in Criterion Month, Review

Y tu mamá también (2001)

On our Criterion Draft podcast it was mentioned that Y tu mamá también was “kind of a sexy” but I wasn’t prepared for this kind of sexy. Right off the bat this movie hits you with back-to-back explicit sex scenes. I had to stand guard by my remote all night to avoid the embarrassment of someone coming into the room and thinking I was watching porn. A lot of dicks too. The film was rated 18+ in Mexico also known as MX-C which would be the equivalent to the USA’s NC-17 Rating. Which is usually the kiss of death for a film’s success.

Yet Y tu mamá también was a success. The film broke box office records in Mexico and worldwide would gross over six times its budget. Is everyone just that horny? Well yes, but there’s a lot more to the film’s popularity and longevity than just sex.

Y tu mamá también is often considered auteur Alfonso Cuarón’s breakout film. It wasn’t Cuarón’s first film (that was Sólo con tu pareja in 1991) nor did it launch his career in America—he’d already directed two mainstream Hollywood films with A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). Y tu mamá también was a hit because it was personal. Not because the film was in some way inspired by events in Cuarón’s life but that it was a reflection of his favorite kinds of films.

Cuarón wanted to make a more experimental film. A film that captured the feel of ‘70s road movies, his love of Cinéma vérité camerawork, and with a love triangle ripped straight from a French New Wave film. Cuarón wanted to make “The film I was going to make before I went to film school.” A film with youth and a sense of discovery. This genuine love is what I believe translated to the film’s success.

Y tu mamá también could very much be a throwback film with its story of two teenage best friends, Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna), who after their girlfriends leave on a trip to Italy decide to go on a road trip through rural Mexico with an older woman they meet named Luisa (Maribel Verdú). It’s the kind of idea that wouldn’t feel out of place in a time where films like The Graduate and Harold and Maude were playing on the big screen. Hell, there’s even a Harold and Maude poster in Julio’s room. Cuarón knows what he’s doing.

The three spend the trip talking about their sex lives, their hopes, and their dreams. Julio and Tenoch are both cocky and naive, seemingly the same, apart from divisions in class. Tenoch is rich and Julio is working class. Luisa although reinvigorated by the pair is in mid-life crisis mode, struggling with her relationship and other personal issues.

Many of the film’s extra details are filled in by a narrator played by Daniel Giménez Cacho. Not only does the Narrator provide additional context but often hints at things that will happen to the characters years later. An example is when the three meet a fisherman who catches them dinner. The Narrator explains that not long after a hotel will be built by the body of the water which will put the fisherman out of work. He will later work as a janitor at the hotel.

Though the film is very much about the growth of these characters it’s also about the shifting cultural landscape of Mexico. We hear of landmarks and rural areas being torn down for real estate and other kinds of industry. We see protests and political unrest as the backdrop to our character’s journey. Times they are a-changin’.

Of course, it can’t all be fun and games (and sex), especially if this is a film inspired by French New Wave. Julio and Tenoch both find themselves drawn to Luisa which threatens to tear everyone apart. Luisa sleeps with both men to try and ease the tension of the group, but as its revealed, Julio and Tenoch’s friendship is another stage of their development. As we grow older we tend to move on from things, even people. There’s a time when you’re convinced you’re going to live forever, and a time where you learn the truth of life, and this is a film where all three characters slowly come to that realization.

I won’t spoil the ending but like all French New Wave films and most American New Wave films the tone is bittersweet. Everyone gains a valuable experience but also loses a part of themselves. François Truffaut and Hal Ashby would be proud of this film.

I’m not going to lie. This film made me uncomfortable at times. I do think a big part of that is that American audiences aren’t used to seeing sex like this in most of our movies. Though sex doesn’t have to be so taboo. It’s a very natural and important part of our development and it’s through sex that these characters discover themselves. Don’t shy away from that 18+ rating. Embrace it. Life ain’t rated G.

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