You’re not exactly dancing out on a limb these days if you suggest Alfonso Cuarón all but saved the Harry Potter film franchise when he took over for Chris Columbus with The Prisoner of Azkaban. But there was a bit of an uproar among concerned parents and cultural watchdogs when he was first attached to the project, for one reason and one reason only: his previous film, and biggest success to date, was the road movie Y Tu Mamá También, rated NC-17 for its drug use and “strong sexual content.” Fears of Cuarón crafting scenes of Harry, Hermione, and Ron toking up and having a three-way were ultimately for naught, and Azkaban’s success would propel Cuarón to the upper ranks of the mainstream. But Y Tu Mamá También (out today in a lovely new DVD/Blu-ray special edition from the Criterion Collection) remains his most fascinating work — and, increasingly, an outlier in his idiosyncratic filmography.
In its broad strokes, it sounds like some kind of a broad ‘80s sex comedy (à la Losin’ It): two young friends, left alone when their girlfriends ship out for a European vacation, convince an attractive married woman to go on a road trip with them, and sexual shenanigans ensue. Early beats indicate the kind of simple movie it could have been — we’re introduced to Julio (Gael Garcia Bernal), for example, in a scene of over-the-bed pratfalls and split-second timing that plays like farce.
Yet, almost from the beginning, Cuarón (and brother/co-writer Carlos Cuarón) insists on situating the story within a much wider canvas. His use of the omniscient narrator, commenting on the events over dead silence, seems at first a self-conscious homage to the French New Wave. The commentary is almost anthropological, both in its relation to the events inside the frame (the two boys, we’re told early on, “failed in their strategies for sexual conquest”) and outside of it; the narrator provides socio-political context, from the big picture of an election to the specificity of the pigs that wreck a campsite. Cuarón also finds a visual equivalent to these digressions: occasionally, his camera will wander away from the subjects at hand, following a wedding waitress as she delivers food to the chauffeurs lingering outside, or an elderly woman back to the dishwashing area of a dive bar.
In these moments, the filmmaker is reminding us that while your sexual conquests and romantic interests are all that matter when you’re these protagonists’ age, other, more important things are happening in their world — yet, paradoxically, outside of it. Y Tu Mamá También is the story of a sexual awakening, yes, but also of two young men who are becoming increasingly aware of what’s around them (and, in the case of their traveling companion’s ultimate fate, becoming aware of it too late).
And at the same time, they’re choosing to ignore some of what is within them. “Those were details they didn’t need to know about each other,” intones the narrator at one point, and while he’s talking about scatological details, that becomes a bit of a thematic refrain. From the beginning of the “buddy movie,” filmmakers have carefully avoided any hint of (intentional) homoerotic undertones, and in many ways, Cuarón’s film is a commentary on that practice.
Julio and Tenoch (Diego Luna) will throw around “fag” with abandon, and talk shit in the shower — but they’re also checking each other out, and floating joking propositions (“You’ve got one ugly dick! Looks like a deflated balloon!” “So blow it up, asshole!”). When they discover they’ve been sleeping with each other’s girlfriends, they broadcast the expected emotions (anger, betrayal) while also pressing for details (“Did she like it?”) and ultimately finding a kinship (“I’ve been stirring your cream!”).
With such carefully prepared subtext, it’s no surprise that when the climactic ménage a trois arrives, Luisa (Maribel Verdu) barely has to push them together; it’s equally expected that when they wake up together, the response is immediate panic and, eventually, estrangement. Cuarón’s decision to explore the tensions and undercurrents of such a friendship, within even an independent film scene that tends to see male sexuality as strictly an either/or proposition, remains refreshing, if not revolutionary. (It also goes a long way towards explaining the film’s NC-17 rating; the MPAA tends to rate films with gay overtones far more harshly.)
From this vantage point, 13 years after Y Tu Mamá También’s release, it’s easy to see certain stylistic hallmarks of Cuarón’s work already taking root. The long takes that have become his signature are all over the movie, from the first scene forward; his cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, uses handheld photography without overdoing it. This isn’t shaky cam, but the camera is present and participatory, which furthers the picture’s homemade feel. The character of Luisa is something of a forerunner of Sandra Bullock’s Dr. Stone in Gravity — forceful, stubborn, and defiant, yet allowed to weep and feel without falling into the traps of “weakness.” And the political overtones nicely set up themes he would explore, with much greater depth, in Children of Men.
Yet the further we get from Y Tu Mamá, the more it feels like a standalone work, a nakedly personal film from a director whose films lean more toward universal experience and spectacle. Within the arc of the career, it is a bit of a detour; though he debuted with another sex comedy, 1991’s Sólo con tu pareja, his initial success came from a pair of literary adaptations: the beloved children’s book A Little Princess and an updated take on Great Expectations. His Potter would serve as a bridge to larger-budget studio pictures: Children of Men in 2006, Gravity last year. Seen within the context of that career, Y Tu Mamá También feels increasingly like Cuarón’s American Graffiti — the small, human film that led (quite literally) to much bigger things. And it may have just been a transitional picture, as Graffiti was for George Lucas. Or it may reveal itself as just one point in a continuing evolution for one of those journeymen filmmakers (like Ford, Hawks, or Curtiz in the Golden Age, or Ang Lee, Danny Boyle, and Soderbergh today) who can pretty much do anything.