, however universal. It lies in form." Yet Reygadas seems as influenced by Rossellini as by Dreyer, and he offers up his own body/spirit dialectic with an interest in the specifics of form that creates distance, and the immediacy of filming Mexico City and the flesh. This is why we mention the transcendental anomaly, an aesthetic approach that demands not the spiritual as a given; more as an on-going torment. Reygadas's book-ending is undeniably a provocation; but less perhaps for the explicitness of the material - more for the manner in which it absurdly resolves the mind /body question in an act of fellatio. Is heaven he seems to propose not so much a retreat from the flesh, but where body and spirit, far removed from the social, can be at blissful, erotic peace?
© Tony McKibbin