There is an ephemeral grace to Alfonso Cuarón’s Y tu mamá también that makes it easy to reduce to something simple and small, but that when chased after, reveals deeper meaning and an artful construction of a movie that at times feels like it has no construction at all.
At it’s most basic, Y tu mamá también is a road trip and a coming-of-age story, both fairly standard and oft predictable genres. At its most grandiose, Y tu mamá también explores erotic identity, political engagement, and the biggest, darkest theme of all: death. It does most of this with a light touch, never once pushing any of these elements so far forward that they dominate. The underlying themes of the eroticism never overtake the erotica itself. More than anything, this is a sexy movie, but like, say, Bernardo Bertollucci’s The Dreamers, a sexy movie with meaning.
The Dreamers is a good comparison for another reason. That movie is a tribute to the French New Wave, and Bertollucci channels the techniques of 1960s cinema through a youthful story of sexual and political awakening. So too does Cuarón adopt the style and the spirit of those influential filmmakers to create something that is free and spontaneous and at its most virtuoso moments, a celebration of moviemaking itself. Released in 2001, and hinting very little at the director’s smart sci-fi blockbusters to come (namely, Children of Men [review] and Gravity [review]) in terms of scope, Cuarón already exhibits the casual mastery of technique that would be so impressive in those later films. Working with frequent collaborator Emmanuel Lubezki (The Tree of Life [review]), he orchestrates long, unbroken scenes that rarely call attention to themselves. They aren’t used to deliver action, but rather are mostly used to probe the environment, to expose the details of the characters’ world by moving away from them and looking around. The one exception is the unforgettable dance sequence between actress Maribel Verdú (Pan’s Labyrinth [review], Tetro [review]) and, almost literally, the camera lens. Her eyes locked dead center, she dances like someone is watching, locking in the audience, seduction through control. Though much is made of her young co-stars, this scene alone explains why the actress got top billing: she’s the star.
Oh, but of those younger men. Y tu mamá también introduced the world at large to Diego Luna and Gael Garciá Bernal; these talented performers would go from Y tu mamá también to separately work with directors as renowned as Spielberg, Gondry, Korine, Jarmusch, Van Sant, and Almodovar. Here they play recent high-school graduates and best friends in Mexico, with Luna taking the role of Tenoch, the son of a rich politician, and Bernal playing Julio, the average son of a middle-class family. The boys are restless during their final summer before college, and spend most of it getting stoned and trying to get laid. It’s at a wedding that they meet Luissa (Verdú), the Spanish wife of one of Tenoch’s cousins. The horny pair invites her to go to the beach with them, promising to show her a beautiful cove so idyllic it’s been nicknamed Heaven’s Mouth. The locale is pure invention, but they haven’t a hope of luring the older woman to go its shores, so that really doesn’t matter.
Except, circumstances change for Luissa, and when she finds out her husband has been cheating on her, she decides to go with them after all. Their naïveté amuses her, and she takes advantage of their eagerness to please by probing them about their sexual adventures (such as they are) while they drive toward the coast in search of paradise. As they reveal more about what they do or do not know--and as she shares with them in equal measure--a sexual tension builds up, one that will eventually find a release.
This in itself would be enough for most filmmakers, but not for Cuarón. Co-written with his brother Carlos, Cuarón’s script for Y tu mamá también never forgets that there is more going on all around the three travelers. There are regular references to political unrest throughout Mexico, and even glimpses off it along the roadway. The travelers pass police checkpoints and people getting arrested, but remain mostly oblivious to the lives being altered within their view, carrying on with their sex talk as if somehow separate from the changing world. This in itself mimics most existences, we all drive on more concerned with our own situation than that of our fellow man. Yet, Cuarón mixes these macro details with the micro. The vacationers also drive by various rites of passage: a car full of newlyweds, a girl having her quinceañera, and a funeral procession. No matter how isolated the transitional experience of two teenage boys and an older woman may feel, the world carries on.
Which also fits the Nouvelle Vague ethos, particularly that of Jean-Luc Godard, who in movies like Masculin Feminin and La chinoise [review] would use the experiences of young people as a springboard to explore other things, to detail the political climate of his era, and expound on his own radical ideas. You could also say similar things of Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude [review], another film about a young man having an affair with a (much) older woman set against political turmoil. Cuarón goes so far as to give Ashby’s movie a shout out. Y tu mamá también opens with Tenoch having sex with his girlfriend under a Harold and Maude poster.
Not that the reported protests and massacres ever interrupt or invade the getaway; rather, they are representative of the things that these three voyagers are putting off, the seriousness they will ignore and avoid as long as they can in much the same way they--and all of us--put off death. Cuarón regularly reminds us of this unavoidable fate, as well, with the narrator breaking in to tell us about different traffic accidents that happened in spots along the highway when the car passes. This voiceover interrupts regularly to inform us of things we would not otherwise know, filling in details from the past and present and even the future about all the characters. Rather than being overcompensating narration, however, it adds a poetic quality to Y tu mamá también, evoking the style of South American literature. In terms of presentation, it also calls to mind Godard again, the way Cuarón tweaks the sound, turning the volume down on the main audio to give his off-screen speaker the dominance. (It’s probably no coincidence that Luissa’s cheating husband is a writer, and his encouragement of Tenoch’s own literary aspirations gives us cause to wonder if maybe it’s this boy eventually turning their excursion into something more.)
In the end, though, these things all dissipate. Like sea foam, as Luissa might put it. It’s the connection she makes with the boys, and the things they share, that we will remember. Even if--or perhaps because of--their coming together also eventually drives them apart, we can assume it’s also something they can never forget, and perhaps the finality it engenders is because it’s a time of life that can never be replicated. They will always be remembering, always looking back, even as the next road opens up before them.
Included in this set alongside Y tu mamá también is a 2002 short film by co-writer Carlos Cuarón. Though far lighter in tone, You Owe Me One is a fine companion to the main feature, and perhaps should be watched as a lead-in for a full night of programming. The lark features an oversexed family going about their clandestine business on what we can assume is an average night in their home. The laughs are genuine and unforced, with Cuarón lacing together his scenarios with smart cues derived from the story itself. Double the pace, and this would be a screwball comedy, but as it is, it’s genial and fun.