Y Tu Mama Tam Bien Analysis Essay

By Corey Birkhofer

Y Tu Mama Tambien, Mexico, 2001

Directed by Alfonso Cuaron

Analyzing a film such as Y Tu Mama Tambien under the influence of Laura Mulvey’s 1975 article “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” is as complex as it is enlightening.  Regardless of the fact that Mulvey has since moved away from her original argument, “Visual Pleasure” continues to provide a pool of theory from which to pull in reading contemporary film. In the case of Y Tu Mama Tambien, Mulvey’s article employs several key concepts that can be used quite effectively in a reading of this film. More specifically, the general concepts of spectatorship, subjectivity, verisimilitude, Jacques Lacan’s mirror phase and symbolic order, as well as Sigmund Freud’s scopophilia and primal scene, will all have relevance throughout. The purpose of this explication is to use these aforementioned concepts in order to expose Y Tu as a film that fully employs typical representations of woman as described by Mulvey in her article. Through this exposure, it will be revealed that the employment of these conventions of representation are in place only to create a basis of contradiction that can ultimately be subverted to transform Y Tu Mama Tambien into a dialectical text.

However, before an engaged reading can be conducted, it is of paramount importance to keep in mind that first and foremost, Y Tu is an independent film. Therefore, certain independent conventions must be kept in mind alongside these key concepts in taking any theoretical stance on the film. Bearing in mind these independent conventions, the following analysis of several key sequences is crucial to exposing the relationship Y Tu shares with the concepts of spectatorship and subjectivity. In the following explication, one particular focus of analysis will be a specific shot that is considered by many as the “pay-off” shot of the entire film. This is the shot in which the main female character, Luisa Cortes (Maribel Verdu), looks directly into the camera for an extended period of time. In doing this, the female representation transfers her role as castrated spectacle to that of the spectator/subject. Thus, Y Tu Mama Tambien becomes dialectic, as its representation of woman ascends into the realm of the symbolic order.

It is at this time that an understanding of the symbolic order becomes necessary. Yet, before this concept can be fully addressed, it is equally important to have a working definition of what Mulvey states as “the function of woman in forming the patriarchal unconscious.” Mulvey argues that woman symbolizes two aspects in this forming of the patriarchal unconscious: woman “first symbolizes the castration threat by her real absence of a penis, and second, thereby raises her child into the symbolic.”

Therefore, the symbolic order is the realm that the castrated woman can never reach due to her “lack.” In applying this concept to the representation of Y Tu‘s Luisa, Mulvey’s argument begins to bear weight. Mulvey goes on to state that woman is the signifier of the “male other” and that she can find meaning only in relation to the symbolic significance that the male phallus represents. In the case of Y Tu‘s Luisa, this is true to a certain extent; Luisa does indeed signify main characters Tenoch Iturbide (Diego Luna) and Julio Zapata (Gael Garcia Bernal) by her own lack of a penis. However, at the same time, in interacting with both characters the way she does, Luisa raises herself into the symbolic order.

Exposing the specific ways in which Luisa interacts with Tenoch and Julio will be of significant importance when taking into consideration one of Mulvey’s key arguments in “Visual Pleasure.” This is the argument that, because of her castration, woman can never enter into the symbolic realm herself. Rather, the only way woman can reach this order is by means of “lifting” her offspring out of the imaginary realm in place of herself. In other words, woman can only enter the symbolic order vicariously through her children.

