Alfonso Cuarón's Sólo con tu pareja (1991) is showing January 4 – February 2 and Y tu mamá también (2001) is showing January 5 – February 3, 2018 on MUBI in the United States as part of the series What Is An Auteur?: Director Double Features.
Daniel Giménez Cacho’s Don Juan-esque Tomás Tomás loves women with the same unbridled fervor he hates syringes. Catching up with Alfonso Cuarón’s feature debut Sólo con tu pareja a whopping 26 years after its 1992 premiere, I was less impressed by the protagonist’s sexual escapades than the terrified look he gives nurse Silvia (Dobrina Liubomirova) as she readies him for a blood test. A diehard Casanova and beacon of heterosexual prowess reduced to a hypochondriac bundle of quivering limbs. “Pull yourself together, señor Tomás,” the girl giggles, a needle in her hand. “Will it hurt?” he mutters, terrified. “A lot.”
Deemed too controversial and banned for many years in its home turf, Sólo con tu pareja marked a pivotal juncture in the Mexican cinema of the early 1990s. It ushered in two young voices who would go on to become essential references in the country’s cinematic firmament (one third of the “Three Amigos,” writer-director Alfonso Cuarón, here working with a script co-authored with his brother Carlos, and of course, cinematographer Emmanuel “Chivo” Lubezki, recruited by his longtime pal for the first in a long series of extraordinary collaborations). It heralded what would later be dubbed “Nuevo Cine Mexicano,” opening—or rather, widening—the rift between an increasingly cosmopolitan youth and a ruling elite which had little time for new films and voices that refused to align with the government’s agenda. And it laid bare the crisis of representation that younger auteurs and audiences experienced vis-à-vis the archetypal macho heroes inherited by the golden years that traversed Mexican cinema from the 1930s through the 1950s. Sólo con tu pareja is no ordinary debut feature: it was, and remains, a tectonic shift away from the canonized notions of onscreen masculinity, and a preamble to a critique Cuarón would expand a decade later with the international breakthrough Y tu mamá también (2001).
The revolution, as it were, starts with Tomás. A young womanizer working in marketing from the comforts of his art nouveau bachelor pad in Mexico City, Daniel Giménez Cacho’s Lothario fritters time away courting and sleeping with a harem of women with the picaresque charm of Marcello Mastroianni in Mauro Bolognini’s 1960 Bell’Antonio. But the bonanza comes to an abrupt end after one of Tomás’ conquests—nurse Silvia—decides to give him a taste of his own medicine: having witnessed and suffered from Tomás’ promiscuous lifestyle first-hand, she fudges his HIV exam results, leaving the man to believe he has contracted the virus.
A goofy and sexy comedy peppered with moments of dark humor, Sólo con tu pareja unfurls as a drunken and light-hearted tour-de-force into a man’s fall from a heaven of narcissistic and carnal reveries, a 94-minute ride graced with pyrotechnic camerawork and stunning vistas (rumor has it Chivo burst into tears after nailing a complicated helicopter shot around Mexico City’s Torre Latinoamericana), moments of rollicking surrealism (one of Tomás’ nightmarish visions features a Lucha Libre fighter uncannily similar to the martial arts master Cuarón would follow 26 years later in his elegiac Roma), and endlessly quotable exchanges. But it is in Giménez Cacho’s Tomás that Sólo con tu pareja coalesces its most interesting material.
Running counter to the male heroes crystallized by the myth-making foundational fictions of Emilio Fernández and Fernando De Fuentes in the 1940s—patriarchs who would leverage on their sheer strength and courage as a means to swoon their onscreen female partners—Tomás is a far cry from the uber-virile macho charros embodied by the likes of Jorge Negrete or Pedro Armendáriz. To be sure, Giménez Cacho’s Don Juan is proficient in the art of flirting, but his courting exploits take on a resolutely farcical undertone—their seriousness reined in by the telenovela rubric through which Cuarón frames his protagonist’s struggle.
