The Last Seductions


Y Tu Mamá También takes its title from a taunting Mexican dis: “And [I fucked] your mother, too!” That’s only one of the oedipal riffs that enliven Alfonso Cuarón’s artfully ribald comedy—a mock Excellent Adventure in which a pair of privileged young potheads take to the road in search of a nonexistent beach, accompanied by an unhappy married woman, a decade older and a good deal wiser than they are.

The New York-based Cuarón has directed two literary Hollywood movies—A Little Princess (1995) and the Gwyneth Paltrow-Ethan Hawke Great Expectations (1998). Neither provides much preparation for the confidently with-it Y Tu Mamá También (written by Cuarón’s brother Carlos), a bildungsroman that doesn’t unfold so much as noisily putt-putt along the dusty road from Mexico City to some Pacific paradise. Vastly popular on its home turf, as well as one of the critical hits of the last New York Film Festival, Y Tu Mamá También is the sort of soulful raunchfest I suspect Pauline Kael would have loved; the movie appears to be pure pop fun, albeit too impudent in its sexual slapstick (and lyrical in its sense of place) to have been made in present-day Hollywood.

Mamá establishes its adolescent energy with the first image of teenagers hastily coupling beneath a poster for the old December-May cult film Harold and Maude. Cuarón’s heroes, the upper-class Tenoch (Diego Luna) and his less affluent, more insecure buddy Julio (Gael García Bernal, who played the younger brother in Alejandro González Iñárritu’s not unrelated Amores Perros), see off their Italy-bound girlfriends at the airport. Left to their own devices, the two horny wise guys are wondering how they’ll spend the rest of the summer when they meet Luisa (Maribel Verdú), Tenoch’s exotic Spanish cousin by marriage, at a society wedding attended by the president of Mexico.

For reasons of her own, Luisa unexpectedly accepts the pair’s clumsy invitation to party on the beach. She’s a total fantasy babe, but the mercurial Verdú has an emotional gyroscope that allows her to keep repositioning herself as the film’s resident existentialist—a sharp, sexy screwball deliberately bouncing between two frisky (and wildly competitive) pups. The Cuarón brothers can’t conceal Luisa’s function as the movie’s deus ex machina, so they go with it: Her teasing inquiries into her companions’ love lives make the car radiator overheat (her frank seduction technique does nearly as much for the movie), but Luisa’s erotic agenda is more didactic than it is pleasure oriented. “Play with babies and you’ll end up washing diapers,” she tells herself afterward.

Y Tu Mamá También should be no one’s idea of politically correct entertainment, but however wish-fulfilling she may be, Luisa never fails to tweak the boys’ nascent machismo. Similarly, the movie’s road trip naturally encompasses an ongoing observation of Mexican social relations—the critique underscored by the measure of class uncertainty inherent in Julio’s too eager clownish laugh. As if worried that his movie might be as glibly heedless as his male protagonists, Cuarón frequently, if briefly, applies the brake. The ongoing motormouthed jive and frequent manic outbursts are balanced by the sort of omniscient, contextualizing voice-over frequent in the early nouvelle vague or alternately submerged in the silent underwater shots that punctuate the narrative.

Last year’s overlong, overwrought, and overpraised Amores Perros refried the cold beans of Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction. Funky and tender, Y Tu Mamá También is more thoughtful in redeeming a crass genre, evoking Jules and Jim as well as Beavis and Butt-head. This reproach to American youth flicks flatters the audience that made it the most popular movie in Mexican history (despite the local equivalent of an R rating). Shot by the gifted Emmanuel Lubezki, Y Tu Mamá También appears less gauzy and more spontaneous than Cuarón’s period films. It has the charm of the original American road movies, feasting on the gorgeous, ramshackle landscape of the filmmaker’s motherland.

“You’re so lucky to live in Mexico,” Luisa explains. “Look at it—it breathes with life!” The same might almost be said of the film. Cuarón’s compositions are so busy and his tone so jaunty that it’s possible to miss the degree to which death shadows this comedy. The road is littered with fatal car accidents. Life is a transitory affair. The Cuarón brothers don’t fail to prepare the alert viewer for Mamá‘s melancholy coda and the absolute finality of its sign-off.

