Soft Porn in Long Shot? Sexual Healing in Mexico

Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También ( And Your Mother Too) , from a screenplay by Carlos and Alfonso Cuarón, utilizes several layers of expression to provide an eventually somber parody of what initially plays as a Hollywood-style teenage sex farce. The movie reportedly had trouble with the Mexican censors, who’d banned it for viewers under 18, but eventually they backed down under public pressure. (Of course, much of that public pressure came from viewers under 18.) Oh, that the Mexicans could inspire us supposedly enlightened Americans to abandon our Talibanish ways in these matters!

Since so much of the movie is enticingly adorned with nudity, foreplay and simulated fornication, Mr. Cuarón has apparently given up on getting a rating of any kind in the United States. This has led to a spate of reviews promising much more sensational and erotic material than the movie actually delivers. As a full-time voyeur and vicarious libertine posing as a film scholar and a champion of freedom of expression, I found that Y Tu Mamá También did not live up to its heavy-breathing advance notices. Indeed, the recent Intimacy struck me as more daringly sensual, if less deviously opportunistic, about what it was doing than Mr. Cuarón’s slickly devised opus.

Where Y Tu Mamá ‘s sensuality falls short is partly a matter of camera distance and partly a matter of laugh-provoking exaggeration. The movie begins abruptly, with two young people in the throes of leg-pounding passion, but seen far enough away to enable the audience to let out its breath and smile indulgently at the folly of youth. By introducing these anonymous characters without any foreplay, facial transformations or teasing disrobing, the director encourages the viewer to regard the act itself as hormonally habitual and thereby devoid of choice. When the boy finally speaks, he comically warns his lover not to sleep with any Italian men on her impending vacation to Italy. He then continues with an insulting litany of other nationalities that are also to be shunned sexually. The girl reverses their positions so as to be on top to deliver her own free-willed assurances and requests. After a “quickie” the next morning, the boy sees the girl off at the airport, immediately joins a buddy and prepares to embark on some summer betrayals of his own.

In the meantime, however, an unseen narrator with a doomsday voice has intervened to give us some novelistic information about the major and minor characters, their social status and their comparative proximity to the centers of power. From this point on, the narrator will periodically supply morsels of irony and exposition to accompany the two young male co-protagonists on their merry way. Tenoch (Diego Luna), the energetic copulator we met –after a fashion–at the outset, was named after an Aztec hero by upper-class parents swept up in Mexican nationalist fervor at the time. His buddy Julio (Gael García Bernal) comes from a somewhat lower class, but that hasn’t prevented them from bonding.

We already know from the incidental background that Tenoch and Julio are spoiled, adolescent girl-chasers, and that in their privileged circle, traveling abroad is no big deal. Yet from the beginning, their exuberant overconfidence sets them up for a fall–but, as it turns out, not before their wildest erotic fantasies have been fulfilled, though not without a ruefully bitter aftertaste.

In the beginning, Tenoch and Julio have nothing on their frivolous minds but being constantly drunk, sampling drugs and disrupting social occasions while searching for new opportunities to get laid. Enter the woman of their dreams, along with the only clue to the final twist of the plot: Luisa (Maribel Verdú), a Spanish-born woman in her 20’s, is married to Tenoch’s pompous and obnoxious writer cousin, making her Tenoch’s distant relative by marriage. The momentous meeting takes place at an elegant wedding party to which the president of Mexico has been invited (another reminder of social status). Tenoch and Julio are delighted to learn that Luisa’s husband is going out of town to an academic seminar. Half drunk, they playfully proposition her to accompany them on an excursion by car to a secret legendary beach, known as Heaven’s Mouth.

She amusedly deflects their blatant pick-up routine, but later, when she receives a drunkenly tearful, self-flagellating telephone confession of infidelity from her husband, the hitherto cool-headed Luisa bursts uncharacteristically into wrenching sobs–all in the customary (for Mr. Cuarón) long shot. She then impulsively accepts the boys’ cynical invitation, much to their surprise and temporary bafflement, since they have no idea how to get to a place that might not even exist.

After obtaining some confusing instructions from an acquaintance, they set out on their lecherous teenage odyssey with a married older woman. They soon learn from Luisa’s own lips that her husband has been cheating on her all through their marriage. Why, then, I thought, is she sobbing repeatedly–even when she’s alone–over her spouse’s latest act of adultery? And why always in long shot? Is Mr. Cuarón afraid that his actress isn’t talented enough to cry convincingly in close-up?

