We have two reviews this week. Up first, Erik Jaccard returns to Ten Years Ago with a thoughtful meditation on Cuarón’s focus on children on the precipice, foreign film at the turn of the millenium, his own academic training, and sex on celluloid. We may have distracted him from writing his dissertation prospectus, but the below re-view is more than worth the setback in productivity.
Y Tu Mamá También, dir. Alfonso Cuarón
While I’m generally all for diving right into projects like these, let me first lend a little trivial background information. Y Tu Mamá También marks my fourth review for this blog and I am continually pleased with the quality content it offers. I am also extremely grateful for the opportunity to engage in fun, yet serious-minded retrospection on cultural artifacts that have in various ways touched, stimulated, or offended me. (While all three adjectives seem to imply some kind of sexual wrongdoing, I assure you that my experience with these films has been PG-rated). Finally, Y Tu Mamá También is the first film which has allowed me to review in the standard format instituted (but in no way demanded) by the blog’s humble yet prolifically knowledgeable custodian. I first saw the film in the cinema during the late spring of 2002 (it was released first in Mexico in 2001) and I return to it now, nine years later, with no subsequent viewings in between and nine years of life under my belt. For this reason you will have to pardon my indulgent self-reflections throughout.
I remember liking this film immensely upon its initial release. Like many, I think I rode the wave of indie film buzz which seemed to follow its general release, buoyed by the inevitable Stateside controversy surrounding the film’s frank depictions of sex (more about that in a bit). The road trip narrative appealed to me, close enough as I was to a time in my life when I actually took road trips (and likely considered them a mystical embodiment of 20th century American zeitgeist), as did, ironically, the idea that I was watching something different (I was just starting to watch foreign films consistently back then). If it doesn’t seem immediately obvious, I’d hasten to add that the irony results from the ways in which I’m sure I didn’t let the film’s explicit difference penetrate far past my own social, cultural, and historical vantage point. I let the film’s foreground take over entirely and, as far as I can remember, didn’t really know what to do with the narrator’s frequent interruptions and the way that narrative perspective as channeled through the camerawork seems to generate an ironic contrapuntal commentary on the film’s main events and socio-political context. So I could say all I want about how I’ve matured (I think I have), having watched more foreign films (true), or having learned some Spanish (also true). But what really seems to have made the difference this time around is the way my critical reading practice has been reoriented both by the time I’ve spent practicing to be an academic, as well as the kaleidoscope of experience amongst which that whole professional business has taken place.
I’ve also since developed a major appreciation (some might call it an aesthetic man crush) for the writing, directing, and producing of Alfonso Cuarón, who directed Y Tu Mamá and co-wrote the script with his brother Carlos. Like fellow Mexicans Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo del Toro, Cuarón has made quite the splash in Hollywood over the last decade and a half, producing three extremely capable and polished adaptations of popular novels (A Little Princess, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Children of Men. I leave his adaptation of Great Expectations to the side as a well intentioned but less successful offering.), all of which seem stamped with Cuarón’s particular visual flair and narrative prowess. While some would say that it is precisely Cuarón’s aesthetic that inevitably trumps his storytelling ability, what he and cinematographic co-conspirator Emmanuel Lubezki have nonetheless consistently managed to do is take a source material and tighten it, narrow it into not only a particular social and cultural interpretation, but into a particular aesthetic mode that plays off and enhances that vision. It is not for nothing, for example, that Cuarón’s take on Harry Potter is considered to be one the finest in the series. This is due to its concision, but also its particular aestheticization of the moment — in both the Potter films and childhood in general — when childhood innocence teeters frightfully at the edge of a dark unknown.
Following on from this, it is equally obvious — to me, at least — that Cuarón recognizes the value in telling stories to, for, and about children. Throughout his oeuvre he has taken on projects which shove children into confusing, dispiriting, and at times vicious adult worlds, often highlighting the ways that these children react surprisingly, even inspiringly when faced with adult malice or indifference. Recently, in his stunning adaptation of P.D. James’ novel Children of Men (2006), he turns that focus on its head, presenting an impotent twenty-first century without any children at all, which is to say a world of despair. Finally, and it’s difficult to disagree with this, Cuarón and Lubezki’s ambitious, pointed camerawork is just spectacular, nearly across the board. Even Great Expectations, which fails on a lot of levels, is a wonderful looking movie, a magical movie really. Similarly, the nightmarish realism of Children of Men works so well because the filmmakers give us a realistically dying world in washed out grayscale with excruciatingly long takes that emulate the passing of real time. Watching some of the scenes in that movie is like being strapped to the side of a cameraperson taping terrifying live events, except that in this instance — as with Y Tu Mamá También — I feel as though I’m not only watching that thing unfold in front of me, but I’m also watching myself watching that thing unfold in front of me. In other words, Cuarón’s films have started to help me interrogate how and why I watch movies, what I notice, why, and when I shut my brain off and why it should stay on.