In Y Tu Mama Tambien, Luisa is a twenty-eight-year-old married woman who has not yet had children. Early in the film, Luisa meets Julio and Tenoch at a wedding ceremony in which mutual relatives are taking part. Instantly attracted to Luisa, as well as disregarding their own girlfriends along with the fact that Luisa is a married woman, the boys immediately want to engage with her sexually. In this aspect, Laura Mulvey would say that Julio and Tenoch are representations of the spectator, living out the fantasies of the voyeurs who “peek” into the world of Y Tu Mama Tambien. With this concept of voyeurism now introduced, it is necessary to explain Mulvey’s two “pleasurable structures of looking.” Borrowing the Freudian term “scopophilia,” Mulvey states that one of the ways the spectator/subject looks at cinema is by means of the sexual objectification of the onscreen object. Under this assumption, the spectator is the voyeur, the Peeping Tom who finds pleasure in actively looking at the passive object(s) on the screen. In short, by looking and sexually objectifying the onscreen object(s), the spectator/subject establishes their own subjectivity. Using Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954)to strengthen her argument, Mulvey provides an insight into the role of the spectator in relation to the representation of the spectacles/objects that bear their gaze. The spectator, who participates in film by means of the camera, which acts as an omniscient eye into the onscreen world, looks not only voyeuristically, but also narcissistically. To prove this second structure, Mulvey borrows from Jacques Lacan’s concept of the mirror phase; before further explication can be achieved, an understanding of this theory is crucial.

Essentially, the mirror phase can be described as the moment when the subject (who is usually between six and eighteen months, according to Lacan) first sees their reflection and realizes that they are not as “complete” as the reflected image.  In realizing this, the child has already entered what is called the inescapable symbolic realm of language. As for the spectator of cinema, in looking at the onscreen object, we too realize this object to be representative of a more “complete” self. Consequently, Mulvey then argues that part of the pleasure the spectator finds in looking at cinema is that, in gazing upon the object(s) on screen, a vicarious return to that state, which predates entry into the inescapable symbolic realm of language, is possible. Therefore, this identification with the more “complete” object on screen is what subconsciously compels the spectator to look, for in this identification, the spectator can vicariously live out their fantasies through the more “ideal” onscreen object. Thus, the spectator can also surmount personal inadequacies in place of the reflected “self” image. It is in this manner that one can return to the time that predated one’s entry into language, to the realm of the imaginary. With the concept of the mirror phase and its relation to Mulvey’s second structure of looking firmly established, returning focus back to the diegesis of Y Tu is now possible.

Amused but not impressed by the two boys, Luisa eventually returns her attention to the wedding they are attending. To Freud, in denying the attention of the boys Luisa denies her desire to enter into the symbolic, or in other words, she denies her desire to compensate for her lack of a penis. In this way, Luisa also shows her loyalty to her husband, who is actually Tenoch’s older cousin. Interestingly, at this early point in the film, the fact that Luisa does not have or seem to want children reflects her underlying disinterest in reaching the symbolic order through offspring (at this point in the diegesis, at least).

As the film continues, a focus is put on the main male characters. Close friends, Tenoch and Julio live a carefree life of partying, drugs and masturbatory fantasies. When they first meet Luisa at the wedding and ask her what she plans on doing for the approaching summer, she tells them she wants to go to a beach. When Luisa then asks them what they are planning for the summer, the boys lie and say that they want to go to the beach, too, at which point they invite her to come along with them. Ever faithful to her husband, Luisa politely refuses the offer before returning her attention back to the wedding (and to the imaginary). In ignoring them, Luisa delays entry into the symbolic order while simultaneously becoming the object of a mutual masturbatory fantasy between them. She becomes symbolic of the unattainable holy Madonna. However, Luisa’s life abruptly changes a short time later when she learns that she has terminal cancer. It is at this same time that her husband, Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina), who has been away on business, telephones to say that he has been cheating on her for some time now. With this overwhelming combination of events, Luisa decides to abandon Jano. She strips away her “holiness,” as it were, and contacts Tenoch to take him and Julio up on their offer to go the fictional beach, aptly named “Heaven’s Mouth.” It is in this way that Luisa begins her ascent into the symbolic order.