Part irredeemable tombeur de femmes and part goofball we are needled into laughing concurrently at and with, Tomás’ compulsive womanizing is imbued with a deep-seated loneliness. In a prolonged early section, Lubezki’s tracking shots follow the man as he scales the facade of his building to bed a woman—nurse Silvia—he’s invited to his place, and another one—his boss, incidentally—waiting for him in lingerie at his doctor-cum-friend’s apartment next door. It’s a resolutely light-hearted sequence stashed with slapstick and savage one-liners, but the chuckles jostle against the rather un-alpha mix of weariness and alienation that grows on Tomás’ face as the night progresses, and the routine turns into a Sisyphean task far more debilitating than entertaining. As Giménez Cacho’s Lothario slides in between the two apartments only to collapse in bed with his two flings—crucially, and much to the girls’ disappointment, without ever seeming to be able to fully satisfy either—Tomás isn’t a patch on the consummate Latin lover he is expected to play, but a man trapped in the physical confines of an apartment he seldom leaves, and in an alpha-male straightjacket both physically and emotionally draining.
Which is why, in the context of Tomás’ fall from traditional macho charros, the ignominious prank Silvia plays on him acquires an eye-opening dimension. By the mid 1980s, Mexico woke up to the AIDS epidemic; by the turn of the decade, the virulent homophobia ingrained in the public discourse around the disease still touted it as a homosexual and drug addicts-only plague, an infamy heterosexuals were—by their very nature—supposedly spared from. As Tomás embarks on a darkly humorous suicidal path, a straight, erotomaniac Casanova symbolically castrated by what a patriarchal society had cast as the most ignominious illness, Sólo con tu pareja’s savage critique of masculinity reaches a zenith.
A decade and a couple of less than memorable big-budget U.S. features later (1995’s Little Princess and 1998’s Great Expectations, works he came to regret and, it is vital to stress, did not write) Cuarón rose to planetary fame with the wondrous coming of age-cum-travelogue Y tu mamá también. Co-authored by Cuarón and his brother Carlos again, shot by Lubezki in lush 35mm, and graced with the performances of a stellar duo of future household names, Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal, Y tu mamá también resumes the critique of masculinity Sólo con tu pareja had begun, and expands it on a richer, more intricate field.
Luna plays Tenoch, the wealthy teenage son of an affluent Mexico City-based hotshot from the ruling Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI); Garcia Bernal plays Julio, a middle-class adolescent with a mullet-like hairdo and endless stock of witty aperçus. High school graduates smoking their way through a summer of parties, weed and casual hookups, Tenoch and Julio are best friends, and while the relationship seems to pivot around a mutual and seemingly inexhaustible lust for women, moments of homoerotic tension make the bromance slightly ambiguous from a very early start—a shot of the two masturbating in a private club’s deserted swimming pool while invoking their erotic dreams out loud is at once curiously endearing and foretelling.
But it takes a road trip for the liaison to venture into uncharted, non-heteronormative terrains. Hobnobbing with the country’s elite at Tenoch’s sister’s wedding, the boys bump into Luisa (a terrific Maribel Verdú), a Spanish woman ten years older than them whom, in an act of boyish bravado, they invite on a trip to an idyllic if entirely made-up beach, a neverland they fittingly name Boca del Cielo—Heaven’s Gate. Heartbroken upon discovering her husband’s been cheating on her, and, unbeknownst to the audience, aware of a fatal medical diagnosis, Luisa eventually accepts the lads’ offer, kickstarting a rollicking and sexy Bildungsroman across Mexico’s interior.
Away from the confined and sanitized spaces of the patriarchal, well-to-do capital city they leave behind, the boys’ liaison takes on an overtly more explicit tone, foraged by and large by Luisa’s presence. At once a catalyst of the two teens’ lust and a chaperone into a world of sex they are still too ill equipped to navigate with the alpha-male nonchalance they boast, Luisa is unmistakably aware that the boys obscure object of desire is not all too simply the prospect of bedding an older woman, but the unspeakable allure of a homosexual encounter, which she must mediate (her rant against both, "I thought you two would be different [...] but all you want is to sleep with each other," in retrospect, is ominous).