Let’s start with a bit of comparative review. Y Tu Mamá También was the first of two hugely successful foreign films distributed in North America in 2001, the second, even more successful one being Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulain — otherwise known simply as Amélie. Both films draw inspiration from the French New Wave, both are quirky takes on established genres (the road trip buddy flick and the destiny-driven love story, respectively), and both offer a theatergoing experience unique from the majority of mainstream Hollywood cinema. Additionally, both films feature an imposing narrator who surgically slices into the narrative fabric at opportune moments to explain people, events, or context. But as anyone who has seen both of these films will have noticed, they inhabit opposite ends of the social and political spectrum. Amélie is an eccentric, upbeat love story stamped with an almost Disney-like touch of nostalgia. It is set in a timeless Paris (it could be the 1960s, it could be 2001, but who cares, love is Paris and Paris, love!) of fromageries, endearingly dreamy men with moustaches, pale half-Audrey Hepburn, half-wood nymph women, and so much sugary sweet sentimentality that one really can’t help but be bowled over in the best of ways. I don’t begrudge people their love of Amélie, because I love Amélie, just like I love Frank Capra films, Field of Dreams, and a select few other cinematic sweetmeats that make me go all gooey inside. It’s a nice, cute film about good folks you can like and who ultimately triumph in the end.
We all know that in November of 2001, when Amélie was released, we all needed something to feel good about. The world had seemingly gone to hell in a single morning and so cleverly and convincingly sweet a film must have seemed like a welcome distraction from history, or at least from the clamoring, traumatized voices out in the ‘real’ world. Amélie doesn’t really take issue with the real world or a lack thereof, and it doesn’t have to. Multiple viewings of the film have convinced me of this, and this is probably one of the reasons I continue to come back to it. I don’t expect much of anything new from repeated viewings, and I generally come away from each with the same fuzzywarm tummy as the last time. So as you don’t think I’m wasting your time with irrelevant digression, I’ll say that the reason I find this comparative background important, if not essential, to my recent re-viewing of Y Tu Mamá También is that in retrospect I have to ask myself how I missed so much of the film’s social and political commentary on the first viewing. Or perhaps the better question is how I let myself be distracted by the scandal factor, aka the fact that the film is full of sex, questions of sexual and gender identity, and the cultural politics associated therein. I’m sure this is at least partly to do with the way the film’s overt content played into the rampant(ly vogue) identity politics of the 1990s and my partial reception of that whole discussion in the context of pseudo-college-intellectualism. Rather than waste time psychoanalyzing myself, I’d instead venture to say that I received the film through a media context which had decided the film was about sex (unwholesomely, the more puritanically minded might say), and that I let myself be guided by the dictates of that discourse into focusing the majority of my attention on the film’s narrative foreground.
Y Tu Mamá También, however, is in many ways a disquisition on how we let narrative shut us out from the real world outside. Though many might not see it as such, it is a frame narrative, with a ‘central’ story told through plot, characterization, and setting offset by a second narrator whose interjections abruptly freeze the sound of the main story (though importantly not the action) and provide a running commentary on character backgrounds, hidden secrets and feelings, motivations, and even the future. Even more importantly, perhaps, is the camera perspective itself, which at times seems to wander independently of the film’s central story, focusing on peripheral or marginal characters in a given scene, forgoing the central characters’ banal dialogue for a glimpse at the world around them and the logic on which it seems to run. The effect of this is that the audience is provided a fuller picture of the stories at play in the frames of reference through which the boys’ self-involved sexual adventure plays out, and through which they careen, oblivious of their own inflated sense of self-importance.