What follows is a series of road-trip sequences as the boys become closer to Luisa. After a short time Luisa begins to ask the boys about their sexual experiences. She lectures to them in a flirtatious way and inadvertently teaches them about what women really want from men. It is in this way that Luisa symbolically becomes a teacher to Julio and Tenoch, giving them direct insight into a world of which they are unaware. When the time comes that Luisa decides to sleep with one of the friends (Tenoch), she changes from being the symbolic teacher to the symbolic mother; this is because she “disrupts” a delicate homosexual/homophobic balance struck between the boys. What started as a platonic relationship of playfulness and flirting between the three characters has now become sexual. Not surprisingly, as a result of this “exclusion,” Julio becomes jealous. However, this event is much more significant for Julio, in that it causes him to relive the traumatizing pain he felt when, at eight years old, he walked in on his own biological mother engaging in intercourse with his godfather, in what Freud calls the “primal scene.” It is because of this “unfairness” that Luisa decides to sleep with Julio, too. In wanting to be fair to both boys, Luisa takes on the symbolic role of the mother wanting happiness for her “children,” as well as the symbolic role of the promiscuous whore. Granted, Julio and Tenoch are not her biological offspring, and yet, because Luisa cares for them as if they were her own children, she symbolically takes on the role as their mother, vicariously ascending into the symbolic order of language.

In this ascendance, Mulvey would argue that Luisa simultaneously brings about the end of her purpose in the diegesis. However, this explication argues that Luisa’s purpose does not end when she has sex with Tenoch and Julio, but rather Luisa becomes the purpose of the entire diegesis as a direct result of these acts. With Mulvey’s argument that Luisa’s purpose in the diegesis has come to an end, so too does this explication end its overtly diegetic focus. However, in the preceding digression of this explication, the dialectical approach thus far has been to focus on diegetic elements first, before focusing on formal or visual elements. In this way, like Y Tu, this explication becomes dialectic as well. Therefore, with the previously addressed concepts of spectatorship and subject/subjectivity taken well into account, the argument of Luisa’s purpose in the film continuing after she engages Julio and Tenoch sexually can now be fully addressed. However, before addressing this issue and starting the analysis of the first two sequences that will prove Luisa’s purpose, it is important to reiterate the independent film conventions present in Y Tu.

Excessively long duration between cuts, hand-held camerawork, and often much more radical narratives and commentary are just a few examples of independent film conventions. Granted, Hollywood film employs these conventions, too, but independent cinema seems to employ them much more prevalently. In the case of Y Tu specifically, director Alfonso Cuaron uses these aforementioned independent conventions throughout both previously mentioned sex scenes. However, the aspect of both of these scenes that is of greatest importance in this explication is that Luisa is the initiator of both sexual encounters. She is the one to dictate that Tenoch remove his towel when he comes into her hotel room asking for shampoo. She is the one to tell him to touch himself as he nervously stands at a distance from her, becoming the object bearing her gaze. And lastly, she is the one to tell him to finally have sex with her. In the case of Julio, she literally jumps into the backseat of the moving car as Tenoch drives, engaging him unexpectedly. Therefore, in the case of both scenes (but more evident in the first), were it not for this dictation on Luisa’s part, Tenoch, who is actually reluctant until the first physical contact, would not have even initiated the sexual engagement.

Formally speaking, there is an absence of non-diegetic sound in both scenes. This aspect adds realism in an uncomfortable, verisimilitude-breaking way. As for the camera, it is unsteady in what is considered typical documentary style. Clearly, Cuaron wants to employ a “hand-held” style in both these scenes, as well as most of the rest of the film. From the spectator’s point-of-view, this allows us to enter the room in which Tenoch and Luisa engage in the act. In the case of the second scene, it allows the spectator to stand directly outside of the backseat of the car in which Julio and Luisa are during their own sexual engagement. As unsteady as it is, the camera remains fixed from the same angle in both scenes, as if the camera, and thusly the spectator, stand with gaping mouth at the awkward sexual act taking place before them. The absence of cutting in both scenes during their respective four and two minute running times only heightens the aforementioned break in verisimilitude. In both scenes, the spectator, whose only means of looking is through the “eye” of the camera, cannot stay completely still as they try to see the act take place. Also, in each individual scene the friend who is not engaging in the primal act stands away at a distance. This is most evident in the second scene, when Tenoch is the friend who is excluded.

