Saturday, February 15, 2020

Love in the Time of Hysteria (Sólo Con Tu Pareja)

Brothers Alfonso (left) and Carlos Cuarón


LOVE IN THE TIME OF HYSTERIA (Sólo Con Tu Pareja)                      C                    
Mexico  (94 mi)  1991  d:  Alfonso Cuarón

A whirlwind sex farce in the manner of Pedro Almodóvar, who had already released Matador (1986), Law of Desire (La ley del deseo) (1987), and WOMEN ON THE VERGE OF A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN (1988), blending a rich stylization of bold colors with exaggerated melodramas, not afraid to tackle subjects like murder, mutilation, suicide, or blood splattering, usually wrapped in a B-movie setting, all of which set the stage for this film, which attempts to be a screwball comedy on the theme of Latin lover Don Juan, whose sexual exploits are notorious, though here one of his jilted lovers gets payback, featuring rapid-fire dialogue (co-written by the director and his brother Carlos Cuarón), though most if it falls flat and never really amounts to anything.  Nonetheless the film exudes a stylish presence, introducing legendary cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, featuring several notable landmarks of Mexico City, shooting many notable helicopter shots high above the city looking down at the skyscrapers and city landscape to the flickering lights below, making recurring use of the Angel de la Independencia statue, while using the city’s tallest building, the Torre Latinoamerica, in one of the most crucial scenes.  Though the Mexican government financed the film, it found the content disturbing and refused to distribute the film, banning it outright, instead finding its way into various film festivals, paving the way for the director’s exit to greener pastures in Hollywood, returning to Mexico a decade later to film Y Tu Mamá También (2001) which became an international hit, with the director apparently finding the right balance between open sexuality and crude humor, using frequent political and socially relevant asides.  This earlier film, however, feels more frantic, infused with a youthful exuberance of bad taste, not the least of which is making an AIDS comedy at the height of an AIDS epidemic with its increasing death toll, so many may not have found the jokes funny when gripped with the reality of the devastation of the disease.  The American title is actually a takeoff on the novel by Gabriel García Márquez, Love in the Time of Cholera, which is a clever play on words, while the Spanish title of “Only With Your Partner” (part of a national PSA safe sex campaign to avoid contracting the AIDS virus) suggests a theme of fidelity, which, of course, is entirely non-existent to a womanizer who’d rather practice the Don Juan art of seduction on nearly every woman he meets, which includes screwing a bride moments before she takes her vows.   Daniel Giménez Cacho, the intrusive narrator in Y Tu Mamá También, is Tomás Tomás, seen having sex without a condom in the opening scene, foreshadowing a dark fate that awaits him.  Cuarón gets a kick out of wordplay, using double names for many of the central characters, including the ladykiller’s neighbor, Doctor Mateos Mateos (Luis de Icaza) and his wife Teresa de Teresa (Astrid Hadad), both of whom seem to live vicariously through the sexual exploits of Tomás Tomás, whose inflated view of himself leaves him perpetually stuck in arrested adolescence.

