Of the numerous new filmmakers to emerge from Mexico at the turn of the century, none excite me more than Amat Escalante. He’s a filmmaker with a distinct and unfussy sensibility. He fixates on details with a clinical coolness yet is capable of moments of profound intimacy. There’s an underlying warmth centered through the three Escalante films I’ve encountered, where the ephemeral qualities of their humanism are laid to waste by the hostile milieu in which they take place. Overshadowed by his Mexican compatriots Carlos Reygadas and Michel Franco, Escalante’s formal interests remain vested in the social realities of his characters. The grandiose existential inquiries of Reygadas and complex emotional tableaus of Franco inform but do not drive Escalante’s ambitions. Rather, his work stems from the private and public concerns of living day in and day out as a citizen of Mexico.
Yet Escalante’s new film The Untamed sees him (temporarily) depart from the social realist mode of filmmaking that has defined his work. The film opens with the image of an asteroid in space before cutting to a nude Verónica (Simone Bucio) in the throes of passion with what we glimpse to be a tentacle monster. Akin to Heli, Escalante announces his films in an oblique and often times jarring fashion before allowing the mechanics of his narrative to begin. We are subsequently introduced to Ale (Ruth Ramos) in the throes of non-passion as she is essentially raped by her husband Ángel (Jesús Meza).
Two narratives emerge and converge from these sequences. The first is layered in ambiguity, where a literal and figurative fog of doubt shrouds Verónica, as we see her with what appears to be a stomach wound, desperately attempting to get her motorcycle started. The other is less fuzzy and defined by certainties: Ale’s son suffers from a chocolate allergy that prompts a trip to her doctor and brother Fabián (Eden Villavicencio). What Ale doesn’t know is that Fabián and Ángel have been sleeping together, with their relationship intensifying. Meanwhile, the narratives intersect when Fabián treats Verónica’s stomach wound, with the two striking up an immediate friendship.
It should be remarked that Fabián’s narrative was inspired by a news story in Mexico, where a yellow press headline read “faggot drowns”. It’s a staggering rejection of anything resembling humanity and, unfortunately in this Breitbart News/Fox News media culture, an all too frequent occurrence. As Fabián and Verónica become increasingly close, he’s introduced to the bizarre tentacle monster that we saw earlier in the film. Only thinly sketched as a creature capable of providing intense sexual pleasure or intense pain, Fabián initial encounter with the monster prompts a reverie of clear-headed ecstasy, as he subsequently decides to end his relationship with Ángel. Distraught, Ángel attempts to understand Fabián’s change of heart, though only becomes belligerent and hostile; days later, Fabián’s body is found in a reservoir.
Escalante doesn’t necessarily fixate on whether Ángel has anything to do with Fabián’s death or if the tentacle monster is to blame. Rather, he examines the difficult social, political, and sexual circumstance that leaves a mother alone with her children. Ale emerges as The Untamed’s most intriguing character. She begins the film as a compliant and submissive figure, whose betrayal and rape literally happen with her back turned. Whatever concept of a pleasant and fulfilling life that was promised her has proven to be a lie. The cruelty of living day in and day out with an abusive husband and harsh mother-in-law has stripped Ale of her agency - when she asks late in the film if there was anything more to this life, she asks with but the faintest inflection of hope in her voice. Truth, as it were, has eluded her in her lifetime. Yet it’s her eventual embrace of the tentacle monster that resounds most vividly. It, naturally, makes sense that a beast capable of true affection, true pleasure, and true justice be alien.