CANNES, FRANCE—Cannes’s designated outrage, Mexican filmmaker Carlos Reygadas’s Battle in Heaven had its world premiere in competition amid rumors of earlier versions rejected by Cannes and Venice in 2004. Reygadas’s second feature, following his provocative 2002 whatsit Japón, is filled with graphic sex, including two instances of fellatio performed by a lithe young woman on a fat middle-aged man. These scenes frame the movie, functioning like the famous close-up of the bandit shooting the camera in The Great Train Robbery—an attraction that is about, but not of, the narrative.
Japón was a film about a man preparing to kill himself.
Battle in Heaven details the mortal combat between a general’s driver (played by Marcos Hern an actual chauffeur for Reygadas’s father) and the general’s daughter (played, under the assumed name of Anapola Mushkadiz, by an actual flower of the Mexican ruling class). Each has a criminal secret: The driver and his wife have orchestrated a botched kidnapping; the daughter, like Belle de Jour, amuses herself by working in a brothel.
Working without a screenplay, Reygadas is a Warholian impresario, creating existential situations where nonprofessionals can expose themselves—sometimes cruelly—on camera. (The Factory connection is clinched by Mushkadiz, an Edie Sedgwick type with a throaty voice and a bird’s-nest coiffure.) This concern for authenticity is reinforced by the interpolation of documentary footage—most spectacularly in using a vast religious procession as a backdrop.
This Mexican neo-surrealism was found elsewhere in Cannes. Amat Escalante, an assistant director on Battle in Heaven, enlivened the “Un Certain Regard” section with Sangre (which Reygadas co-produced). Sangre similarly features ordinary people in erotic situations, although in its uninflected stylization (presenting the action head-on in long static takes) it is more suggestive of early-’70s Fassbinder.
Ritualistic as they are, both Sangre and Battle in Heaven suggest a new sort of ceremonial cinema. Late in the festival, I treated myself to a screening of Sal México, a 1948 cabaretera by Emilio Fern It was fascinating to see a marginally more rational treatment of the same ceremonial approach to the very same themes—self-sacrifice, class-conflict, and sexual degradation.