Saturday, March 5, 2016


I’ve been circling various artful ways in which to enter this review, but they all make me more irritated and bored than I already am, so I’ll just give it to you straight: Sólo con tu pareja is not a very good movie.

I’ll even go so far as to say that it is one of the more baffling selections in the Criterion Collection. It’s fairly common for Criterion nerds to debate what movies do and do no deserve to be in the Collection, and I tend to be more forgiving than most, preferring to default to the label’s original mission statement and figure out what the film represents that makes it important to this version of cinematic history. When it comes to Sólo con tu pareja, however, I come up with nothing, except that it’s the full-length debut of Alfonso Cuarón, made in Mexico a decade before Y tu mamá también [review]. Well, I guess it’s true, everyone has to start somewhere. The cover copy calls Sólo con tu pareja a “ribald and lightning-quick social satire,” to which I can only reply, “I guess...?”

Sólo con tu pareja, which translates as “Only With Your Partner,” and has also been referred to as “Love in the Time of Hysteria,” is a sex comedy released in 1991. Written by Carlos Cuarón, it tells the story of Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho, BadEducation), a ladies man who we are lead to believe has game inside the bedroom, but who otherwise appears to be a buffoon outside of it. As a schemer, Tomás seems to have picked up most of his moves from Three’sCompany reruns. We’re talking a guy who calls in sick to work while holding the thermometer against a light bulb to prove he has a fever. Over the phone.

Tomás not only refuses to settle down, but he’s irresponsible about it. You see, Tomás is one of those immature lovers who refuses to wear condoms. If the girl is on the pill, that’s enough, he doesn’t think about other consequences (but more on that later). Things change for Tomás on a night he tries to balance two women--his best friend’s assistant, Silvia (Dobrina Liubomirova), and his own boss (Isabel Benet)--keeping one in his apartment and one two apartments down. It’s when moving between the two via the building’s outer ledge, going in and out through the bathroom windows, that Tomás spots the new neighbor that has moved into the middle apartment. Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez) is a pretty flight attendant who captures Tomás’ imagination. So much so, he declares he’s in love and will change his ways to impress her.

Only, as such things go, Tomás has to actually learn his lesson first. Tomás’ best friend, Mateo (Luis De Icaza), also happens to be his doctor, and this puts Silvia in the position to intercept Tomás’ lab reports and mark him down as having tested positive for HIV. Fearing his life now ruined, while everyone else is out celebrating for New Year’s, Tomás is concocting ways to kill himself (like sticking his head in the microwave!). As luck would have it, when Clarisa comes home early and catches her own boyfriend, a pilot with silver-fox Elvis hair, having sex with another woman on her bed, she joins Tomás’ suicide mission. You think they’ll find love with one another rather than go through with it? Well, do ya’?

Oh, and did I mention that earlier Tomás accidentally gave Silvia his stool samples when seeing her off to work, and he took her lunch to the hospital for lab analysis. Is that a “meet cute” or a “meet poop”?

In many ways, Sólo con tu pareja is very much of its time, particularly in style and presentation. One could see it fitting in with the early 1990s Sundance circuit, where many middling efforts were applauded for their quirky energy and stepping outside the mainstream. Indeed, Sólo con tu pareja sort of comes off like Pedro Almodovar decided to make an Adam Sandler movie, but ended up meeting Sandler more than halfway in his attempt to adapt to the comedian’s style. Even for 1991, the comedy is politically tone deaf, making light of people’s ignorance about a very serious subject, with occasional pit stops for racist comments about some Japanese doctors visiting Mateo. Really, that Sólo con tu pareja holds any kind of critical regard at all is down to that strange reverence some cinephiles have for movies in any language other than English. Were this a Hollywood release, it would already be forgotten, and it should be held up as evidence that cinema from other shores is not automatically better or devoid of schlock. We are just normally spared anyone importing the worst of it. Hell, I’d probably sit through The Cobbler again before reaching for this disc.

As a young filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón already shows an attention to detail and an early interest in tricky shots and extreme angles. Likewise, his relationship with his regular cinematographer, Emmanuel Lubezki, is  starting to form. The storytelling here is clear, as are the pair’s command over a locale. What Cuarón shows little facility for, however, is comedy, which might explain why his career has gone in other directions since this debut. His instincts for what is funny and for how to frame a gag prove woefully inadequate. Despite the preponderance of pratfalls and slapstick, Cuarón is no Charlie Chaplin, and his leading man is no Buster Keaton. Cacho gives an off-putting performance full of mugging and banal mimicry. Worst of all, he fucks like he’s being bitten by bugs and is trying desperately to shake them off his body, meaning this sex comedy isn’t just unfunny, it’s unsexy, making it hard not to root for Tomás to get everything he deserves.

Though vastly different in tone and quality, Criterion also includes two short films from the Cuarón brothers on Sólo con tu pareja: Alfonso’s 1983 student film Quartet for the End of Time and Carlos’ 2002 comedic short Wedding Night. Of the two, Carlos is the winner, with a quick vignette that features a solid gag. The trick here is not overselling it or overstaying his welcome: set-up and punchline.

Quartet is more ponderous, as perhaps befitting a college project. Angst, boy, angst!

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