“Do you like sex?” – “Don’t we all?” That pointed brother-sister exchange in The Untamed could provide a simple but direct and perfectly accurate summation of the cinema of Amat Escalante. His films deal with other things as well – violence, corruption, power, social class – but sexuality is truly at the heart of everything. The two faces of sex, at least according a certain narrative-cinema lineage that takes in Stanley Kubrick, Bertrand Bonello and Escalante’s comrade-mentor in Mexico, Carlos Reygadas: there is civilised sex, precariously maintained; and primitive sex – the primitive level to which we humans can very easily and swiftly descend (for good or for ill, that remains to be seen).
In The Tree of Life (2011), Terrence Malick took us from the cosmos to earth-bound ancient dinosaurs and modern-day kids at play. The Untamed, from its very first images and sounds, traces a different kind of circuit: an asteroid in space, and then a woman in a cabin room, still feeling the waves of sensual pleasure from her encounter with a fleetingly glimpsed, slithery-type octopus creature. (If you’re immediately flashing onto Possession , that evocation is deliberate: Andrzej Żuławski [1940-2016] is among the film’s dedicatees.)
I wasn’t entirely surprised to learn that this alien creature, as plot device or thematic metaphor, did not yet appear in several initial script drafts of the project (the director is the sole screenwriter here). Escalante started by elaborating a character network that suggests naturalistic melodrama, or perhaps more accurately a cranked-up telenovela soap opera: Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is unhappily married to Ángel (Jesús Meza), who regularly makes homophobic cracks about her gay brother, medical practitioner Fabián (Eden Villavicencio). The dark secret that will ultimately unravel the larger family network is that Ángel and Fabián are in fact having a torrid affair (as is, less scandalously and more discreetly, Alejandra herself, with a hippie-ish American guy who only figures on the periphery of the plot). A fourth character is introduced from the outset (she’s the woman in the opening sequence) who both creates a new kind of weave between the three others, and draws them away to another, stranger destiny: Verónica (Simone Bucio).
Verónica was, one day, attracted to that cabin in the woods in Guanajuato where an older couple (played by Oscar Escalante and Bernarda Trueba) lovingly tend to the needs of the asteroid space creature. This alien has very little on its mind, it seems, beyond pleasuring and being pleasured: it shows no signs of wanting to conquer this world, to reproduce itself (the possibilities of impregnation and propagation are never raised), or to make contact with anybody on any level other than the sexual. This is a passive alien who merely leaves traces, and thickly infects the atmosphere (conjured in landscape shots and mysterious camera movements): particularly the crater where it fell to earth, which has become (as revealed in a memorably nutty scene) a fornication-grotto stomping-ground for all nearby animals, bugs and birds! The creature seemingly never even wants to leave its minimalistic room-lodging, instead just hanging out (literally) by winding itself around the rafters. So it’s not Annihilation (Alex Garland, 2018) territory – whether annihilation/absorption of the human race by the alien, or plain annihilation in the reverse case.
The alien lair is a setting that – even in the promotional poster and trailers for the film – will evoke, for some, Claire Denis’ chilling Bastards (2013). But The Untamed is not about taboo, political corruption, or even the breakdown of civilised mores. At most, it is about the old Eros and Thanatos dance, as filtered through Georges Bataille and others of his ilk: desire demands sacrifice, orgasmic sex can tip over into acts of violence, or – in the rather more banal way in which Escalante discusses this in interviews – sex is a drive that routinely surpasses its fulfilment, and demands either variety or (as in the immortal Bruce Springsteen lyric) “maybe something worse”.
In truth, there’s not much deep logic to the desiring ways of this creature. We don’t know why it bites one and kills another, while only pleasuring somebody else. We don’t know its relation to its elder hosts (except that its presence seems to make them mighty horny). We don’t know if it ever evolves or changes – beyond, that is, needing new partners/victims. It’s not a military extermination story (thankfully), as so many SF-horror pieces become; but the lack of plot direction or resolution on any level leaves the creature dangling as purely a handy conceit or metaphor.
And what is it a metaphor for, exactly? Quite simply, unacknowledged desire, unconfessed desire, unmanageable desire, successfully neither sublimated nor desublimated – ashamed gayness, for instance, publicly expressing itself as homophobia on the one hand, and twisting itself into hysterical domestic violence on the other hand. Escalante seems still stuck, at the end, for a way to really narrativise that issue of thwarted desire through the SF device. Julia Ducournau’s Raw (2016), on a different but related register, did a better, semantic-switch-hitting job with this kind of metaphor-driven plot.
I greatly admired Escalante’s Los Bastardos (2008) for its Michael Haneke-style formalism, realism and conceptual punch. The Untamed is relatively flat by comparison, perhaps as a result of the need to stylise the general ensemble around a few – but central – digital effects (handled, technically, by the Danish side of the co-production agreement), and the loose horror-SF premise. Only a few choice moments – such as the view of Ángel behind bars, while in the same frame a police interrogator repeats every word of testimony to a typist – pop out of the sameness. The realm of the domestic or working everyday doesn’t really touch ground here, beyond a few felicitous details; and the non-professional actors, lacking a fuller naturalistic framework, come across in many scenes as impoverished TV soap figures, sleepwalking through the usual marital recriminations and familial confrontations (the various parents of the central characters are particularly thinly sketched).
The film is full of kids and animals, underfoot everywhere. But neither the kids (standing for the weight and bother of everyday family life) nor the animals (nearer in spirit to the alien guest) amount to very much, alas. Another, more novel indication of the human “multitude” fills the end credits: every single extra who appeared in the film, whether gifted with a line of dialogue or not, is named and listed. That’s democracy in action!
© Adrian Martin March 2019