Among the many failings of Tomás is his ability to concentrate, as he’s forever losing focus due to his hyperactive hormonal urges set on overdrive, playing out in a hysterical madcap farce.  While his job is to write advertising slogans, his oversexed boss, Gloria (Isabel Benet), is his mirror image, knowing a good thing when she sees him, driving her employee particularly hard so those pent-up frustrations can turn into a rush of all-consuming sexual passion between them, where he’s like her wind-up toy.  Living alone in an upscale apartment in Mexico City, Tomás and his friends are the picture of bourgeois success, which he apparently measures by the bounty of female flesh that makes its way into his bed at night, each one interchangeable, where it’s hard for him to even remember their names, displaying an unnerving sense of male arrogance.  Among his favorite routines in the morning, dressed only in his robe and a pair of sneakers, running in place at the top of a circular staircase, dropping his robe and running completely naked down multiple flights to the ground foyer to retrieve a newspaper before sprinting back up the stairs before he’s caught, usually occurring while a woman is calling for him to come back for more.  This degree of exaggeration plays into the male mystique of Tomás who obviously sees his machismo identity intertwined with his sexual prowess.  The almost nonstop use of the music of Mozart plays (or often repeats) throughout, offering an operatic counterpoint, where the melodic Gran Partita becomes a prominently recurring theme Mozart: Serenade No 10 for Winds 'Gran Partita', III. Adagio | LSO (5:57) interspersed with operatic excerpts from Don Giovanni, like Mozart / Ezio Pinza, 1946: Madamina (Don Giovanni) - Bruno Walter ... (5:35), creating a rakish, larger-than-life persona who is played for laughs and utter buffoonery.  When Tomás meets a sexy nurse at the doctor’s office, Silva Silva (Dobrina Liubomirova), who turns drawing blood into a game of sexual domination, they quickly get the hots for each other and make a date, retreating to his boudoir and hopping into bed while at the same time his boss Gloria announces she’s paying him a surprise visit at home, forcing the smooth-talking lothario to juggle two women at the same time in what is arguably the comic sequence of the film, sending Gloria to his neighbor’s apartment (who happens to be away), while scaling the outer ledge of the building wearing only a towel, (which of course falls off) climbing through the windows as he moves back and forth between visits, continually interrupting the anticipated sexual pleasure, feigning bathroom breaks as he hops between apartments, attempting to satisfy both women, which turns disastrous, as Silva feels slighted, angrily vowing revenge. 
Having access to his medical records, she sends the doctor the correct version while fabricating the copy she sends Tomás, indicating he tested positive for AIDS.  This practical joke sends Tomás into a suicidal plunge, but not before he first meets the woman of his dreams, Claudia Ramírez as Clarissa, the beauty in the next door apartment who works as an airline stewardess, the fiancé of an airline pilot, developing a high-flying romance.  While we initially see her practicing her stewardess safety routines, their initial encounter is seeing him naked in the hallway, embarrassed at being locked out, but he’s struck by her beauty, falling for her on the spot, hastily confessing his feelings for her to Teresa, not realizing Clarissa is also visiting her as well, dressed in her uniform, carrying her overnight bag, hearing every word, which she takes in stride, as she lives her life through habitual routines built around travel and meticulous scheduling so she and her pilot have coinciding downtime.  This doesn’t deter Tomás in the least, adoring the color of her eyes, lavishing her with love and praise, promising to see her when she returns.  In the interim, however, he happens upon the medical report, which sends him into a tailspin of depression, having nightmarish visions, thinking he needs to end it all, that his life has been criminally misspent, an utter waste, claiming he’s of no use to anyone, believing the quickest way to end it all is sticking his head into a microwave oven and turning it on, mimicking a story going around of what some gringo lady did to her dog.  The plot just gets dumber and dumber, ambitiously attempting to make a madcap comedy, but it’s bogged down in stereotypes, tasteless jokes, and bad humor, using AIDS as an eye-opener to get one’s tragically misguided moral principles on track, yet it convinces no one.  Most will view Tomás as a legendary urban hero, envious of his sexual exploits, as if that’s what any man would desire, turning him into a mythical figure, a kind of stand-in for Mexican masculinity, yet he also represents a perpetually confused state of mind whose fall from grace is not unexpected.  Despite the rambunctious style and narrative absurdities, the film attempts to be a rollicking ride, carrying a prolonged party sequence of drunken revelers well beyond its expiration point, making fun of two Japanese travelers, Koyi (Carlos Nakasone) and Takeshi (Toshirô Hisaki), endlessly flashing photos of nonsensical subjects, while Mateos and Teresa seem to be getting some pangs of pleasure out of watching Tomás finally get what he deserves, yet it’s hard to take any of this seriously, designed as a satiric spectacle of the living, as if in the gluttonous last days of Rome before the fall, using farce and caricature to thinly hint at subject matter.  The telenova style feels overly predictable, not exactly flush with imagination or originality, becoming a fairly standard comedy that never ends up being very funny, with inept characters that draw little sympathy, becoming too goofy to like, where nothing is ever believable.  While never warming to this director, having seen six features, the only film of real interest has been Children of Men (2006), displaying more verve and originality than all his more critically acclaimed and prestigiously awarded films.  Of note, Cuarón’s real-life nanny, Liboria “Libo” Rodríguez, who played such a profound role in raising Cuarón, the featured subject in his fictionalized tribute, Roma (2018), appears onscreen in a brief role protecting a young child from Tomás and his audacious display of public nudity. 

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