Return to the Sea
Matt Connolly on Y tu mamá también

Worldly. It’s a term that implies both geographic reach and sensual proximity—to be of and in the world, to know its pleasures and to take pleasure in the knowledge. For my adolescent self, such an idea both defined my long-term aspirations and stood in stark juxtaposition to reality. Movies became the way of beginning to achieve this, a starter kit to the kind of intellectual, cultural, and erotic understanding that I assumed would eventually come firsthand. In particular, watching foreign movies that “normal” sixteen-year-olds didn’t know or care about offered a double charge of precocious delight. The films themselves were not infrequently about worldly people: people in far-off cities, people meaningfully glancing at one another while taking a drag off of a cigarette, people having sex and then laughing about having sex. And then there was the sheer fact of knowing these films existed, that through my viewing them I had gained a toehold into a privileged body of cinematic and cultural information that separated me out (or so I thought) from my peers.

Few films embodied this starry-eyed, self-focused conception of international film more than Y tu mamá también. Though I wasn’t aware in the moment, my infatuation with Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 film placed me within the long lineage of American filmgoers whose attraction to foreign cinema can be summed up as “come for the sex, stay for the cultural edification.” I felt the film’s illicit charge before I even watched it, as its provocative DVD cover and “unrated” classification required my sixteen-year-old self to coordinate a furtive Blockbuster rental before I could even lay my eyes on it. And as the film’s story of horned-up teenagers Julio (Gael García Bernal) and Tenoch (Diego Luna) and their life-altering road trip through the Mexican countryside with Tenoch’s somewhat older Spanish cousin-in-law Luisa (Maribel Verdú) unfurled, did I get an eyeful! Y tu mamá también’s lingering images of Luna and García Bernal’s frequently disrobed bodies (and climatic, mid-threesome lip lock) became emblazoned in my memory as much for the casualness of their form as for the sensuousness of their content. This libidinal allure, in turn, became tempered by the film’s incorporation of oblique commentary. As much as Cuarón and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera zeroed in on the ever-shifting sexual and emotional undercurrents between its road-tripping trio, it would frequently drift over to document sidelong surveys of “everyday” existence amongst Mexican’s working class and rural poor, with details provided by an unnamed omniscient narrator. I couldn’t tell you what broader economic or political forces brought these briefly glimpsed individuals to their varying states of dispossession, but I remember feeling invigorated by Y tu mamá también’s mixture of the steamy and the socially conscious. It was knowing, amorous, mysterious—in a word, worldly.

Returning to the film more than a decade-and-a-half after that first viewing, I anticipated a re-watch colored by the conceptual rubrics that I’ve accumulated through time and education. That vaguely defined exoticism that I luxuriated in as a teenager seemed to inevitably reflect the sets of American stereotypes of “Mexican-ness”—its simultaneous carnal excesses and material privations—that I then accepted with little question. And yet revisiting Y tu mamá también hardly proved an exercise in “unlocking” a foreign title’s concealed meanings through applying a newly self-conscious vantage point. The film’s sensuous surfaces and roaming narrational perspective both pull the viewer in and push them away. If its emotional generosity can make the aesthetically naïve viewer assume a greater familiarity than they actually possess, its allusive (and elusive) structure challenges the self-fashioned sophisticate to consider how much one can ever know of another country’s cinema, culture, experience.

Y tu mamá también remains a deeply sexy film, with a visual style that at once studies and luxuriates in the carnal activities of its protagonists. While less viscerally affecting than they were when viewed through my adolescent eyes, the film’s sex retains a playful frankness, a comfort with graphic nudity linked as much to observational curiosity as to titillation. This extends from Julio and Tenoch’s frantic copulation with their respective girlfriends (who depart for an Italian vacation early in the film) to their side-by-side jerkoff sessions to Luisa’s eventual seduction of both young men.