As Tenoch is forced to watch his friend with Luisa, a dual spectator dynamic is created. Not only does the spectator/subject outside of the film become privy to the primal scene, but whoever is not engaging in the act with Luisa is privy as well. They desperately look on as the act is carried out beyond their control to stop it. In this way, much like the spectator who is at the mercy of the camera to even see the film, when excluded from engaging in sex with Luisa, Tenoch and Julio become spectators themselves, trapped in the diegesis. In other words, these two scenes have a dual function for the spectator and whoever is not diegetically engaging with Luisa, as a way to simultaneously experience the shock of seeing their “mother” in the primal scene while being unable to do anything to stop it. As result of these events, the previously stated tension arises between Julio and Tenoch. This tension is felt for the spectator as well, for we too were caught trying to peep.

Inasmuch as the arguments in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” fall in line with the representation of woman in Y Tu Mama Tambien,when Mulvey explains the dual function of woman in narrative cinema, these comparisons begin to lose their correlative power. In her article, Mulvey claims that woman takes on the role of the spectacle of the male gaze. However, when Mulvey claims that woman’s objectification can only be signified in her comparison to the male other, the comparison to Y Tu‘s Luisa ends. That is to say, in claiming that the male other is the only means by which the diegesis is furthered, Mulvey’s correlation to the function of Luisa in Y Tu Mama Tambien reaches its end. While it could be argued to a certain extent that Luisa’s purpose is indeed to signify Tenoch and Julio through their objectification of her, through the analysis of the second sex scene with Julio it becomes evident that Luisa is in actuality the only means by which the diegesis is allowed to continue. That is to say, only until she has sex with both characters can the repressed homosexual relationship the friends share be restored and the road-trip can continue.

Also of importance to note, up until this point Tenoch and Julio have been cheating, each with the other’s girlfriend, behind one another’s backs. This aspect of both boys receiving the same “share” in regards to sexual gratification thus requires Luisa in order for the history of their friendship to remain intact. Like two children, both wanting the same share to make things equal, it is only logical that they would both want their fair share of the new object of obsession/objectification before them. Yet it is important not to overlook that Luisa does indeed halt the diegesis at the point when she has only slept with Tenoch, but not yet Julio. With this previous aspect exposed, it would seem Mulvey’s ideas on woman halting the diegesis are partly true. Yet this is merely a diversion to the ultimate purpose of Luisa, as the means by which the sexual engagement with Julio allows the diegesis to advance. Thus, as stated before, while advancing the diegesis and going against Mulvey’s argument, this act of sleeping with Tenoch and Julio to be fair to both of them reveals Luisa’s motherly traits, which grant her vicarious entry into the symbolic order.

As briefly stated above, it is only through their interaction with Luisa that Tenoch and Julio are able to realize and confront their repressed homosexuality; taking the stance of Mulvey’s article would confirm this. At first, Luisa is merely the spectacle for the two boys, the castrated incomplete woman who Tenoch and Julio manipulate and eventually “conquer” in their slow acceptance of their own mutual love for one another. However, as the film continues Luisa symbolically becomes a teacher of sexuality to the boys. At the end of the film, she cements this symbolic role as teacher to the boys by leading them into engaging in a threesome with her. In doing this she forces the boys to confront their repressed homosexuality head-on, and as a result Tenoch and Julio finally consummate their love for one another. Yet through this act, Luisa again takes on the symbolic role of the promiscuous whore. However, in her death Luisa returns to the symbolic realm in which she existed for the boys in the earlier part of the film; she returns to the time when she was the unattainable Madonna.

So far this explication has made the argument that Luisa fits into conventional representations of woman in film set out by Mulvey, while at the same time subverting said conventions. It has also been argued that the only way Luisa subverts these patriarchal conventions of representation is by first employing them. Only then can the patriarchal conventions of representation be contradicted by everything they are not, thus turning the text into a dialectical one. However, in analyzing what is considered by many to be the most important scene of the entire film, it will be argued that the representation of woman in Y Tu Mama Tambien reaches an even greater level. Totaling nearly seven minutes without a single cut, the infamous “pay-off” shot occurs about halfway through this sequence. The scene in question also takes place at night in an open-air beachside tavern. Opening with Luisa entering from a small kitchen outside of the main eating area, she brings a plate of food out to the table where Julio and Tenoch are sitting. As Luisa sits down the camera settles into the position it will maintain for the next five minutes. This is an important angle for the scene because once Luisa sits down at the table, the angle allows all the main characters to be included in the same shot. It is from this stationary angle that the camera sits, immobile, as the scene carries on without a single cut.

