The Untamed | Review
The Pleasure Principle: Escalante Makes a Monster Mash with Distinctive Social Drama
The shadow of Andrzej Zulawski’s infamous erotic creature feature/divorce melodrama Possession (1981) looms large over Mexican auteur Amat Escalante’s fourth feature, The Untamed. Absent the Grand Guignol emotional hysteria of Zulawski (which culminated in cinema’s most unforgettable miscarriage sequence when Isabelle Adjani loses a whatsit amidst a pool of broken eggs and spilled milk in a dingy tunnel), the protégé of Carlos Reygadas makes his most distinctive work yet with this strange mixture of sci-fi, socially conscious neo-realist drama and Freudian metaphor.
A tentacled monstrosity providing complete sexual pleasure to its human partners is being studied by a husband and wife scientist team in the rural hinterlands outside Guanajuato, culminating in a fateful interaction with a troubled Mexican family ruined by repressed sexual tendencies and extreme homophobia.
To describe Escalante’s achievement sounds more fantastical than it actually is, as most of the time is spent on the sobering, uncomfortable realities of a culture whose particularly Catholic roots have created a hotbed of discrimination, prizing the famed machismo which allows for the continued acceptable abuse of women and homosexuals. What results is a particularly potent metaphor which should have enthusiasts of arthouse shock value thankful for something a bit extravagant and strange as it is intelligent.
Alejandra’s (Ruth Ramos) life is about to be severely disrupted when her family encounters a forlorn outsider, Veronica (Simone Bucio). While Alejandra cares for her two children while working part-time for her mother-in-law in a family owned candy shop, her brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio) is a local nurse who has been having an illicit affair with her husband Angel (Jesus Meza), even though Angel is viciously homophobic in his social dealings with Fabian. The injured Veronica befriends Fabian after receiving a potentially dangerous ‘love bite’ from a sexual partner, bonding with the gay young man because they’re both in toxic relationships. But Veronica thinks Fabian would appreciate her lover, a creature residing in a barn on the outskirts of Guanajuato, something not quite human. But the creature reacts to everyone a bit differently, and soon Alejandra is forced to explore strange occurrences involving Fabian when his curiosity gets the best of him.
Escalante is no stranger to episodes of extreme violence, as evidenced in some choice sequences from 2008’s Los Bastardos, and his grisly 2013 film Heli (which took home a Best Director prize at Cannes). By comparison, The Untamed is less blunt in its depictions of brute force, because this time around, it’s all about sex, baby. An opening sequence finds a shriveled tentacle dragging itself out of Veronica’s vagina (newcomer Simone Bucio recalling the likes of Ezra Miller or Charlotte Gainsbourg), an interaction which leads her to be significantly wounded. This sets off the chain of events involving Alejandra and her brother Fabian, a brother and sister who fled the degradation of Tijuana under vague circumstances with the help of Angel, who would later marry Alejandra.
Angel and the monster are both creatures whose interactions with the siblings will determine their fate. The closeted Angel is a bit more complicated, a repulsive figure who is also a victim of his own circumstances growing up with religious, homophobic parents who have means to keep both him and his family comfortable thanks to their business (ironically, they produce sweet confections meant to placate a different kind of desire).
The four main sexual partners are intertwined interestingly, with Escalante presenting sexual gratification as a give-and-take scenario, where loss of desire leads to a terrible vulnerability. The creature, as is explained to us, crash landed into Earth on an asteroid, and whose moods are determined by its excitement over sexual partners. It should be pointed out, the creature is a penetrative one, its tentacles entering the human orifices (as shown spectacularly during a particularly fascinating but grotesque sequence with Alejandra). Unfortunately, although it is pure, unadulterated id, it suffers from the same crushing bludgeon of desire affecting all humans – familiarity. No longer desirable, Veronica becomes a procurer of fresh meat for her ex-lover, which is an addiction she cannot kick.
The sexual lives of Veronica and Fabian are also paralleled because they meet at a certain nexus in each of their current sexual relationships—she’s lost her dignity and control, while Fabian is plagued by guilty feelings after his interactions with Angel (Escalante makes a point of showing them flipping during sex). Meanwhile, Angel, like the creature, becomes violent when the sexual relationship with Fabian goes sour, while Alejandra is the temporary resolution, a winning fit for the creature, whose interactions demand complete emotional, mental, and physical surrender.
What The Untamed seems to depict is how a penchant for extremes, whether amongst beings from this world or another, eventually results in a morbid cannibalization, because once the emotional and mental surrender returns, continued satisfaction requires a grappling for control, a lever of consumption which is eventually derailed by even the most insatiable appetite.
What’s most compelling here is the degree of sympathy developed for a generally disagreeable character such as Angel, his face splashed all over the local rags with severely degrading headlines (an actual event Escalante borrows from). It is through this complexity where Escalante drives his social consciousness, how repressive and restrictive social constructions paired with perseverant draconian traditions and attitudes supplies a continual stream of hate, self-loathing, and emotional flagellation which continues to plague individual processing of basic sexual drives for all orientations.
The creature effects, done with the assistance of Morten Jacobsen (the first co-production between Denmark and Mexico), are generous and impressive, while DP Manuel Alberto Claro (Nymphomaniac; Melancholia) builds on a particularly effective mounting dread in the lush sequences of ‘nature,’ particularly moments as ugly as they are unforgettable (like Fabian’s naked body in a watery ditch, or an animal orgy in the blown out crater where the creature presumably landed). While nowhere near as bat shit crazy as titles it draws comparison to, The Untamed is an aberrant sexual odyssey, as perverted as it is enticingly subversive.
Reviewed on September 15 at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival – Vanguard Programme.