What I barely noticed upon initial viewing is how Cuarón and Lubezki’s handheld camera becomes the de facto third (if not fourth) partner in their various encounters. Long takes have come to define the collaborations between the two, but the cinematographic choices made during Y tu mamá también’s sex scenes stand apart for their intimacy and intuitiveness. Take Luisa and Tenoch’s first intimate rendezvous after the trio has embarked on their sojourn to Heaven’s Mouth, the seemingly fabricated beach that Julio and Tenoch convince Luisa to accompany them to. Tenoch enters Luisa’s hotel room only in a towel, looking to borrow some shampoo. He finds her mid-sob and begins to apologetically exit, until Luisa commands him to remove his towel and begin to masturbate. She begins to undress as Tenoch strokes himself, eventually beckoning him to the bed where they have a frenzied (and, from Luisa’s look of bemused exasperation, all too brief) round of copulation. The camera records the entire encounter in an unbroken, almost-four-minute take, tracking back from a hunched and weeping Luisa into a distanced long shot of the two that gradually moves closer as the scene climaxes. With the pulsating presence of the shaky-cam and the measured patience of the shot length, the scene is on the knife’s edge between detachment and lasciviousness—a tonal negotiation complicated further still by the camera’s final pan to reveal a shaken Julio in the doorway as he stumbles upon Luisa and Tenoch. Cuarón and Lubezki’s aesthetic functions as a riposte to clichés that U.S. or overseas viewers may hold about Mexican sensuality. The sex in Y tu mamá también is randy, fluid, and enticing; it’s also sloppy, artless, and shot through with complex emotional undertones. Under the camera’s watchful eye, the trio bares all in ways they both longed for and hardly anticipated.

If the film’s understanding of sexuality was more nuanced than my 16-year-old mind appreciated at the time, its approach to social observation proved more indeterminate than I had recalled. Cuarón has expressed ambivalence toward what he refers to as Mexico’s “cinema of denunciation,” a tradition in the country’s mid-to-late 20th-century filmic output that emphasized explicit critiques of U.S. imperialism, national poverty, and economic exploitation. Y tu mamá también hardly avoids the political, but it acknowledges wider disparities in wealth and power through intentionally indirect methods. Tenoch and Julio’s friendship has blossomed despite class differences between the two young men (we learn via the film’s narrator that Tenoch is the son of the country’s Secretary of State while Julio’s single mother works as a secretary for an unnamed corporation). Only once the two come to blows over a series of unearthed sexual transgressions do they directly acknowledge these tensions, with Tenoch dismissing Julio as a “classic white trash” and Julio branding Tenoch a “fucking yuppie.”

More often, however, the film separates its observations about contemporary Mexican society from the immediate concerns of its protagonists. Drawing from a neorealist tradition reaching back at least to Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rossellini in the 1940s, the camera will simply drift away from Julio and Tenoch’s ribald antics or Luisa’s conversations with the young men and refocus on frequently unnamed Mexican citizens in varying states of working-class labor or visible poverty. The narrator sometimes sketches out biographical details or contextual information about the individuals, though just as frequently the viewer is invited to draw assumptions about their economic state through an implicit comparison between them and our more hedonistically focused protagonists. As Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa cruise across rural Mexico, Y tu mamá también settles into a road-trip structure that allows for numerous plausible encounters with the nation’s down-and-out while maintaining focus on the trio’s libertine exploits and fluctuating relationships.

This can seem primed to flatter the would-be discernment of a foreign viewer. Through its strategy of elliptically noting the travails of peripheral figures, Y tu mamá también gestures toward a range of political, economic, and social dynamics within contemporary Mexico without having to linger on the details, much less break stride in its chronicling of sexual and emotional awakening amongst the (relatively) privileged. This is particularly acute when Cuarón (who co-wrote the film’s Oscar-nominated screenplay with brother Carlos) imbues certain of these asides with a tone that straddles the line between blunt commentary and blasé fatalism. One such moment occurs when, having arrived at the beach and settled in for a leisurely stay, Tenoch, Julio, and Luisa find their campsite overrun by wild pigs. As they shoo away the defecating intruders, our narrator informs us that not only will fourteen of these animals be slaughtered within two months but that three will also incite a regional trichinosis outbreak. This combination of ephemeral issue citation and world-weary affect sometimes brings Y tu mamá también to a precarious place. Is the evocation of systemic problems meant to offer little more than a patina of awareness to an otherwise disengaged film? This question seems particularly germane to the film’s global viewership (i.e., someone like me) for whom its intimations of national corruption and scarcity might bolster a kind of cocktail-party-chatter consensus without encouraging further knowledge. It’s the “well, everybody knows…” version of cosmopolitanism, tied more to an aura of cultivated sophistication than firsthand involvement.

