Reviewed by: Jim O'Neill
Starring: Maribel Verdu, Gael Garcia Bernal, Diego Luna, Diana Bracho, Daniel Gimenez Cacho | Directed by: Alfonso Cuaron | Produced by: Amy J. Kaufman, Jorge Vergara | Written by: Alfonso Cuaron, Carlos Cuaron | Distributor: IFC Films
“Y Tu Mama Tambien” (And Your Mother Too), a Mexican film written and directed by Alfonso Cuaron (“Love in the Time of Hysteria”, “Great Expectations”), tells the story of the dissolution of a friendship between two seventeen year old boys. It’s a good story, and a well-told one, but the director loses his way in several spots by trying to throw too many ingredients into his stew. Some of his flavors excite and inspire; too many others overpower and distract. “Y Tu Mama Tambien” has elements of the teen romance, the gross out comedy, the coming of age rhapsody, the road as discovery journey, the political cautionary tale, the homage to other film directors… I could keep going, but I think you get the point. Parts of the film have a soft chamber piece feel to them; others are loud and discordant, like cymbals crashing in the middle of a sonata. Cuaron too often goes for the heavy handed approach when a softer touch would get the point across just as well.
Cuaron pays homage to Orson Welles and to Francois Truffaut. He copies the famous tracking shot from the opening of Orson Welles’ “Touch of Evil”. I couldn’t tell if it was meant as a homage to Welles or as a joke. Maybe he tossed it in because Welles’ movie took place in Mexico, but although the countries were the same in both movies the dramatic settings could not be more different. He uses a Truffaut trademark, the detached voice over narration which accompanies the action, but Truffaut’s narration (“The 400 Blows”, “Jules and Jim”) gave insight into the emotions and anxieties of his principal characters, highlighting the limitations of human dialogue and the alienation of the individual from his surroundings. Cuaron takes the same technique a bit too far. We do get some glimpses into the characters’ lives, but we also get a lot of muddled political and social commentary, details about minor characters that add little to the central story, and lots of local color.
Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal of “Amores Perros”) is a teenager who with his single mother in a tenement in a working class section of Mexico City. His best friend, Tenoch (Diego Luna) lives in comfortable affluence in the suburbs, thanks to his father’s connections with members of Mexico’s ruling class. The friendship between the two boys would seem improbable based on their class differences, but their alienation from their respective societies binds them. The glue that maintains that bond is the boys’ consuming preoccupation with sex. They both display a kind of sportsmanlike devotion to their libidos competing with each other for conquests as well as applauding each others’ victories. They are a modern day, prep school version of the aging alumni of “Carnal Knowledge.”
At a family wedding, Tenoch and Julio meet Luisa (Maribel Verdi), the lonesome and alluring wife of Tenoch’s cousin. Their clumsy attempts at seducing her look more like a playful scrimmage between buddies than an actual attempt to lure Luisa. She seems more amused by their flirtations than charmed by them. Julio and Tenoch devise a scheme to rescue her from her failing marriage by offering to carry her off to a beach they call “Heaven’s Mouth.” Such a beach doesn’t exist, but that doesn’t matter to Julio and Tenoch. It doesn’t much phase Luisa either when it becomes obvious that the boys don’t know where they are going. All three seem to undergo most of life’s journeys with no plans, no directions, and no guiding philosophy.
Julio and Tenoch discover that Luisa is no easy conquest. The wounded and victimized lady in distress soon turns mercurial and domineering. Her selfishness is monumental. In comparison, the boys’ narcissism is mere child’s play. The boys believe that they are taking her for a ride, but it is Luisa who does most of the steering. She puts up a good front for them so they can’t see beyond her cool, commanding exterior. Only when it is too late do they see the unfolding tragedy that lies underneath her bonhomie. The boys realize their goal when they have sex with Luisa, but it becomes the turning point in their adolescent game. It is Luisa who seduces both boys, with techniques that are awkward, condescending and cruel. Their unrelenting pursuit of sexual pleasure has led them down an unexpected dark road, one that has an unrewarding and unpleasant end.
Unlike other movies in which sexual indulgence is celebrated, “Y Tu Mama Tambien” reveals that pleasure without limits has a price. Compare such an idea with its opposites in several recent American films. “Forty Days and Forty Nights” has a title and an advertising campaign that fools the viewer into believing that the film applauds restraint. In essence, it mocks it. The independent film, “Kissing Jessica Stein” portrays sexual experimentation as a self-awakening experience with mostly good consequences. The current Broadway stage production of the 1967 film, “The Graduate” has brought the ideals of the sexual revolution full circle. The playwright has added a happy, and embarrassingly sappy, ending onto Mike Nichol’s original ambiguous finale. All of these works adhere strictly to the Hollywood edict of unbounded sexual freedom. And each work is a bad one. They are ultimately unsatisfying because their conflicts are superficial and their insights are stilted.
I don’t believe for a moment that Cuaron objects to sexual freedom. His film is full of it. There is graphic sex, abundant nudity, casual adultery, masturbation and homosexuality. Cuaron’s Mexico City looks like a modern day Gomorrah whose stony white modernity burns under a glaring sun. For all his comments on political and social injustice, there is no mention made of the legal significance (let alone the morality) of a sexual relationship between an adult woman and two underage boys. Luisa is celebrated as a free spirit who discovers her true self when she breaks free of her marital chains. She strides along the beach and glides through the water, a vessel of serenity and naturalism which under the glaze suffers a lost soul in a state of rapid moral and physical decline. It’s hard not to feel something for her. And for the two boys. Their decay is made palpable by the distance that grows between them, and by how that distance changes their outlook on life.