Sunday, January 11, 2015

The Age of Coming: The Criterion Blu-ray release of Alfonso Cuarón's Y tu mamá también (And Your Mama Too)

No one has ever fused the indissoluble relationship between sex and death in a coming of age story quite like the wildly gifted Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón does in his 2001 Y tu mamá también (And Your Mama Too). Recently re-released on DVD in a sparkling new Blu-ray print by the Criterion Collection, Y tu mamá también boldly plumbs the depths of adolescent eroticism, where sexual surrender brings one in touch with the primal terrors of loss and separation, with a refreshing and shocking candidness. It immediately calls up Bernardo Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris, which examined with equal frankness the turmoil of sex and death from the vantage point of middle age. After charming audiences with the sophisticated fairy tale A Little Princess (1995), and the sumptuously expressionistic Great Expectations (1997), Cuarón returned to his Mexican homeland to make a sexually rowdy and wildly funny road movie, where two teenage boys, who are best friends in Mexico City, hit the road with the runaway wife of one of their cousins while their girlfriends are away in Italy. Armed with a juvenile code of conduct that is quickly undermined and rendered inadequate by the older woman they journey with, Cuarón unveils with buoyantly sportive humour the unacknowledged homoerotic bonds of male companionship – while also confronting the desperate need one has for sexual satisfaction when mortality looms large in the future. Y tu mamá también, which won the Best Screenplay Award at the 2001 Venice Film Festival, has virtually nothing in common with the more conventional coming of age stories like Rob Reiner's Stand By Me (1986), which sentimentalizes death by using it to reinforce the dubious virtues of staying young, or the Harlequin romanticism of the early Seventies hit, Summer of '42, where sex becomes a tender awakening that makes one forget the finality of death. The more welcoming sensibility that informs Y tu mamá también is alive and anarchic, much like sex itself, and suggests a delinquent version of Truffaut's Jules and Jim (1962) coupled with the rough house friskiness of Bertrand Blier's Going Places (1974).

Two 17-year-old best friends, Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), are both looking forward to a summer of sexual frolic while their girlfriends are away. Unlike their counterparts in most coming of age stories, these guys aren't sexual novices about to lose their virginity, they're young roosters crowing with tributes to an age of coming. But once they take to the road with a 28-year-old woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdu), who has just found out that her husband has had an affair (and she has also received some troubling news on another front), we discover how innocence has little to do with quantity, but the quality of surrendering oneself. After meeting Luisa at a wedding, they devise a plan to seduce her by asking her to join them on a trip to an imaginary beach on the Oaxacan coast. Surprisingly, she agrees to take part. But while they revel in their adolescent fantasies, Luisa is trying to deal with some very adult sexual and emotional yearnings that are in jeopardy. So rather than the boys getting the better of Luisa, she separately seduces both of them, which not only reveals the fragility of their friendship, but the underpinnings of their masculine bravura.

It's not surprising, but certainly refreshing, that Cuarón understands with ribald irreverence how the turbulence of male bonding is often fought on the battleground of women. The two friends, who think their summer will be filled with grass, beer, and unbridled fucking, have to come to terms instead with the most lethal intoxicants of polymorphous sexuality. When Luisa takes both of them to bed, on separate occasions and for reasons much different than they assume, it stirs darker rumblings of what these two young men actually mean to each other. (They're also both from different walks of life. Julio is from a lower middle-class family whereas Tenoch is the rich son of a politician in the Mexican cabinet.) When Julio bears witness to Luisa seducing Tenoch, he is confused, angry and feeling more than a little remote. So he strikes out at his friend with the only weapon he has which is the revelation that he slept with Tenoch's girlfriend. Not only does this unbalance the bond between them, it leaves them open to the unexplored aspects of their own friendship. (Bobby Roth's neglected gem, Heartbreakers (1984), featuring Peter Coyote and Nick Mancuso as two inseparable friends who act out their hidden jealousies and resentments towards the women in their lives, is another very satisfying modern examination of this conflict.)

As in Jonathan Demme's Something Wild (1986), Cuarón uses the road as a map that takes us through a tumultuous emotional landscape; one that changes the texture and perceptions that we have of the people on that journey, while opening up the country that enables and shapes those perceptions. In both movies, the directors embrace the notion that their countries are in a state of continuous transition much like the characters who inhabit them. Even Luisa, who unveils the deeper insecurities of her companions, has to confront her own transitory state. Deeply hurt by her husband's infidelities, she doesn't take to the boys out of spite for what he has done. She has a deeper need to understand how he could find another woman more sexually appealing. By going to the core of her own erotic desires, with young men she has no emotional bonds to, it gives her the freedom to find out without any obligations. But her sexual bouts also uncork the desolation brought on by grief, and by a recognition and acceptance of the mortality she faces not only in her romantic life, but the endings in life itself.

Cuarón shows the kind of restless intelligence that can rehabilitate a genre, but he also gets some beautifully cadenced performances from the actors who breathe new life into this drama of self-discovery. Diego Luna and Gael Garcia Bernal are like tag-team comedians, so familiar with each other that they know which nerves to tweak and which buttons to push, while Maribel Verdu gives the kind of lyrically moving and sensually alluring performance that creates tremors in the story. The raptures she creates in her final dance with the boys when they finally reach their paradise are almost ghostly, something grasped and quickly lost, that lead them to ultimately surrender her to the beach and the water that will swallow up their experience of her, but not the memory of the occasion. At the end, when both boys carry the weight of loss that also frees them to become men, Cuarón reverses the process we usually see in coming of age stories. It isn't the recognition of death that starts the journey to self-discovery, it's where the road to discovery leads. It is a more fragile and vulnerable perception to have to carry.

As Charles Taylor points out in his illuminating essay included in the Criterion booklet, many of Cuarón's films have been steeped in fantasy and adventure, but not as a means to escape reality, but rather to enhance it. Much is gained – and lost – by the young imaginative adults of A Little Princess, Great Expectations and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), and by the adult hero of the dystopian Children of Men (2006) who clings to his hopes by a tenuous thread. The process of giving birth to new life is another thread that also ties this daring director's work together  including his latest marvel, Gravity (2013), which as Taylor remarks, "rewrites the physical journey of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, ending, instead of a beginning, with an earth creature learning to walk upright, and thus affirming a faith in humanity as the vehicle of evolution that the woozy metaphysics of Kubrick's techno-evangelism rejected." Y tu mamá también recognizes that affirming a faith in humanity is not the same as providing false pieties to get us through. When the picture ends with Frank Zappa's elegiacal "Watermelon in Easter Hay" on the soundtrack, it carries the sting of regret that comes with loss. But it also embraces what loss gives you in return.

The Criterion director-approved edition includes new, restored 2K digital film transfer, supervised by director of photography Emmanuel Lubezki and approved by director Alfonso Cuarón, with 5.1 surround DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack on the Blu-ray. Two new pieces on the making of the film, featuring interviews, recorded at the time of production and in 2014, with actors Gael García Bernal, Diego Luna, and Maribel Verdú; Alfonso Cuarón; cowriter Carlos Cuarón; and Lubezki. New interview with philosopher Slavoj Žižek about the film’s social and political aspects. On-set documentary from 2001.Deleted scenes. Plus the agreeable farce, You Owe Me One (2002), which is a short film by his brother, Carlos Cuarón. Trailers. New English subtitle translation. A booklet featuring an essay by critic Charles Taylor and reprinted character biographies by Carlos Cuarón and Alfonso Cuarón.

– Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of ZappaRandy Newman's American Dreams33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask ReplicaArtificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism. 

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