To an extent, Y tu mamá también affords Tenoch and Julio a sense of freedom which Giménez Cacho’s Tomás, caged in an alienating urban setting, could not enjoy. The journey situates the two boys in a position to renegotiate their mode of being in the world and vis-à-vis each other—even if this implies shattering years of pacts and bro-ish commandments. If the city club’s pool had served as a synecdoche for the heteronormative world where same-sex impulses are rigidly policed and caged, by the time Julio’s car serendipitously lands them on a paradisiac stretch of shoreline and the trio finally jump in the ocean, the journey has afforded Tenoch and Julio a distance, geographical and mental, where homoerotic tensions can be finally actualized.
Yet the sexual awakening has a profoundly political subtext, too. Sublimated into an omniscient narrator sharing his musings through voiceovers, Daniel Giménez Cacho acts as an invisible guide accompanying the audience across the places and faces Luisa, Tenoch and Julio glide past. Y tu mamá también is a tale of contrasts and ambiguities. The boys’ strikingly different backgrounds—captured by Lubezki through a wandering camerawork that browses and lingers in empty rooms the way Cuarón would do while working as his own DP in Roma—reverberate in their namesakes: Julio’s surname, Zapata, a homage to Mexico’s revolutionary icon Emiliano Zapata (1879–1919), and Tenoch’s name—of Aztec origins—an echo of the PRI’s efforts to strengthen its legitimacy by appealing to Mexico’s indigenous, pre-colonial identity. It’s a subtly ironic choice, all the more so considering neither lad seems to be aware of the country’s tumultuous changes—or to care about them at all, for that matter. Yet the journey’s end coincides with the PRI’s first electoral defeat in 70 years; street protests and marches predate the trip; and all throughout it, impromptu rendezvous with the inhabitants of the other (read: rural, underdeveloped) Mexico the boys had been conveniently shielded from acquire, in Giménez Cacho’s all-knowing voiceover, the feeling of connecting tissue, tying personal memories to a national consciousness both Tenoch and Julio seem oblivious and somewhat indifferent to.
Ironically, the same cannot be said about their own class differences. Dotted with moments of sexual tension as it may be, Tenoch and Julio’s friendship is nonetheless deeply embedded in a multilayered field of class divisions the boys seldom articulate, but understand and enforce as dogmas. In a particularly revealing passage, Giménez Cacho tells us that when Tenoch visits Julio’s place, he avoids touching anything in his friend’s bathroom with his own hands, and that when Julio uses Tenoch’s toilet, he always lights a candle to get rid of odors. And while Cuarón excels at portraying the friendship dynamics as they feed upon and influence a far bigger field, it is the realization that the class boundaries will never be shattered and trespassed that dons Y tu mamá también a tragic and bittersweet aura, the look of faded-postcard from an irretrievable summer.
The morning after the trio’s journey reaches its climax (both senses of the word apply), Tenoch and Julio seldom speak, and by the time Lubezki finds them back in Mexico City as they casually bump into each other at a crossroad and hop into a cafe, the feeling is to watch two complete strangers meeting for a quick and obligatory catch up neither seems to be particularly in the mood for. Things have changed. The PRI is waking up to its first defeat in decades. The boys are at university. They are no longer dating the girlfriends they were with before meeting Luisa. They are no longer friends.
“They get so scared that they have to seek shelter in some mask,” Cuarón told Cineaste commenting on the harrowing finale. “The tragedy at the end is that the mask is the social conditioning they were trying to escape from at the beginning.” Watching Sólo con tu pareja and Y tu mamá también one after the other, I wondered if the statement could apply to Giménez Cacho’s fragile, faulty macho too. The first two features Cuarón wrote and directed zero in on embryonic men grappling with adulthood (however older than Tenoch and Julio Tomás may be, the struggle affects him too)—metaphors for an adolescent country and its frustrated path to maturity. At their core, they ask: what happens if the hyper-macho, hyper-sexual prism through which you’ve been assessing your identity suddenly ceases to hold meaning? In 1992, the answer Cuarón had given was a redeeming last shot of Tomás’ face, eyes agleam with love for the woman who symbolically rescued him. Ten years later, the camera lingers on an awkward farewell between two ex-best friends at the end of a journey that brought them back full circle, and pushed them apart. “Truth is the coolest thing,” said one of their ten friendship commandments, “but it’s unattainable.”
Complete Cuarón is showing January 4 – 8, 2019 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.