The prolific young Chicago filmmaker James Fotopoulos has been providing the New York Underground Film Festival with a new feature nearly every year since the late ’90s. Typically shot in drab black-and-white, Cinefotopoulos is characterized by its total conviction and obsessive structure, as well as a distinctive atmosphere of poverty-row geekery that bids at any moment to loose a torrent of perversion. It’s a midnight movie aesthetic, if an antisocial one: Rather than rally the faithful, Fotopoulos prefers to wrap the audience in a dank cloak of solitude.

Back Against the Wall (2000), which follows this year’s NYUFF with a week-long run at Anthology, is the strongest Fotopoulos I’ve seen. Initially predicated on the filmmaker’s trademark repetitive routines, it concerns a grim slab of middle-aged beef jerky (Martin Shannon) holed up in a characterless apartment furnished mainly with cardboard boxes. Lying in bed, sourly awaiting the return of his young girlfriend (Debbie Mulcahy) from work, Shannon seems like a john in his own place.

Fotopoulos likes his low-rent Hopper compositions harshly lit and underscored by a persistent drone. Back Against the Wall‘s anonymous atmosphere, pointless conversations, and recurring set-ups hold the promise of sex (or at least violence). But the movie is all about unreleased tension. Shannon’s other activities include playing chess and listening to the complaints of his no-neck friend (Ernie E. Frantz). When Mulcahy, who apparently works in a strip club, models a series of little nighties for Shannon, he scarcely looks up from his book to acknowledge her. While the viewer patiently waits to discover if the movie is Shannon’s long crack-up or just a prolonged slow-burn, Fotopoulos fastidiously maps a little corner of hell—brutal depression is mocked by the wind-up clown sitting on Shannon’s night table.

Once Mulcahy leaves Shannon for a marginally livelier, more appropriate sleazemeister, the film’s tone shifts first to the blandly inane and then the cumulatively insane. Mulcahy’s new boyfriend is a would-be pornographer in hock to the mob—he gets beat up but won’t tell her why. This fatal association leads to an extravagantly long scene on what could be the set of a porn film (half a dozen women making up, snorting coke, and sitting around in costume). The eventual payoff is far more grotesque. Mulcahy meets her depressing fate—or is it a happy ending?—in a No Exit motel room with Frantz.

Anthology’s mini-retro includes two other Fotopoulos features. The ritualistic Migrating Forms (1999) opens with a baleful sound blast and a stroboscopic flicker. When it appears, the pockmarked image suggests Videodrome‘s sinister signal transmitting from the apartment in Eraserhead: A woman enters a barren room and sits at the table opposite a barely responsive man. The desultory, mumbled conversation is a prelude to their going to bed. Anti-erotic in the extreme, this bread-and-water sexual transaction—observed by a pet cat in extreme close-up—forms the basis for a kind of structural film loop in which the woman keeps returning (always in the same dress) as a pustule on her back grows ever larger. Ultimately, her partner discovers a corresponding growth on his shoulder, and before long there are dead bugs all over the bathroom.

Something of a departure, at least in terms of material, Fotopoulos’s recent Christabel—shot in color (on video and 16mm)—is inspired by the Samuel Coleridge poem of vampire seduction. A mist of dissolving faces and superimposed female nudes wafts through the winter woods. The images are often barely decipherable; the recited poem dissolves into an overlapping incantatory sound mix. This low-grade hallucination plays like a nervous breakdown—which is certainly one way to interpret Coleridge’s account of the innocent Christabel’s sexual possession by the daemonic Geraldine.

Fotopoulos is applying his method to art rather than exploitation. The effects can be beautiful (the landscape bathed in a red gold haze) and even eerie (as when one woman’s face is superimposed on the other’s torso). Despite the potentially lurid material, the filmmaker remains withholding. He refuses to dramatize what Camille Paglia approvingly called the poem’s “blatant lesbian pornography,” or indeed, to even acknowledge it.

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