This inner story/primary plot tracks the adventures of two Mexican teens as they finish their school year, say goodbye to their girlfriends, and proceed to get very bored very fast. Tenoch (Diego Luna) is a the wealthy, privileged son of a prominent local politician while Julio (Gael García Bernal) comes from a lower middle-class background and self-identifies as leftist and working class. Despite this intra-narrative class tension (which surfaces from time to time when they get pissed at each other), their perspectives are presented as comfortably bourgeois: they worry about what their parents want them to do with their lives (especially Tenoch), they enjoy their leisure time with parties, drugs, and sexual fantasies about various girls/women, they worry about who they’re going to become as adults and why. At a ritzy upper-class wedding they meet a young, attractive married woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdú) and convince her to come on a road trip with them to an imaginary beach on the coast with the typically male, typically irrational assumption that, hey, something might happen. And something does, of course. Over the course of the trip a distraught Luisa (I’ll keep why under wraps for those who haven’t seen the film) has sex with both the boys, setting off a storm of jealousy, admissions of past betrayals, and immature posturing. What initially raised the most eyebrows about this primary narrative was its blunt depiction of sex, and I’ll admit that there is a lot of it (not to mention a lot of silly talk about it). But mere depiction is hardly cause for alarm. Most of the sex is tastefully handled and, quite honestly, is the exact opposite of titillating. Despite their manly pretensions, it precisely through sex that the boys come to seem most like lost, frightened children facing a dark and uncertain future in which they are both expected to play certain roles.
And this is honestly the most interesting thing about the film’s treatment of sex. It’s not that it occurs between young boys and an older, married woman. Nor is it that the sex is particularly graphic (not to me, anyway) or that it’s simply being had in the first place. As far as I can tell, sex in the film is all about either establishing and playing roles, or assisting in their dissolution. Dissatisfied with her philandering husband, Luisa exists at the edge of her role as a wife and woman. Indeed, cutting loose of her life and voyaging out with the boys represents her first turn away from the ‘proper’ roles she has until that point played. I don’t care to speculate on why Luisa leaves with the boys, or why she has sex with one, then both of them, but one of the effects seems to be that the boys, previously used to bromancing each other through talk of sex with women (insert Eve Sedgwick comment here), finally reach a point via Luisa at which their previously suppressed homoeroticism bursts into the open for a moment, exposing their relationship for what it is — a male-male love contained by the roles they have been conditioned to play (which seems to be the root of the sexual bravado on display for much of the film). Though I may be missing something, I don’t read the relationship between Tenoch and Julio as a repressed homosexual one, partly because it would mean that there are only two — no, three — kinds of people in the world: straight ones, gay ones, and ‘straight’ ones who haven’t openly declared themselves gay. I’m quite certain that it’s more complicated than that, though I’m not sure I’d venture to say here how that complexity plays out.
From the very beginning the frame narrator and his camera partner (what I would assume we are to take as Cuarón and Lubezki) undermine what might otherwise come off as a typically oversexed teen road trip flick by providing background information on the boys and their families, their social milieu, and their history. As I mention above, when this occurs the soundtrack on the film suddenly stops and, while the scene continues to run, we receive this information. The effect is somewhat like an experience we’ve probably all had, when someone is telling a story and a third party continues to jump in and provide extra information or details the storyteller is excluding in the name of accuracy. But in this case the information provides a social and political backdrop to the main narrative, not as much explaining what was left out of that story by the boys (though this is the case on certain occasions) as the essential silences and closures of the main narrative, all the things it refuses to recognize as a part of its own story. This is all of the people and histories that fall outside of the Mexican middle-class’s narcissistic narrative of itself and what the boys take for granted. And this is what the narrator, and more importantly the wonderfully errant camera, show us: migrant laborers dead on the road but mere background to the boys’ sexcapades; the local itinerant fisherman and his family who help the boys find the beach they lied about in the first place, but who is later pushed off his land and deprived of his occupation so that he can make way for (and later provide cheap labor for) an incoming mega-resort; a 90+ year old woman full of memories of a place fast disappearing.
Read against this additional content — what seems to help the film form a fuller totality of life in Mexico — it’s difficult, if not absurd to call the film a sexual ‘coming of age’ story or a road trip film. Well, I guess it is and it isn’t. The film seems designed to present both of these standard genre types and also to subvert them, offering at worst a subtle critique of the ways that we go about telling stories in easily identifiable patterns without acknowledging that we are telling the same story. At best, it is a valuable primer on how to read culture for more than its superficial presentation, on how to see things rather than simply watch them (if this seems to border on the cliché, I’d simply point to an entire tradition stretching from the early forerunners of aesthetic modernism through Brecht and on through to contemporary speculative and science fiction that aims for the same result: introducing something into a narrative that lets you know you are watching a specific interpretation with a specific intention and a specific bias). And on that note, if you’ve made it all the way through this and don’t find me a tremendous bore, I’d say that you should watch this movie however you want to watch it, for fun, for intellectual stimulation, as background. It’s a tremendous film that I would recommend to most (though I’d never want to watch it with my grandma…or my parents).