Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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At The Picture Show
August 2017

The Untamed

Timid and tamed

On violence and satisfaction, attraction and revulsion, in Amat Escalante's underwhelming The Untamed

The Untamed
Strand Releasing
Director: Amat Escalante
Screenplay: Amat Escalante and Gibrán Portela
Starring: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesús Meza, Eden Villavicencio, Oscar Escalante and Bernarda Trueba
Not rated / 1 hour, 38 minutes / 1.66:1
Limited release
(out of four)

The severe disconnect between one portion of Amat Escalante's The Untamed and the other is a feature, not a bug ... except the feature, in this case, is kinda buggy.

On one side is a drama of frayed nerves and fraying trust - a woman, her brother, and the lover (her husband) they share (unbeknownst to her). On the other side is a carnal horror-fantasy about an inimitable sexual virtuoso that just happens to be a slimy tentacled creature of vaguely extraterrestrial origin. The latter is mostly put to the side, almost like the film's dangerous subconscious - kept at bay but always lurking - as we spend most of our time amidst domestic and professional squabbles. Tensions and betrayals and repairs.

But the film overplays its withholding hand. Because while the mysterious alien sex machine is sorta interesting, the domestic drama is sorta ... not. At least not enough to keep our minds off the would-be star of the show.

Again, the disconnect is deliberate, if only to emphasize the haunting power of this biological miracle that gratifies everyone who crosses its path beyond their wildest expectations or wierdest, darkest imagination. That is, everyone it chooses to gratify. And it can be choosy. Its hypnotic power would be punctured if we spent too much time in its presence. But at times it's treated as practically incidental to a narrative whose more prominent threads and characters - their thematic significance notwithstanding - can never measure up.

Escalante puts physical distance between the two sides of his story, emphasizing their separation almost as if they're different worlds. The main action takes place in the city of Guanajuato, where Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) and Ángel (Jesús Meza) make a modest living - she works at the candy factory owned by her subtly controlling mother-in-law; he works construction. The creature? Chilling in a semi-remote cabin out past the countryside, over the river and through the woods. Anyone who wants its attention has to make the effort. And that's no guarantee the interest will be reciprocal; its caretakers - an older couple who own the land and property where it first appeared, some time ago - don't let it see just anyone. For an omnisexual being that's eager to please and has practically limitless stamina, it does tend to be a bit choosy - one of the occasional signs of its surprising chemical/emotional sophistication. It also takes only one person at a time; it is nothing if not a fully attentive lover.

The movie exists in the relationship between its two distinct personalities. But to the extent that one illuminates the other, the effect is a dim one, easy enough to describe in thematic terms but lacking much physical or psychological might. The most obvious inspiration here is Possession - it's even noted in the credits - but Zulawski's film channeled the persistent madness of its domestic drama into its ultimate body-horror conceit, as if an entire state of mind ruptured and mutated, and that grotesquely phallic, violent creature was the aberrant yet logical result. The Untamed is much more clinical in its behavior and its structure; Escalante wants the film's two sides to creep closer and closer together, except they really don't - at least not until he forces the issue, particularly with a late narrative out that seems way too cheap (to say nothing of its clumsy staging) to match the more delicate, enigmatic mood he's otherwise going for (and occasionally achieving). He does too good a job depicting the separate, and secret, lives of its characters, and not a good enough job making those characters' lives interesting in their own right. He gives his creature too little to accentuate. Beyond the surface thematic cues and occasional plot overlap, anyway.

When we first see it, it's retreating from inside a young woman, Veronica (Simone Bucio), tears of conflicted anger, confusion and tenderness on her face, spots of blood on her body. It has become violent. Maybe, its caretakers suggest, it's time for the two of them to be apart for a while. Maybe it wants, or needs, someone new. Beginning, essentially, at the end of a relationship - or whatever you want to call it - is a savvy maneuver by Escalante, imbuing this creature with a sense of danger before we get attached to the otherworldly wonder of it. This also makes it easier slip into the broader commentary of (male) mistreatment of women, sexually in particular - through violence, or neglect, or infidelity. The central infidelity is particularly cruel; Ángel is cheating on Alejandra with her own brother, Fabián (Eden Villavicencio), who is probably his sister's most trusted ally. Ángel is performatively homophobic toward the openly gay Fabián - in a way that gets less and less subtle in its true intent - yet in private is profoundly jealous of even platonic female acquaintances. Fabián has recently befriended none other than Veronica - he treated the wounds she suffered out at the cabin, insisting she was attacked by a dog. Eventually, she tells him there's someone he might like to meet. But he has to go by himself. She'll merely point the way.

That these four characters will all be affected, in some way, by our alien friend is clear, but their respective introductions don't follow a strict pattern nor do they result from the same reasoning. The creature - OK fine, let's just call it Warren - has as many phalluses as one could possibly make use of all at once, but it's no one's cheap thrill. Its nauseating physical appearance takes simple lust out of the equation. It has to be experienced to be appreciated - and then, almost inevitably, imprinted on your subconscious - but its sexual enchantment serves so many purposes that it's never the same for everyone. Warren's Sex Therapy is regenerative, recuperative, therapeutic, detoxifying. It is an orgasmatron and a coping mechanism. It is satisfaction, addiction, attention - and not coincidentally of most use to those lacking in all three. The one scene of sex between Alejandra and her husband is as joyless as it is perfunctory - tolerated but not really experienced. She is practically disembodied from the experience in a way that her first encounter with Warren painfully, yet ecstatically, underscores and then defies. Veronica, meanwhile, still desires the creature, even after it has begun to abuse her. You get hints of its strange consciousness, as if its conquests are educational test subjects - practice - and it will cruelly discard its lovers when it's gotten all it wants out of them.

Though the film openly invites its symbolic interpretations, I'm not sure if it's best to dwell too much on the obvious, or to strain the metaphor(s) too far. Mostly because a beautiful horror like Warren is best treated, and felt, as a haunting psychosexual mystery. And in moments of Escalante's most evocative filmmaking - restrained and naturalistic while edging into mild surreal territory - we do feel the creature's eerie, wondrous, scary presence. But the effect dissipates instead of lingering through the entirety of the film. I'm not sure if more of the thing would really be the answer; it's a better and more potent relationship between the two that's lacking. The Untamed gives us two distinct sides to its story, working one against the other, and neither side entirely pulls its weight.

Read more by Chris Bellamy

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