From Our Time (courtesy Monument Releasing)

In the new Mexican film Our Time, writer/director Carlos Reygadas also stars, as does his wife, Natalia López. They play a long-married couple, Juan and Esther (the characters’ two children are played by their real-life kids), who live and work on a ranch. Juan is also a traveling poet, and he and Esther have made their relationship work by opening it up to others. But over the course of the film, that arrangement, which has served them well for so many years, starts to crumble under the weight of new emotions and obsessions.

Reygadas’s decision to cast himself and members of his family was a matter of convenience. In interviews, he has spoken about the limited resources available, as well as the production’s extended shooting schedule. Nonetheless, the casting has led audiences and critics alike to read real-life subtext out of the story. We can debate the nature of autobiography in film (to a certain extent, isn’t all art somewhat autobiographical?), but such interpretations, while not necessarily wrong, are limiting.

From Our Time (courtesy Monument Releasing)

The centrality of sex in Our Time further complicates the audience’s sense of comfort. Even as we are inundated with pornography, our relationship with sex is still constrained in mainstream cinema. Cameras pan away, heavy montage disguises body parts, and there is often a physical distance from the act. Real intimacy is a boundary rarely crossed. But Our Time does not shy away from explicit depictions of sex. Reygadas takes this to an extreme by presenting a couple that has apparently surmounted the limits of monogamy. Background shots of bulls in the midst of combat or copulation are an obvious but articulate metaphor about our own animal desires, and in the foreground we have a couple who has found a way to manage those primal needs by intellectualizing the boundaries of their relationship. But as Esther falls in love with another man, those limits change, resulting in the film’s central conflict.

The movie’s title alludes to this dilemma. We think of eternity as the ultimate goal of romance, but that is rarely a helpful measure of the experience of being in love. Marriage, for better and worse, exists in between life’s milestones, thriving in its banality. By using extended durations to emphasize passion and reflection (the film runs nearly three hours), Reygadas captures intense longing and anxiety. Big emotions arise out of sequences of apparent mundanity. Watching people engage in daily tasks feels contrary to our expectations of love and relationships as we normally see them on screen. These moments don’t seem acted in as much as they feel embodied.

From Our Time (courtesy Monument Releasing)

Some viewers have latched onto this combination of frank sex, perceived voyeurism, and the subversion of dramatic progression as evidence that Our Time is in some way autobiographical. Beneath this incredulous misreading of fiction as documentary exists a strain of conservatism. “Why would you present yourself as a cuckold and your wife as an adulteress if it were not true?” This viewpoint sees something humiliating in the film’s premise. Our Time challenges the ownership we have over each other’s bodies. The film’s nudity and sex reveal how rarely we see real bodies in the art we consume, only contributing to the sense that we are looking at something not meant to be seen. In turn, the movie seems to draw out certain people’s impulse to police bodies.

In an interview with Pedro Emilio Segura Bernal for MUBI, Reygadas speaks about the painting “The Origin of the World” by Gustave Courbet. He argues that the identity of the painting’s subject doesn’t matter when evaluating it, so the identities of the subjects in his film shouldn’t matter either. That his example is a provocative headless nude with a focus on the genitals reveals how sex and desire have become intertwined with ideas of the truth. Sex maintains an aura of mystery and taboo in cinema. It seems unlikely that we’d even be having this discussion if the film was not about intimacy and eroticism, even if it still starred Reygadas and his family. Beyond that, if Reygadas positioned his character more in line with traditional masculinity instead of casting himself as a willing cuckold, would the tone of inquiry be so probing and personal? In its voyeurism, the movie exposes the viewer’s own voyeuristic relationship with sex and art. The impulse to read Our Time as autobiographical is a way to divert self-reflection. We should instead set aside personal discomfort and engage with what the film is trying to say.

From Our Time (courtesy Monument Releasing)

Our Time is now playing at the Quad Cinema (34 W 13th Street, New York). It opens at the Laemmle Royal (11523 Santa Monica Blvd, Los Angeles) June 28, and other theaters across the country over the summer.

Justine Smith is a freelance film writer based in Montreal, Quebec.

One reply on “Is a Movie Autobiographical Just Because the Director Cast Himself and His Wife as the Leads?”

  1. It’s good to see someone reaffirm the difference between ‘the life’ and ‘the work’. And I like it that this subtly-argued piece resists any simple closure. We are left with a film that provokes thought and discussion – in short, an artwork. It may be that all art is somewhat autobiographical – as is said here – but the ways and means of relating the work to the life/the life to the work are more complex and variously negotiable than is generally allowed.(Incidentally, was that a deliberate provocation to tag the piece ‘documentary’?)

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