Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mama Used To Say

There’s a moment towards the end of Alfonso Cuarón’s vibrant, joyous movie “Y Tu Mamá También” when one of the characters gazes across the sandy coastline at the beautiful blue sea and remarks, “You’re so lucky to live in Mexico. Look at it – it breathes with life”. Her perception is equally valid for this wonderful film, which justifiably broke all box office records in its native country.

The director, Cuarón, has pulled off two incredibly clever tricks here. First, he has created a fantastically urgent experience that manages to invest real humour, sensuality and pathos into the hackneyed rites of passage movie that at no time feels derivative, predictable or manufactured. Second, he has skillfully blended a number of genres, while ensuring that the film speaks with its own unique voice. Combining elements from the coming of age tale, buddy movie, road trip, love triangle and teenage sex comedy with an unsettling dose of social commentary, this is a substantial motion picture that’s impossible to pigeonhole. The title is a boastful, boyish taunt (“And your mother too”) that hints at the sexual swagger and (misplaced) confidence of the main protagonists.

"That's what I call a headrest"

The story follows the adventures of best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garciá Bernal), two boys in Mexico City on the threshold of adulthood. Abandoned by their gorgeous girlfriends, who have traveled to Italy for the summer, the teenagers quickly become bored and frustrated. Forced to attend a society wedding by their parents, they meet the elegant, stunning Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the wife of Tenoch’s cousin, and awkwardly attempt to impress the older woman with talk of a remote, secluded beach called la Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth). Intoxicated by alcohol and Luisa’s beauty, they invite her to accompany them on a trip to the imaginary beach. Initially, she gracefully declines their blatant proposition, but, to the boys’ amazement, impulsively changes her mind a couple of days later, after her husband drunkenly confesses his latest infidelity. During the journey, they discover things about themselves and each other that they did not expect.

This 2001 film represented director Alfonso Cuarón’s triumphant return to his Mexican roots after ten years in Hollywood, where he made two literary adaptations: the big budget “A Little Princess” and the surreal remake of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. On the face of it, the sparse “Y Tu Mamá También” is very different in style from his efforts in America, but, at their core, they share the same atmosphere of rich sensuality, especially the criminally under-rated “Great Expectations”, which brought a freshness and visual excitement to the updated story, featuring a luminous Gwyneth Paltrow. Subsequently, Cuarón directed possibly the best Harry Potter film, “The Prisoner of Azkaban”, and “Children of Men”, based on P.D. Jamesnovel.

"Baby, you can drive my car"

Cuarón himself said that this movie is “about two teenage boys finding their identity as adults and ... also about the search for identity of a country going through its teenage years and trying to find itself as an adult nation”. Thus, it may be considered a straightforward coming of age movie, but that does not do justice to its passionate examination of the boys’ loss of innocence. Each of them has lived a relatively sheltered life, not just due to Tenoch’s wealthy background, but because their immature lives revolve around instinctive, unthinking activities, involving large quantities of sex, drugs and alcohol. However, they now stand on the verge of manhood with its associated responsibilities and will soon experience the bewilderment caused by rapid change – as indeed will their young nation.

The film is neither complicit with the boys, nor hostile to them. Instead, it views them from an amused distance, showing us teenage boys exactly as they are. Young, dumb and full of come they may be, but the movie perfectly captures that moment in young men’s lives when they are no longer boys, but they still feel genuine excitement about the possibilities that lay before them (sometimes literally). The world is still new enough to fascinate and excite, so they embrace life with the unbridled joy of youth. This may lead to a decadent lifestyle and hedonistic excesses, but their way of life is bursting with energy, as they seek to fulfill their youthful urges.

"Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson"

The boys are not entirely likeable characters, being self-indulgent, thoughtless, crass and rarely contemplating matters above the belt. At the age of seventeen, they’re still juvenile, indulging in all sorts of childish competitions, including farting in the car and masturbating on adjoining diving boards, when they encourage each other with cries of “Salma Hayek!” and “Salmita!”, but the important point is that they are not cynical or jaded. Obsessed with sex, thanks to the hormones raging around their bodies, their callow braggadocio and obnoxious machismo are essentially covering up their inexperience.