In its very nature, cutting is the means unique to the medium of film by which the spectator is “sutured,” or “brought into” the onscreen world. Therefore, an absence of cutting in these scenes of analysishas significance on two levels. First, the absence of cutting causes a break in verisimilitude. Unlike a film that employs heavy cutting, when verisimilitude is broken the comfort that the spectator is able to feel with the “breaking up” of the diegesis vanishes. That is to say, while for some spectators this break in verisimilitude can be read as a cue for them to pay closer attention to the diegesis, for other spectators this break hinders their ability to objectify the object(s) on the screen. This is due to the fact that in maintaining verisimilitude, the camera/spectator symbolically maintains control over the onscreen object. Because the onscreen object does not have control of when the cut from one scene to the next will occur, and since the spectator becomes one with the “eye” of the camera and as a result looks at film subjectively, by not cutting, the onscreen objects are able to maintain more control of what happens. In a way, the objects become symbolically unconcerned with the voyeurs who watch them objectively.

The second function of not cutting in these scenes is that excessively long takes help to reveal Luisa as the means by which Y Tu Mama Tambien becomes dialectic. This is made evident when, about three-fourths of the way through the scene, Luisa gets up from the table to walk across the room to a jukebox. To accentuate the significance of this, for the first time since Luisa sat down at the table, the camera moves to follow her. Still not cutting however, the camera continues behind Luisa, maintaining a sizable distance from her. Eventually, the camera stops at an approximate medium close-up distance. With her back still to the camera, Luisa selects a song on the jukebox. As the music starts and Luisa begins to dance provocatively, she then turns around to face the camera and look directly at it. In doing this, Luisa also looks directly into the eyes of the spectator, shattering the already broken verisimilitude. Dancing in place for a moment, Luisa continues to hold this gaze at the camera. She then moves towards the camera, almost as if provoking it. Defensively, the camera/spectator backs off from this new threat, moving in reverse the way it had originally followed her. Luisa responds to this retreat by moving ever closer to the camera. What had once been a passive-object/active-spectator relationship has been reversed. Now, the spectator becomes the object, losing our subjectivity to the domineering stare of Luisa. Thus, what had once been a film employing an almost blatant patriarchal representation of woman now becomes dialectic, contradicting the patriarchal base with which it appeared to side and in turn taking a new stance, the stance of woman as active spectator, woman as bearer of the look, and thus woman as the maker of meaning.

From the beginning, this explication sought to borrow key concepts from Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in the effort to irrefutably prove the dialectical nature of Y Tu Mama Tambien. Throughout, the argument has been given that Y Tu‘s Luisa fully employs patriarchal conventions of cinematic female representation, while simultaneously ascending into the symbolic order through her employment of said conventions. Much in the same way Mulvey used psychoanalytic theory as a “political weapon” to expose these conventions in her 1975 article, this explication sought to use psychoanalytic theory to prove its own arguments. Therefore, it was only natural to argue that in ascending into this symbolic order, Luisa irrefutably proves her purpose as the means by which the diegesis is able to advance. Through this advancing of the diegesis, Luisa then catapults Y Tu to its most pivotal scene, the scene in which she transforms the role of the spectator/subject to that of the object/spectacle. To most spectators, this changing in roles will cause discomfort, as they hope for their new objective role in Y Tu to come quickly to an end. For other spectators, Luisa looking back at them will only encourage them to look that much more into the significance of such an event, actively staring back at her.

