It’s obviously very unusual to see older or old ladies in films unless they are Judi Dench or Maggie Smith. It’s also quite unusual to see older women having relationships with much younger men – examples such as Sunset Boulevard or Harold and Maude spring to mind… light years away from the work of Carlos Reygadas. Yet when the film first hit the festival circuit, despite the arrival of a new auteur in world cinema and one very much influenced by masters such as Rossellini, Bresson and Tarkovsky, a lot of critical writing and reviews focused on that coupling between a woman in her 70’s and a much younger man.
Japón introduces a number of tropes that Reygadas would return to in his work – explicit sexuality, animal cruelty and a metaphysical sensibility among them but this ability to interrogate human desire and reveal the unexpected is one of the most arresting things about the film. Reygadas’ characters are often mysterious and not subject to conventional narrative drives. Sometimes we don’t learn their names, as here with the male protagonist – certainly not their motivation, interpretations are left open or seem merely a distraction.
What overwhelms you is his visual sensibility, his command of cinema as a visual art form, his engagement with the image and frame, showing a confidence that belies his experience at the time. Certainly, this is a debut and has some of the flaws of a first feature but his influences are just that – rather than being imitative, this is a dialogue with some seminal and historic classics of world cinema.
Many commentators have remarked on the saintly qualities of Ascen the older woman – what she represents – salvation, an angel, a sacrifice? To me it’s a refreshing representation of female sexuality or sexuality full stop and something highly unusual in any national cinema whether it be commercial Hollywood or traditional art cinema.
In my career I’ve watched many films and there’s nothing so dispiriting as travelling to a festival and seeing one film after another offering the same clichéd females, whether they are narratives of sexual violence, mystery or the blank canvas onto which male desire is mapped. Japón was like a breath of fresh air in this regard, a complete surprise and demonstrating a passion for life, a human curiosity and humanity which Reygadas continues to purvey.