But I must give the director and his co-scenarist full credit for distracting me from my critic’s confusion with the sheer charm of Luisa’s maturely tending to the carnal needs and emotional vulnerabilities of her two bumbling pursuers. Far from being taken for a ride by two oversexed adolescents, it is Luisa who takes them for a ride into adulthood with the full glory and generosity of her grown-up womanhood. In their turn, Tenoch and Julio become flustered and bewildered by this sweet affront to their machismoid attitudes toward women as the supposedly weaker and more passive sex. This is not to mention Luisa’s shrewd bedroom strategy, which makes Tenoch and Julio directly confront their homoerotic attraction to each other.

There is thus something here for everyone. The men in the audience can ruminate on the retroactive fantasy of that magical (but usually nonexistent) kindly older woman who initiates them gently into the mysteries of Eros. The women in the audience will be amused by the childishness of the two young men in the presence of an older woman who is wise enough and free-spirited enough to call all the shots without fear or shame. And for that rare moviegoer who feels that his or her time is wasted by simply watching the sexual interaction of the male and female in transit, there’s the doomsday voice and Mr. Cuarón’s inventive road mise en scène to remind us of the ever-lingering injustices and governmental brutalities in Mexico.

The ingenious plot alone is worth the price of admission.

A Wild Welsh Whimsy

Sara Sugarman’s Very Annie Mary , from her own screenplay, is a musical comedy of sorts set in the village of Ogw in the Welsh valleys. I say “of sorts” because the only memorable–and certainly the only climactic–music consists of two thrilling Puccini arias “sung” by non-singers Rachel Griffiths as Annie Mary and Jonathan Pryce as her unkind, chapel-strict father. Annie Mary was 16 when she won the most prestigious singing prize in Wales at the Eisteddfod, a Welsh cultural competition. Because her mother was dying, she had to turn down a scholarship to study singing in Milan. Since then she hasn’t sung a note, and her vain, peacockish father keeps denying that she can sing at all.

As the film begins, we see in Annie Mary a caricature of clumsiness and gawkiness. She can’t do anything right, except give singing lessons to two gay shopkeepers, Hob and Nob (Ioan Gruffudd and Matthew Rhys). Their rendition of a song from Annie Get Your Gun is as campy as anything you’re ever likely to hear in these politically correct times. In other respects, Annie Mary’s love and sex life is marginalized almost to the point of nonexistence.

The emotional heart of the film is Annie’s love for the beautiful but fatally bedridden Bethan Bevan (Joanna Page). All that Bethan wants before she dies is for Annie to sing again, as Bethan knows she can. After many misadventures, Annie fulfills Bethan’s dying wish, as we all already know she will. Somehow Ms. Griffiths and Mr. Pryce bring off this wild Welsh whimsy. But Ms. Griffiths, particularly, can bring off anything. Now where’s the remote so I can catch her in Six Feet Under ?

Mommies and Margaritas

Ilya Chaiken’s Margarita Happy Hour , from her own screenplay, makes the New York settings and characters of HBO’s Sex and the City look like the Court of Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV. Zelda (Eleanor Hutchins) is an unwed mother and aspiring painter who freelances as an illustrator for a porno magazine to make ends meet. She and her baby are confined to one room in a communal Brooklyn loft, jammed with an assortment of slackers, hipsters and just plain junkies on the fringe of the underground music and art scene in New York. It’s a milieu which I assume Ms. Chaiken knows infinitely better than I do, so I’ll have to take her word for the actions and atmosphere that make up the film.

The movie’s title refers to the circle of five unmarried mothers who congregate in a cheap Mexican bar in Brooklyn for $2 happy-hour drinks. Zelda’s friends are roughly in the same boat that she’s in, but they come to represent for her something from which she must eventually escape.

It’s possible to speculate that Ms. Chaiken, a single mom herself, faced the same challenges before she became a Brooklyn-based filmmaker on the move, at least in Sundance terms. This may explain why her movie seems to stand still so much of the time–proving, I suppose, that truth is duller than fiction. Fortunately, Ms. Hutchins is talented enough and charismatic enough to make us care about Zelda’s ultimate fate. Her boyfriend Max is played by the independent filmmaker Larry Fessenden, whose horror flick Wendigo recently opened on the fringe of the New York art-film circuit. More might have been made of Max and Zelda.

Soft Porn in Long Shot? Sexual Healing in Mexico