Time and again while watching Carlos Reygadas’ “Our Time,” I kept asking myself, “Why am I enjoying this?” A languid, three-hour, possibly self-indulgent drama about a marriage in crisis, “Our Time” occasionally seems to take place in real time, the camera wandering away from the action to linger on a random detail.
And yet I found myself gripped by Reygadas’ vision, the moments of reverie he finds in unexpected moments. There are few films like it, and certainly nobody else other than Reygadas (“Silent Light,” “Japon”) could have made it. “Our Time” has its Madison premiere at 7 p.m. Saturday at the UW-Cinematheque, 4070 Vilas Hall. The screening is free.
Reygadas eases into his story like a hot bath, beginning with a sequence in which young boys and girls cavort on a muddy riverbank, then transitions to their older brothers and sisters, smoking weed and making out downriver. Love and lust seems so simple and uncomplicated to them — or at least that’s how we remember those days.
Finally, the film finds the center of the story, a longtime married couple for whom love is anything but simple. Juan is a world-class poet who owns a large ranch in east central Mexico. His wife, Ester, is actually the one who runs the ranch and its many employees.
Among those employees is an American, Phil (Phil Burgers), who breaks horses for the ranch. He may also break Juan and Ester’s marriage — he and Ester fall into an affair behind Juan’s back. What makes this extra complicated for the viewer is that Juan is played by Reygadas himself, Ester is played by his real-life wife Natalia Lopez, and the film is shot on their ranch. In interviews, Reygadas has deflected any suggestions about whether the love triangle in “Our Time” is autobiographical. But come on.
Juan tries to be understanding, even floating the idea that the couple try some kind of polyamorous relationship. But his consideration is, in its own way, oppressive for Ester, and beneath Juan’s attempts to be high-minded about it, he is clearly consumed with jealousy. At one point, he follows Ester to a liaison with Phil, which is exactly as bad an idea as you think it would be.
Watching the cracks spiderweb their way through Juan and Ester’s marriage is heartrending, and the film generates suspense in making us wonder if or how they will pull out of this agonizingly slow death spiral. Their claustrophobic drama is played out against the stunning landscapes of east central Mexico, with panoramic shots of the ranchlands that stretch out forever. Occasionally, Reygadas will create a scene whose purpose is inscrutable but strangely moving; in one scene, where Ester is driving home from seeing Phil, he puts the camera in the wheel well of her truck as Genesis’ “Carpet Crawlers” plays on the car stereo.
Late in the film, Juan and Ester visit a friend who is on his deathbed, surrounded by family and friends who softly sing a song with him. It’s a beautiful scene about the fragility of life that pulls together everything Reygadas has shown us into a moment of profound grace. The beauty and the heartbreak, the important moments and the meaningless ones — this too shall pass.