For the spectator who falls into the latter category, Luisa is looked upon from an equal level. No longer the fetishized, sexualized, castrated and dominated object she pretended to be throughout most of the film, Luisa is now seen for her who she really is. In her death, she returns to the role of unattainable holy Madonna, while in the final days prior to her death, with nothing left to live for, she becomes the promiscuous whore. In taking on this previous role, Luisa sees Julio and Tenoch’s repressed homosexual love for what it is and teaches them to accept it. In this way she becomes the teacher. Yet, most of all, Luisa is the mother, for in raising her “offspring” into the symbolic order she also raises herself, ascending beyond the realm of the imaginary. No longer held down as the bearer of meaning, Luisa makes her own meaning. Regardless of how much freedom the symbolic order of language allows within its constraints, in this ascendance Luisa, and thus Y Tu Mama Tambien‘s representation of woman, is now free, able to finally conceive her own “radical new language of desire.”

Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntGet.com

Tags: Alfonso Cuarón, Ana López Mercado, corey birkhofer, Dialectical, Diegetic, Diego Luna, film, filmmaking, Gael García Bernal, Hitchcock, hollywood, independent film, indie, Jacques Lacan, Laura Mulvey, Maribel Verdu, Mirror Phase, movies, Non-diegetic, Primal Scene, Rear Window, Scopophilia, Sex, Sigmund Freud, Spectatorship, Subjectivity, Verisimilitude, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, voyeurism, Y tu mamá también
Posted 18 Oct 2010in Essay, Film Reviews, Movies I Got
by contributor

Watching Alfonso Cuaro?n’s Y tu mama? tambie?n (2001) is something like how it must have been to read Henry Miller in the thirties—the shock and the exhilaration, and the turn-on. And not just the turn-on of sex but also of watching an artist work without a net, and of feeling yourself alive. Miller contended that Tropic of Cancer was “a kick in the pants to God, Man, Destiny, Time, Love, Beauty.” But despite the disrespect for duty and authority and piety sweating out of its every open pore, the book was also an ode—an often tender one—to the joy of living, even the joy to be found in the agony of living. The Miller figure, most often characterized by empty pockets, a grumbling stomach, and a hard-on that won’t quit, is also, as he says, “the happiest man alive.”

Right up until its melancholy coda (whose mood is captured by the casual elegy of Frank Zappa’s “Watermelon in Easter Hay” on the soundtrack), Y tu mama? tambie?n shares this sense of joy—the joy of living rough, of sex, of camaraderie, of youth. It remains one of the rare happy erotic movies. Mexican audiences may have been prepared for a work like this from Cuaro?n, given the popularity of his racy debut, the 1991 comedy So?lo con tu pareja, detailing the adventures of an advertising lothario. But between So?lo and Y tu mama?, Cuaro?n had spent a decade in Hollywood, during which he produced two sumptuous literary adaptations, of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s children’s novel A Little Princess and Charles Dickens’s bildungsroman Great Expectations. So a sexually explicit road comedy was the last thing American audiences expected of him. Still, perhaps they needn’t have been surprised. Both A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998) are distinguished by their rich sensuality.

A Little Princess hums with its young heroine’s belief in the power of her imagination, the very thing that saves her from cruel treatment during her sojourn in a girls’ school. In one scene, she and the young maid she has befriended awake to discover that, while they slept, a rich man’s servant took pity on them and transformed their shabby attic bedroom into a palace of silks and canopies, with plush robes and slippers and mouthwatering food awaiting them. It’s the moment of deliverance that occurs in all great fairy tales turned into a catalog of pleasures, the two girls like miniature rajas basking in their sudden good fortune. And in Great Expectations, which turns Dickens’s Pip into an aspiring artist in nineties Manhattan, Cuaro?n transformed the hero’s ardor for the unattainable Estella into verdant eroticism. The film critic Robin Wood—one of the few to get the movie—identified it as one of those rare book adaptations that is so faithful to the spirit of its source and yet “so free that, after a while, one ceases to think of Dickens at all.”

