If there is one concept that defines Amat Escalante‘s Silver Lion-winning Venice title, it’s “ginormous horny alien sex octopus.” But if there’s one other, it’s risk — “The Untamed” is a brazen leap of faith for any filmmaker; for a rising arthouse star coming off a Cannes Best Director win for “Heli,” his gruellingly downbeat surgical strike on Mexican social inequity, cartel culture and corruption, it’s borderline kamikaze. To be fair, an element of reckless bravery has characterized Escalante’s cinema since before “Heli”; even early titles “Blood” and “The Bastards” showed a filmmaker courageously unwilling to compromise his stark formalist principles: non-professional actors, loose scripting, stretches of apparent longueur punctuated with graphic shocks. But it’s easier to be brave when you’re a fledgling filmmaker with nothing to lose and everything to prove; “The Untamed” puts Escalante’s hard-won reputation, and the loyalty of his hard-earned following, on the line.
Melding the broadest of science fiction premises with the most contained of family dramas, and spicing it all up with a little hentai tentacle porn for good measure, it shows a director best known for a kind of seamy realist social critique take a flyer into less well-charted territory (for him) of metaphor and allegory and excoriatingly deadpan irony. Rather than use his trademark raw style to expose and eviscerate social injustice, here Escalante puts it in service of a kind of cautionary fable about both the healing power of sex and the harming power of sexual hypocrisy, and he uses a tentacled alien to do it. It’s a sometimes awkward mix precisely because it is so counter-intuitive, but with a little bit of latter-day Lars von Trier (Escalante even teams with von Trier’s “Nymphomaniac” DP Manuel Alberto Claro) and a lot of Andrzej Zulawski (specifically “Possession,” which the credits all but admit is where the creature comes from), the director has at the very least expanded the idea of what is “Escalante.”
Before the opening titles, we have a lingering shot of a rock, gently turning in outer space — which is really all the explanation we get for the arrival of the sexy beast glimpsed later, and the only justification for its mysterious, beyond-our-ken nature. Unlike the oddly similar-looking but far more esoterically cerebral cephalopod aliens of Denis Villeneuve‘s “Arrival,” this creature is not here to cause us to question the nature of the universe or our own ontology. Even the individual humans who come face to face (or crotch to tentacle) with it and live to tell the tale have their initial reactions of wonder, fear, horror and disgust immediately replaced, following an “intimate” encounter, by a strangely singleminded, incurious calm. The alien is not here to be an alien; it’s a metaphor on a meteor.
The first of the film’s jarring transitions takes place when after a woozily surrealist opening in which a young woman, Veronica (Simone Bucio, reinforcing the von Trier connection by looking a little like Charlotte Gainsbourg and having a similarly semi-dissociative performance style) stumbles wounded from an encounter with… something, which is being housed in an isolated dwelling in the woods, occupied by an older couple who act as the creature’s guardians, while living apparently otherwise ordinary lives.
This sequence is so strikingly odd, and bears so little resemblance to the segment that follows that for a while it seems like it might have been a dream, especially as we immediately cut to another young woman, Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) being woken up by, and impassively submitting to, her husband Angel’s (Jesús Mesa) amorous attentions. They are the parents of two young children, and their marriage seems fairly happy, until we discover Angel’s violently possessive streak, and that his macho homophobic posturing with regards to Ale’s beloved, openly gay brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio) is actually a smokescreen concealing the fact that the two men are having an affair.
Veronica, who seems like a bit of a drifter, senses to her sadness that the creature is getting tired of her, and befriends Fabian in order to bring it a new companion. But not everyone is acceptable to the creature, or can handle the extreme orgasmic pleasure it can bring, and Fabian is found later, bruised and comatose in a nearby ditch. His coma precipitates the discovery of his affair with Angel, and also Vero and Alejandra’s increasing closeness (which almost seems sexual in nature), which results in Vero introducing her alien fuckbuddy to Ale, who duly supplants her in the creature’s “affections.”
There are shades of cultural critique, particularly in regards to the gay panic that fundamentally underlies machismo, but Escalante seems, like the alien, more interested in the women — in Ale and Vero’s relationship to sex. Vero’s doomy “that which nourishes me also consumes me” compulsion to keep on visiting the creature is certainly a kind of nymphomania. Ale, by contrast, early on seen unsuccessfully trying to masturbate in the shower before being interrupted by her duties as a mom, seems like the only one whose life (perhaps because of her priority-focussing children) is not dominated by sexuality denied or sexuality overindulged. Even after she experiences the untold pleasure that the creature can give her (in a freakily glorious shot in which she’s suspended, moaning, in its coiling, writhing embrace, limbs and tentacles tangled up and intertwined) and the oddly heartless clarity of purpose that everyone seems to feel immediately afterwards, she does not lose herself.
Perhaps that’s an oddly measured conclusion for a film about a sex monster from outer space to come to, and there certainly are other avenues leading off this central premise that Escalante hints at but doesn’t quite pursue. The scene, for example, in which the horn-ifying effect of the alien visitor is demonstrated by the meteor crater being full of woodland creatures going at it is spectacular and funny and suggests that if ever Disney decides to do a live-action X-rated anthropomorphic animal movie, Escalante’s their man. Indeed some more explanation of the psychologically warping effect of proximity to the creature might have been useful in helping us understand why no one has reported this extraterrestrial lifeform to the authorities or the media, and why that old couple have uncomplainingly rearranged their lives around it as one might a cousin from out of town who was once welcome but has long overstayed.
But then again, the film has too odd a premise to expect a wholly satisfying result, and where it does go is so peculiar and provocative that the comparatively timid suggestion that a balance between sexual openness and sexual fixation is key to a happy life can be forgiven. Sexual repression is of course harmful, but Escalante doesn’t simply advocate dragging everything into sunshine. Instead, “The Untamed” plays like an acknowledgement that the hiddenness, the private nature of sexuality is also part of its power. Sometimes, visiting those parts of ourselves that we keep locked away in the windowless rooms of our psyches might not just be kinky, it might be a liberation — but at least some of that freedom comes from knowing you have a secret. [B+]