At the same time, such a critique highlights my own viewing position while failing to account for how large swaths of Y tu mamá también still move and provoke me. To frame the film’s attitude toward social commentary only in relationship to an imagined foreign audience does little more than reinscribe the assumed centrality of international art-house spectators over local moviegoers, of whom the latter’s enthusiasm helped to make Y tu mamá también one of Mexico’s highest grossing films of all time. For a Mexican viewer in the early 2000s, the web of sociopolitical allusions that Y tu mamá también spins around its core narrative may in fact more closely align with the reality of life as it is lived. The fall of national parties, the churn of protests, and the scars of inequality are known as much through the ambience of everyday incident as through the accrual of facts and figures. I don’t think American moviegoers are therefore off the hook to learn more about the history, culture, and life of the countries whose films we so readily consume when they move through the festival circuit or land on specialized streaming services. (Truly, when I finally read a bit about the history of the Institutional Revolutionary Partyand its seventy-plus-year control of Mexican politics, I could at least recognize the weight of the film’s pairing of the party’s 2000 historic election loss with the final dissolution of Julio and Tenoch’s friendship.) Yet the experiential intimacies of that moment are not therefore “revealed” by my cursory Wikipedia research, a dynamic underscored by the film’s withholding of explainer-style context. What Cuarón offers, rather, is a structure of feeling—an aesthetic approximation of how the wider world imbues and infiltrates routine existence, from the gob-smackingly obvious to the barely perceptible.

Of all the moments in Y tu mamá también that impressed me upon reviewing, few felt more devastating than a small scene midway through the threesome’s road trip. Luisa regales Tenoch and Julio with the story of her first boyfriend as they drive, with the boys’ bawdy jokes about their sex life cut short when Luisa offhandedly reveals that the boyfriend was killed in an accident at seventeen. We cut from the three sitting in silence to a shot of the road taken through the car’s windshield. The narrator informs us of another accident that took place on the same road ten years prior, killing two people whose lives are now marked by roadside crosses that the camera pans to glimpse as the car passes them. This might, in turn, remind the viewer of earlier shots of makeshift markers seen on the edges of rural roads. The porous boundaries between personal tragedy and societal injustice hang in the air throughout this sequence, all the more affecting for how the film keeps definitive explanation just out of reach.

Y tu mamá también is in part about the ecstasies and agonies of coming-of-age. If Julio and Tenoch’s journey with Luisa opens them up to newfound sexual and emotional frontiers, approaching those limits (particularly when they include latent queer desire) ultimately disillusions the duo. The film’s final scene finds the young men at the end of their friendship, each having seemingly accepted the social conventions they briefly transcended on their road trip. It’s a somber and affecting coda, completing the arc from the chaotic possibility of youth to the staid sobriety of burgeoning adulthood. This time, I found it tempting to graft my own evolving relationship to the film onto this narrative. The ideas and sensations that Y tu mamá también roused in me as a teen now inevitably (and perhaps rightly) feel less revelatory, more shot through with ambiguities and second thoughts.

The true epiphany of returning to the film as an adult, however, came from how differently I viewed Luisa. I recalled her as a sultry earth mother, guiding the young men toward maturation through a combination of fleshly delights and tough love. Her own emotional baggage was heavy—a cheating spouse, a diagnosis of terminal cancer that remains unconfirmed until film’s end—but she carried it lightly and with grace. These memories are not exactly wrong, yet now I appreciate how vibrantly messy and emotionally frayed the character is. She weeps, screams, gets wasted, asks raunchy questions about the sex lives of two teenage boys, proceeds to have sex with said teenage boys (apart and then together), and generally embarks on their voyage as a stranger in a strange land, seeking answers without necessarily knowing the questions she’s asking. As embodied in Maribel Verdú’s extraordinary performance, Luisa does not impart predigested bits of wisdom to Julio and Tenoch because she’s still working through her own thoughts on intimacy, commitment, and what constitutes a satisfying life. What she has is an increasingly radical openness to possibility, one that acknowledges the limits of her own awareness and welcomes an evolving sense of self. As the camera offers one final shot of her luxuriating in the ocean’s waves, the film’s narrator reveals Luisa’s final words to Tenoch and Julio: “Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.” Perhaps it’s only now that I understand how worldly that statement really is—a clear-eyed embrace of experience, wild and churning.