Since his directorial debut Sólo con tu pareja (1991), Alfonso Cuarón has straddled different countries and genres. After that first bowwas met with resistance in his home country (a tragicomedy about a playboy whose nurse fakes his positive AIDS test), because the Mexican government refused to distribute it, Cuarón’s filmic excursion to America resulted in A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998). Both of these films feature highly stylized mise-en-scene, from the luscious costumes, sets, and artwork (Great Expectations includes a myriad of paintings and charcoal portraits by Italian painter Francesco Clemente) to his motif of sea green.
Cuarón’s acute attention to detail and his narrative, temporal, and spatial fluidity, often allow his feature films to feel recurrently new, fresh, and unexpected—he is not a classic auteur of the Woody Allen, Alfred Hitchcock, or Martin Scorsese ilk. From sci-fi, to Hogwarts, and from sex comedies to a children’s story, this director is as stylistically hard to pin down as he is deliberate in the projects he chooses to direct. Cuarón moves between borders, subject matter, and style as ceaselessly and comfortably as a wave combing the beach. And it is the beach (the mysteriously allusive and biblically named “Heaven’s Mouth”) that becomes the central destination and geographical focal point of his fourth feature film, Y Tu Mama También (2001).
When Spanish born Luisa Cortés (played by Maribel Verdú) meets best friends Julio Zapata (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna) at a Mexican wedding thrown by Tenoch’s parents, she becomes the catalyst for action in the narrative as she invites herself on a road trip with the boys to La Boca del Cielo (“Heaven’s Mouth”), a sandy spot the boys have fabricated in order to impress their new object of desire.
Y Tu is a gorgeous road movie, but Luisa uproots herself due to the disintegration of her marriage and her fatal health prognosis. Already physically displaced from her home country of Spain, Luisa literally and figuratively drives herself, and the boys, away from their metropolitan epicenter of Mexico City into the rural countryside, thus providing ample opportunity for the omniscient narrator to comment on social and political occurrences unbeknownst to the threesome throughout their travels.
In the very opening shot of the film, cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki renders the audience as voyeur. Utilizing a shaky handheld camera, the scene starts with the lens tracking into a room as Tenoch has sex with his girlfriend Ana. After climaxing, Tenoch instructs Ana, “Promise you won’t fuck any Italians” while she is away for the summer in Italy. He continues, “Or any gringo backpackers,” to which she replies, “Gross!” Though the audience is rooted in the confines of Ana’s messy bedroom, Cuarón is already asserting a notion of place and travel, home and otherness.
As the couple callously jokes about ethnic groups with whom Ana will not engage with sexually, ranging from “Irishmen” to Tenoch’s father, the camera creeps out of the room as stealthily as it has crept in. The camera (and audience) trespass across the figurative border of Ana’s doorjamb, not exiled as much as visually disinterested in the copulation to come.
This tension between the adolescent primordial desires of Tenoch and Julio and that of the adult world and travel is evident at the wedding where they first meet Luisa. As Julio orders another rum and Coke at the bar, Luisa glides by, all in white, her beauty and sophistication captivating Julio’s gaze. The handheld camera cinematographically echoes the opening shot of the film, as the audience is once again part voyeur, overhearing the conversation between the threesome as they get to know one another.
As the conversation progresses, Lubezki starts to slowly zoom until the shot is a medium close-up, intimating the shift in the more sexually suggestive conversation. The conversation has moved from Tenoch as a young child to La Boca del Cielo, “a tropical heaven.” The location is the apple of temptation they dangle in front of Luisa, hoping she will take a bite. Though they attempt to woo her with stories of silky sand and starry night skies, her clipped reply is, “Jano will love it,” cutting the conversation (and the boys’ fantasy) short.
Yet, Luisa does take the bait, after learning of her husband’s infidelities. No longer will Tenoch and Julio masturbate on the diving board of a swimming pool as they list the names of women they’d like to sleep with (including, but not limited to, Salma Hayek whose name they utter pre-climax and Luisa’s during) – rather, Luisa allows their fantasies to become their reality.
Y Tu is both a buddy movie and a road movie, but it is also a movie that explores not just the sexual proclivities and consequents of its adolescent protagonists, but their potential attraction to one another, culminating in a kiss between the friends at the end of the film while Lucia fellates them both. In Y Tu, Cuarón’s script confronts the rigid taboos of male homosexuality, not just as seen, but described as well. When Tenoch enters Luisa’s motel room to ask for shampoo, clothed only in a towel, the camera is in the corner of the hotel room, voyeuristically observing Luisa cry. The camera pans to accommodate Tenoch’s noisy entrance and slowly tracks back a few steps to allow both characters to co-exist within the frame. The frame also trembles, as if shifting back and forth while Luisa asks Tenoch to take off his towel.
