Arts and Entertainment
By David Fear
Y tu mamá también
PUNDITS WHO HAUNT the festival circuit have been crowing about Jean-Luc Godard's new film Éloge de l'amour (In praise of love), calling it a "return to form" for the director. The declaration is an ironic one in many respects, since it was Godard's increasing obsession with the structure of the medium itself that caused the auteur to largely abandon narrative filmmaking. Godard is well known for deconstructing the relationship of film's form to its content, but his predilection for the former has found him largely ignoring the latter.
The funny thing is, his "form" never really went away. From Tarantino's pulp-pop poetics to Hal Hartley's deadpan chic, the everything-and-the-self-reflexive-kitchen-sink touch of Godard's early, substantial work has been hijacked to service the needs of the postpop culturati. What's been missing from all that pilfered technique and breezy intellectualism, however, is the sense of meaning the director put into his barrier-dissolving methods; most of his American indie disciples have concentrated on the "cool" but forgot there were political and personal statements behind it. It's the difference between composing symphonies and performing professional karaoke.
The new movie by Alfonso Cuarón, the latest director to owe a stylistic debt to the nouvelle vague's master, is less concerned with praising love per se than its physical manifestation, be it in onanistic, coupled, or ménage à trois variations. Take even a cursory look at the structure of Y tu mamá también and yes, the influence is unmistakable. Handheld camera work shakes and snakes around corners à la Raoul Coutard. Sound drops out occasionally so a narrator can digress into characters' past, present, and future. People sprout manifestos full of dogmatic statements like "Truth is cool but unattainable" and "Pop beats poetry."
Of course, one of those statements is "Whacking off rules!," which I can't remember ever hearing in any of Godard's films. Welcome to someone else's glorious masterpiece. Cuarón employs oft-imitated techniques simply as the jumping-off point for a revolution that will be measured less by homage than by the inches of throbbing teen erections. The comparisons start and stop there; the Mamás boys deliver their tenets poolside, and once those twin sputniks of spunk hit the water, you're in a whole new world.
Our first introduction to Tenoch (Diego Luna), one-third of the film's main trio, is a pair of buttocks furiously pumping. His girlfriend, like the girlfriend of his best friend, Julio (Amores perros's Gael García Bernal), is taking off to Europe for a postgraduation jaunt. The second after he's shot his load, he asks for a promise of fidelity: "Promise me you won't fuck any Italians." Of course, once Tenoch and Julio drop off their significant others at the airport, the duo begin deciding which girls they'll be screwing to complement a summer of sneaking joint hits and carefree afternoons on the diving boards (see above) in a last gasp of adolescent freedom.
The two friends come from different rungs on the class ladder (Tenoch is the pampered son of Mexico's New Agey nouveau riche; Julio claims activist working-class roots), but they have the bond of being raging hormone collections trapped in the form of teenage boys on the hunt. Spotting a beautiful Spanish woman named Luisa (Maribel Verdú) at a lavish wedding reception, the two would-be Lotharios immediately start plying her with alpha charm, despite the fact that she's married to Tenoch's elitist cousin Jano (Juan Carlos Remolino). She's new to Mexico City; would she like to see Mexico's greatest beach, the boys' personal sandy Eden, known as Boca del Cielo (Heaven's mouth)? Luisa may be in her 20s, but she's old enough to smell teen blustering and diffuses their flirting with an indulgent smile.
It takes one off-screen revelation and one on-screen confession of adultery from her immature husband for Luisa to suddenly, impulsively ask to visit Boca del Cielo with the boys. There's only one problem: it's just a figment of the boys' imagination, some useless bargaining chip of braggadocio they've never been called on to cash in. They procure a car, a makeshift map from a terminally stoned comrade, and the will to conquer new feminine ground. The trio hits the road in search of paradise. What they get instead is a series of sexual rocket blasts, some painful doses of maturity, and Mexico in all its permutations.
Anyone lucky enough to have caught Cuarón's 1992 debut, Solo con tu pareja (whose English title is Love in the Time of Hysteria), might have guessed he was capable of combining movie sex, teen spirit, and road movies into one erotic jolt. The majority of us U.S. viewers just knew him as the director of 1995's A Little Princess and 1998's Great Expectations update, movies with pin-drop moments of beauty couched in their narrative concerns. The freshness of Y tu mamá también comes as a broadside; the film is so full of vitality it threatens to jump the damned projector gate at times. Unafraid to take their time or linger on the details, Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki let the richness of the performances and the environment dictate the film's rhythms. They're also confident enough to make their larger points minus any grandstanding polemics the most overtly political shot, a car-window view of the federales pulling over a truckload of farmers that's gone before you know it, says more about the state of their nation than any amount of long-winded rhetoric.
There's also the frankness of the sex on-screen, a mélange of titillation and tables-turning that shakes a few things up culturally in the process. If machismo rests primarily on power and control, an upper hand, Luisa seizes it when she initiates sex first with Tenoch and later with Julio. The fantasy of the hot older chick who looks like the Madonna and fucks like a whore is what the protagonists and, no doubt, a good deal of heterosexual male viewers want. But Luisa's self-empowerment in a situation hinging on her debasement punctures the myth of virility these boys wear like armor (both lose their status as longtime lovers in seconds flat), strips them of more than their clothes, and unburdens viewers of their expectations. And once the boys are made to drop their bulldog fronts, they discover there really is a Boca del Cielo where they're free to break any taboos they want ... including an inevitable final one that will force some of the more insecure male members of the audience to question why they're still so turned on.
Of course, the party ends as all parties must, and the boys return home saddened, wizened men. Luisa stays behind, as she's got another lover waiting in the wings whose embrace lasts for eternity. It's in Y tu mamá también's bittersweet coda that the movie's real power is made apparent, filtering and refracting the carefree antics of horny teens through a glass darkly. Cuarón and his cast, both unafraid to let it all hang out, literally and metaphorically, save the most naked moments for one last conversation in a coffee shop. It's a fitting end for a beautiful, original movie seemingly about penetrations but really about revolutions, be they sexual, cultural, emotional, or even cinematic in nature. Somewhere out there, a certain French director ought to be beaming like a proud papa. 'Y tu mamá también' opens Fri/5 at Bay Area theaters. See Movie Clock, in Film listings, for show times.