Good friends in real life, Diego Luna and Gael Garciá Bernal turn in impressively natural, spontaneous performances, which they reprised seven years later as sibling rivals in “Rudo y Cursi”. They are perfectly at ease with each other, as they are with the film’s dramatic complexities and sexual content, chatting away with complete frankness in Mexico City slang. In the role of Julio, Garciá Bernal, who first came to attention in the powerful “Amores Perros”, balances frenetic liveliness, a wicked sense of humour (with a huge grin that seems to leap off the screen) and periods of quite contemplation, and it’s no surprise that he went on to become a major international actor, starring in “The Motorcycle Diaries”, “Babel” and “The Science of Sleep”. As Julio’s jealous friend, Diego Luna is less manic, but just as intense and dynamic, though he is also capable of demonstrating real vulnerability during his first intimate moments with Luisa in a roadside motel.

"Don't fancy yours much"

As they go through all the pleasure and pain of late adolescence, the actors are good enough to make us exasperated with their behaviour, while never once risking the loss of our affection. Annoying and endearing at the same time, it’s as if we see them through Luisa’s eyes with her incredulous delight. However, from the beginning, we suspect that their exuberant over-confidence is setting them up for a fall and this comes to pass, though not before their wildest appetites have been satisfied, albeit leaving a bitter aftertaste.

The film is set in 1999 against the backdrop of the political and economic realities of Mexico, significantly the year before the Institutional Revolutionary Party's uncontested reign came to an end, when it lost its first election in 71 years. We are shown a hard-edged, gritty portrait of contemporary Mexico, which is far removed from the image painted in travel brochures. Instead the country is presented as a place of road blocks, arrests, student demonstrations and casual corruption. It’s an unobtrusive, but pointed social commentary on the vast disparities that exist in Mexico: the old and new world; urban and rural standards of living; and the profound class differences.

"Life's a beach"

In just one of a series of nods to the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) filmmakers, Cuarón employs a narrative device that places what we are seeing in the context of the characters’ background or what’s happening generally in Mexico. Every so often, he cuts the soundtrack, so that a detached, omniscient narrator can inform us about the dubious state of democracy in the country or point out a specific item of interest, like the corpse of a construction worker hit by a car while crossing the road, as a pedestrian crossing would have been inconvenient for the building site. This is a very useful contrivance that enriches the story, as it explains the significance of the moment or location that could easily be overlooked while following the compelling action and superb dialogue, including private reflections and ethical dilemmas.

Indeed, the film is just as much about the changes taking place in Mexico as in the boys’ lives, though they remain blissfully unaware of their surroundings. The very fact that the political observations are made by an outside voice indicates how disassociated the boys are from these events. It is not clear whether this is due to irresponsible, ignorant behaviour or whether it is a form of self-protection, but they barely notice the country’s woes and poverty as they remain sealed in their self-absorbed, privileged environment. Meanwhile, we certainly do notice the parallel world of fatal accidents, drug busts, poverty in shanty towns, families evicted by property developers and, most memorably, a road block of flowers where villagers request (extort) a donation for their queen – a young girl in bridal white, representing the Virgin Mary.

"Stuck in the middle with you"

Magnetic as the boys’ acting is, the real stand-out performance comes from the ravishing Maribel Verdú, who provides the movie with its maturity as Luisa, only ten years older than Tenoch and Julio, but so more experienced and much wiser. Her character is in sharp contrast to the boys, refined where they are fumbling, watchful where they are eager and puppyish. She may play the standard fantasy role of the older, sexy woman, but she also acts as a maternal guardian to the boys, a figure that is lacking in their lives. When exasperated with their puerile behaviour, she exclaims: “Play with babies and you’ll end up washing diapers!”

The over-sexed adolescents may feel that they are taking Luisa for a ride (in every sense), but it soon becomes clear that she’s the one in control with a personal agenda of her own. They may make all the noise, but she calls the shots. When the seduction finally takes place, she is the one that initiates the sex, but she’s not the typical movie temptress giving the boys a fun experience, rather she’s a wounded woman with a lot of her own baggage, some of which is not revealed until the very end.

"She wears it well"

Not only is she stunningly beautiful, but she’s also emotionally raw, fiercely proud and extraordinarily vital. This is a complex, empathetic character, who at times may be sad and uncertain, but also shows courage in her willingness to be alive to her feelings. Mourning her failed marriage, she is seeking to liberate herself rather than tease the boys. Her search for happiness has much more desperation than the boys’ innocent lust.

