Tuesday 15 August 2017

All the feels: "The Untamed"

The 2013 Mexican feature Heli was such a brutal and bruising depiction of the collateral damage incurred in the war on drugs that you wondered how writer-director Amat Escalante was going to top it. Well, wonder no more. Escalante's follow-up The Untamed takes a subject that is just as potent and equally close to home (and the bone), and pursues it in a striking new direction: here is a dreamy, fairytale-like vision of sexuality run amok, unleashing its terrors on a whole different set of bodies. Right from the off, indeed: there probably won't be a grabbier opening image in cinema this year, that of a naked young woman in a dingy basement expelling - whether in pleasure or pain - a sizeable, slimy tentacle from between her legs.

For a while, this sequence is allowed to seem like the nightmare or fantasy of another woman, married to a macho good-for-nothing whose interest in her extends no further than taking her indifferently from behind every now and again. Yet it soon transpires that the younger woman exists in the same reality, and indeed the same social sphere: we see her being treated for a puncture wound by a doctor who turns out to be the other woman's nephew, and furthermore the man who's having it away on the DL with her AC/DC husband. It is, how you say, tangled. Not least visually: if the plot strands might be described as vaguely tentacular, that's as nothing compared to the way Escalante sets his camera to snaking around.

One shot, as virtuosic as anything in Heli, follows a car up a dirt road to an isolated scrap of countryside, briefly registering the presence of a corpse in the extreme bottom-right of the frame, before pulling back to find the police and ambulance crews arriving at what has now been established as a crime scene. The tentacle motif is everywhere one looks: in tree roots, the branches we see pounding a window during a storm, the tendrils of a river as viewed from above. What do all these visual clues amount to? Something about nature, possibly, and its refusal to run entirely straight; and almost certainly towards an idea of the body as a site of ongoing conflict. The hubby puts his bulk to no greater ends to fighting and fucking; time and again, though, he's rushed to the hospital to attend a young son beset by allergies.

The latter delights in colouring in garish faces with felt tips and crayons, but the whole film seems to be filled with erratic, lopsided, crudely drawn human forms. Escalante can be blunt about this: he piles up the naked flesh like a chophouse worker, and there are scenes here that play right into the sticky mitts of Japanese comic-book enthusiasts, among other fetishists. Yet just as Heli seemed to be getting at the sickness of Mexican society - the sort of sickness that might well drive anybody to drugs - so The Untamed appears, on some level, to be offering a critique of a particular strain of Latin machismo via the figure of the useless, closeted husband, who dismisses anyone who displays the slightest sensitivity as a faggot while enthusiastically pursuing the cock: the kind of comically blundering meathead who thrusts a pistol into his pocket only to shoot himself in the thigh. (And all the while, the women lie with creatures who fill their every hole, apparently emerging satisfied from the experience.)

There's a deliberate contrast between behaviour that could be deemed primal and that which is more civilised (nursing, child-rearing), though you'll have to accept it's an extreme one: one among many post-film discussion points will be the frankly astonishing mid-film orgy that replaces the ageing swingers of Ulrich Seidl or Gaspar Noe provocations with computer-generated animals, and winds up looking like a David Attenborough wet(land) dream, or something one might stray on in the darker recesses of the Internet. (Let's just say that, at last year's London Film Festival, the German entry Wild - in which a meek secretary fell in love and set about cohabiting with a wolf - had some competition for the prize of Best Animal Handling.)

The mystery that goes unresolved is surely that of life, what starts it and what sustains it: Escalante is drawn between his leading lady's thighs for reasons that seem at least as questioning as they might be prurient (what have you got up in there?), though the presence of the two elders who run the cabin in the woods where our heroine submits to those tentacles remains unclear to the end. Are they a couple of rogue scientists? Representatives of the fates? Or just doggers who get off on some really weird shit? Because The Untamed is allusive and elliptical, because it keeps sliding out of your grasp just when you think you have it, the blunt-force impact of Heli may be beyond its reach - yet it's full of adhesive ideas and images no North American filmmaker would approach with a bargepole, and which may yet slither down the insides of your eyelids once you've turned the lights out for the evening. Sleep tight.

The Untamed opens in selected cinemas from Friday, ahead of its DVD release on September 25. 

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