Freedom, which in terms of moviemaking can be said to be the filmmaker’s refusal to fear risk, is the key to Y tu mama? tambie?n. Cowritten by Cuaro?n and his brother Carlos, and shot by Cuaro?n’s steady cinematographer, the great Emmanuel Lubezki, the movie puts us in the horny, sweaty skin of its two adolescent protagonists, Tenoch (Diego Luna), the privileged son of the country’s rich, corrupt secretary of state, and his buddy Julio (Gael Garci?a Bernal), the lower-middle-class son of a single mother. Free for the summer while their girlfriends are off in Italy, Tenoch and Julio are bursting out of their jeans.

Cuaro?n has said that the movie is “about two teenage boys finding their identity as adults, and . . . also about the search for identity of a country going through its teenage years and trying to find itself as an adult nation.” Given the casual glimpses Cuaro?n provides of gun-toting soldiers routinely stopping vehicles along country roads, the boys’ teenage years look like a lot more fun than their nation’s. Without becoming preachy, these brief shots are a way for Cuaro?n to show that he does not share the callowness of his heroes, and a reminder that they are afforded some buffers from the countrymen not as well off as either of them. The state of the nation is not in their heads. Cuaro?n doesn’t scold them for that, he just presents it as fact. He shows us the boys getting high, whacking off, goofing off; they’re primal forces who haven’t surrendered to the respectability or casual corruption that surrounds them.

Cuaro?n realizes that Tenoch and Julio will have to grow up and make compromises, and he’s aware of their self-centeredness and small hypocrisies. But he loves them for their direct, uncomplicated ability to feel pleasure. The hormone-fueled esprit that drives them is its own love song to the possibilities of life. They may be juvenile—grossing each other out by farting in the car, or lying on adjoining diving boards while they masturbate, each calling out encouragement to the other (invoking Salma Hayek’s name prompts furious tugging and cries of “Ahhhh, Salmita!”)—but they’re not jaded or cynical or burned-out. Hovering on the verge of obnoxiousness, they are basically grubby innocents. Like dirty-minded virgins, they’re excited by each joint, every beer, every chance for sex, as if it were their first time. On middle-aged men, the funk of cigarettes and beer and sweat and sex smells of failure; on Tenoch and Julio, it’s the perfume of youth.

Befitting a tale of discovery, Y tu mama? tambie?n is a road movie, whose journey gets its start at a lavish wedding thrown by Tenoch’s parents. There Tenoch and Julio meet Luisa (Maribel Verdu?), Tenoch’s Spanish cousin by marriage, regaling her with tales of a paradisiacal, off-the-beaten-track beach called La Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth) and telling her she should join them on their trip to find it. A few days later, she calls them to ask if the offer is still open, and together they set off. There’s just one hitch: as far as the boys know, the place doesn’t exist.

Traveling through the Mexican countryside in Julio’s sister’s car, the three begin an exploratory dance. Luisa asks them about their girlfriends, about what brings them pleasure, about their various exploits, and the two teenagers, eager to impress this “older woman”—who’s only got about ten years on them—brag and laugh with the overconfident boisterousness of baby seducers. It’s a good front; these kids are as scared as they are turned on. Inevitably, it’s Luisa who ends up seducing both of them. That may sound like the setup for an adolescent male fantasy (and there’s nothing inherently wrong with a filmmaker presenting a character’s sex fantasies on-screen), but Cuaro?n is after something more complex.

It’s the boys—sweet but more than a little clueless—who are always the butt of the joke, while Luisa’s pain and turmoil are taken very seriously. Cuaro?n isn’t baffled by Luisa the way his heroes are. One look at her husband, the puffed-up novelist Jano (Juan Carlos Remolina), is enough to tell you hers is not a happy union. Jano is the sort of needy mama’s boy who calls Luisa up after cheating on her and begs teary, drunken forgiveness. Cuaro?n, however, is lovingly attentive to this woman.

You understand why Luisa takes the chance to head off with Tenoch and Julio. Her attitude toward them is a sort of incredulous delight. She knows they’ve got rockets in their pockets, and it makes her laugh—both at them and at herself for palling around with them. And though Cuaro?n shares the boys’ happy, greedy voracity, it’s through Luisa’s eyes that we come to see them—annoying and endearing at the same time.