Hesitantly, Tenoch removes the towel, covers himself, and then stands awkwardly before Luisa who quietly laughs and says, “You said it curved right, but it curves left. It’s just like I imagined.” Tenoch’s hesitation, his need for explicit directions from Luisa (who orchestrates and initiates the hurried triste), and the fact that the camera does not track to capture the entirety of his naked figure, all suggest that Tenoch is decidedly not the definition of what Sergio de la Mora once described as the “Mexican macho: virile, brave, proud, sexually potent, and physically aggressive.”
Cuarón’s script calls attention to Tenoch and Julio’s own homophobic, or at the very least, sexually conservative mindsets when Luisa asks them how they like to have sex with their girlfriends. As Luisa asks them about their approach to foreplay, Cuarón positions the camera in the middle of the backseat, looking out of the front window. Luisa’s foot languidly rests on the dashboard, illustrating the casual, if intimate nature of their conversation.
Yet, a few feet ahead, a police car with men holding guns in the bed of the truck, pulls to the side of the road. As Julio comments that he likes to “bang [his girlfriend] till she begs for mercy,” the camera pans 180 degrees to observe the gunmen confronting several farmers who hold their hands up in surrender. Though the pan intimates the turning of one’s head, it is not a point of view shot as the conversation continues, uninterrupted, with lavish descriptions of Ceci “twist[ing] and moan[ing] like an oyster in lime juice.” Ultimately, unimpressed by the lack of creativity, Luisa asks if they have ever “[wiggled] their finger up her ass?”
“Her ass?” the boys exclaim almost at the same instant the engine overheats. The inflection of surprise in the boys’ dialogue and the car’s mechanical malfunction conflate to emphasize the boys’ distaste for this sexual preference. Though not necessarily stereotyped as a homosexual practice, it is a moment of shared discomfort between the two boys.
Later, once the threesome has arrived at Heaven’s Mouth, they drink tequila at an outdoor bar. As Tenoch and Julio play foosball, Luisa calls her now estranged husband for the last time. The camera is handheld and, whereas the trembling movement in other moments (the opening sequence or the motel when Luisa and Tenoch first have sex) connoted a hesitation or uneasiness, now the slight movement seems mimetic as Luisa’s face trembles, holding back tears. When Luisa hangs up the phone, her tears burst forth, and within the glass booth, Tenoch and Julio are reflected in the opposite pane, creating a rough diptych.
Yet the boys, arguing about the game and swilling beer, are completely clueless to Luisa’s marital plight. For Luisa this journey to Heaven’s Mouth is not simply a vacation, but also a figurative displacement or exile from that of wife to that of woman, uprooted from not just the apartment she and Jano shared, but also uprooted from her identity as his wife. As she herself says towards the end of their conversation, “You were my whole life.” The absence of Jano’s physical presence and voice furthers this notion of dislocation. Luisa is completely physically and aurally removed from the life that she once knew.
Later, tears dried, the trio raises their glasses to Jano, and Luisa confesses that she is glad that she met the boys. “You’re so lucky to live in a country like this!” she then exclaims. “It breathes with life! It’s awesome! To Mexico!” Luisa others herself in her praise of Mexico as it is not her country, her homeland, but a country in which she is an outsider, an other, just as she is now an outsider from her marriage. Yet, the conversation remains superficial as Tenoch asks Luisa, “Which of us fucks better?”
Laughing, Luisa confesses, “You’re both disasters, but each has his charms.” They clink their glasses a third time, hailing “to the clitoris!” This conversation, frank and sexually explicit, holds none of the conservative reserve from the car ride earlier in the film. Luisa rises to slide coins in the jukebox, and as she walks back to the boys, she pulls them both up to dance with her, sensually pressed between the two.
The journey of Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa is the spark for all the events and commentary that unfold. Whether it is the sexual escapades between the three characters or the narrator’s omniscient explanations of events or moments the characters’ within the diegesis do not have access to, the road and journey enable the narrative to unfold. Additionally, the film itself was not received as a film in exile. The movie was then nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay and Best Foreign Language Film, rendering the film both an international and intra-national sensation.
The international acclaim of Y Tu erodes the notions of borders as frameworks that withhold material. In our increasingly global market, Y Tu traversed through theaters like a liberated nomad, not rooted or cemented solely in its homeland. This ethos of portability and translatability brings us back to the character of Luisa. The disintegration of Luisa’s marriage (and health) leads to her displacement and self-imposed exile, yet it is not Cuarón who highlights notions of emplacement or displacement, but Luisa. She is the character who is the catalyst for the story and the journey in both her attempt to seek a new location of emplacement and as a means of self-exploration.
When Luisa walks to the surf of the sea upon waking on the beach of Heaven’s Mouth, it is as if she is preparing to return to the first home: the womb. The last shot of Luisa is of her diving into the sea, now fully enveloped in the water, neither placed nor displaced but momentarily suspended, and reveling in the transience of the tide while in the twilight of her life.