Importantly, Luisa also sees through the façade of the boy’s camaraderie. She’s the catalyst for their deteriorating rapport, as their friendly rivalry for her favours escalate into open jealousy. This triggers a rift that makes them realise that their friendship is based on very little. They might talk a lot, but they really spend their time posturing rather than conversing. Actually, it was a heavily flawed relationship from the start, due to their class differences. Tenoch is the son of a wealthy, corrupt politician, who is an associate of the president; while Julio’s single mother is a secretary and his sister a political activist. In truth, it was never really “Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard”, but the road trip will make or break their friendship, as they are forced to reveal previously guarded secrets and hidden sides of their personalities.

"Hi, I'm your pool boy"

Whatever divides this trio, what they share is equally important and some of their happiest moments come as they drive through the glorious Mexican countryside, exquisitely shot by Cuarón’s long-time collaborator, the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Although many road movies can feel like a highly contrived excuse for a series of embarrassing escapades, this is more like Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas”, where you feel that the characters do not quite belong. In this case, the journey exposes the emptiness of the boys’ lives. The days on the road are sweaty with possibilities, creating an atmosphere that something will happen, and eventually Luisa sleeps with first Tenoch, then Julio. However, be careful what you wish for, as you might just get it, and the boys get about as many life experiences as they can handle. First, in a fit of envy and resentment, the boys admit that they have both slept with the other’s girlfriend:

Tenoch: Fuck you, asshole! You fucked up our friendship! You fucked up my trust! You fucked my girl! You fucked me up! When I brought your fucking comics from Lake Tahoe and the fucking dress for Ana, that whore!

Julio: Tenoch, dude, I'm sorry man. It was an accident, really.

Tenoch: An accident? You poke some girl's eye by accident, asshole! You don't fuck her! You don't fuck her!

Julio: Right … right.

Then, Luisa’s shrewd bedroom strategy makes Tenoch and Julio confront their homoerotic attraction to each other and they end up kissing during a threesome. They begin the trip with a hollow sense of indestructibility, but by the end they face confusion and insecurities.

"Mexican stand-off"

This is certainly not a film that is coy about acts of love, beginning with an unflinching sex scene that sets the tone for what follows. Unabashedly erotic, in no way does the sex feel offensive or gratuitous. At all times, it feels very human and serves to illuminate the characters. The teenagers’ sexuality is treated with the respect it deserves, as a natural part of life, instead of a smutty joke like the standard American teen “comedy” – “Mexican Pie”, this isn’t. The glamorous older woman teaches the boys that girls are not conquests, prizes or targets, but the other half of a precarious unity. She also does not spare them when discussing their sexual technique, advising them that the greatest pleasure comes from pleasing your partner:

Who cares who you two fucked, when you come that fast.

Luisa: You have to make the clitoris your best friend.

Tenoch: What kind of friend is always hiding?

In fact, it could be argued that the film is more about the consequences of sex (insecurity, regret, guilt, mistrust) than the sex itself with echoes of the poignant ending of Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education”. Even though the setting is indisputably Mexican, there is a distinctly French feel to this film with that country’s lengthy history of movies featuring young men lusting after a more worldly older woman, like Francois Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim” in the 60s and Bertrand Blier’s “Les Valseuses” in the 70s.

Behind the outrageous humour, there is a more serious message. What starts out as a simple, funny tale about teenagers grows into a thoughtful character study. The boys develop a shared manifesto of ridiculous rules, but the last one is quite profound: “The truth is totally amazing, but also unattainable”. On the other hand, as the real world looms ever closer, the travelers do ultimately find their mythical beach – even though it only ever existed in their imagination. Even as the film comments on the fragility of life, it seems to encourage you to follow your dreams.

Cuarón leaves it open as to whether Tenoch and Julio will cherish the memory of their adventure with Luisa or whether it will haunt them as a symbol of their lost freedom. That is how it should be, as “Y Tu Mamá También” is a film that manages to combine the heady enjoyment of youth, while never losing sight of the darker side of life. Although the characters may be foolish at times, the film is a clever and affecting take on society in Mexico, though the issues could apply anywhere. As a rites of passage movie, it invites the glib tagline, “After that summer, nothing would ever be the same again”, but it’s genuinely full of surprises. Not only that, but this exhilirating journey of discovery will leave you with a real sense of joy in being alive.

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