The movie gets great mileage out of the joke that boys at the height of their sexual potency are often woodpeckers in the sack. Neither Tenoch nor Julio lasts very long in his couplings with Luisa, and though she treats them tenderly, we can see the bemused frustration on her face. Cuaro?n understands that there’s more at stake for her than there is for the boys, that her grab for happiness contains much more desperation than the boys’ innocent hedonism (even if he waits to reveal all that’s at stake for her). They are in awe of Luisa, and Cuaro?n knows that she’s the powerful one in the trio. When their misbehavior gets to be too much, she lays down the law, and like obedient puppies content to frisk at her feet, they comply.

Finally, though, what these three share is more important than what divides them. Some of the happiest moments in the movie are while they drive through the countryside, fast-food wrappers littering the car, Luisa’s feet up on the dashboard, intoxicated by the sun and the freedom of being on the move. Cuaro?n is generous enough to allow their seaside Eden to actually exist. The lovely section where they reach it and camp with a fisherman and his family has the feel of an extended idyll, an elemental existence that drowns out the static in their heads and makes them all purr with contentment. And it all pays off in the climax, a go-for-broke moment that’s simultaneously a great, daring joke, the deepest affirmation of the movie’s faith in the glories of lust, and the most naked example of the bond of tenderness that exists between Tenoch and Julio.

The fearlessness of Y tu mama? tambie?n isn’t Cuaro?n’s alone. It also exists in the offhand bravery of the three lead performances. For the movie to work, the actors have to be as free and unembarrassed on-screen as their characters are, and there isn’t a false note among them. It would have been easy for Luna and Bernal to caricature Tenoch and Julio (or to make the frequent mistake of youth movies and hold them up as avatars of wisdom). They’re good enough to allow us to be exasperated with them without once risking our affection. And Maribel Verdu? is extraordinary, balancing pleasure and sadness in a way that suggests the depths Luisa keeps hidden inside herself. When her wide, beautiful mouth opens in a radiant smile, she becomes the movie’s carnal Madonna, a patron saint of sexual generosity.

Following Y tu mama? tambie?n’s idyllic climax, it seems fitting that the films Cuaro?n has made since are steeped in fantasy and adventure, both yielding to it (his contribution to the Harry Potter series, 2004’s Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) and resisting it (the devastating dystopia of 2006’s Children of Men). Cuaro?n’s latest film as I write this, Gravity (2013), may herald a return to the terra firma in which Y tu mama? is so firmly grounded. This may seem a strange thing to say about a 3D tale of survival in space, which holds the viewer with the terror and awe of classical tragedy, dumbstruck in the face of the cosmic scale of creation itself. But Gravity rewrites the physical journey of Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, ending, instead of beginning, with an earth creature learning to walk upright, and thus affirming a faith in humanity as the vehicle of evolution that the woozy metaphysics of Kubrick’s techno-evangelism rejected.

Y tu mama? tambie?n leaves open whether the boys’ memory of their adventure with Luisa will be one they cherish or one that, in years to come, will haunt them as a symbol of their lost freedom. But even that uncertainty can’t dispel the liberating joy in Cuaro?n’s embrace of pleasure, in his dispensing with guilt. A movie about sexual freedom is not usually an occasion to talk, as I have, about saints and Madonnas, about putting faith in the erotic. But what’s sacred here lies in what’s profane, and the movie’s raunchy free spirit, its unabashed impulse toward life, is a sort of praise- giving. “In every poem by Matisse,” Miller wrote in Tropic of Cancer, “there is the history of a particle of human flesh which refused the consummation of death.” What’s sacred in Y tu mama? tambie?n comes from that refusal.

Charles Taylor writes about movies for the Yale Review and teaches creative writing and journalism at New York University. He is a member of the National Society of Film Critics, and his work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, the New York Times,The Nation, Dissent, Salon,The New Yorker, and other publications.

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