Daily | Venice + Toronto 2016 | Amat Escalante’s THE UNTAMED

Amat Escalante‘s The Untamed has premiered in Competition in Venice and will screen in Toronto‘s Vanguard program. For Variety‘s Guy Lodge, “this strange stew of socially conscious domestic drama and tentacular sci-fi erotica is far from what Escalante’s previous work has led us to expect—not least in its relatively tempered shock factor, as the director only grazes a promised fantasy dimension of basest sexual impulse. While shot through with pointed jabs at chauvinism and mainstream homophobia in Mexican society, The Untamed never quite exceeds the sum of its intriguingly opposed parts.” As for one of those parts, “nobody who’s seen [Andrzej] Zulawski’s Possession could fail to notice an indelible image Escalante has repurposed from that 1981 film: a writhing, amorphous, many-tentacled creature, sequestered in a dark chamber, that becomes an unlikely instrument of sexual agency and self-realization to those who submit to it.”

“Escalante’s film begins by pitching us into a knotty, but not immediately unlikely, drama of family dysfunction in a small Mexican town,” writes the Guardian‘s Andrew Pulver. “Ale is unhappy with her boringly macho husband Angel; he’s got a decent job, with a surveying crew, but is secretly cheating on Ale with—of all people—her doctor brother Fabian…. Incrementally, Escalante’s narrative begins to get surreal round the edges, largely through the agency of Veronica, a young woman who seems to have no ties but an ability to befriend people.”

“By rooting the story so firmly in the everyday,” writes Jonathan Romney for Screen, “Escalante emphasizes his metaphoric intent—the thing in the barn stands for the untameable erotic aspect of the Id, but the ‘wild region’ alluded to in the film’s Spanish title (La Region Salvaje) is the destructive drive of humanity, embodied in Angel’s machismo and in the guns and animal head trophies that fill his parents’ home. When Escalante does allow his uncanny elements a full airing—with shades of H.P. Lovecraft to the fore—the jump into grotesque horror is, when it works, highly unsettling.”

“The small cast is very convincing but there is never quite enough material to connect their everyday struggles to the bigger underlying issues,” finds the Hollywood Reporter‘s Boyd van Hoeij. “It is as if the writer-director, who authored the screenplay with Gibran Portela, found a solid story setup and an unusual but fascinating thematic catalyst but still needed a couple of drafts to figure out how to connect all his elements in a way that transcends the lives of these characters to say something more universal.”

Updates, 9/6: The Telegraph‘s Robbie Collin notes that “the creature’s mere presence in the area whips the local wildlife into a perpetual amorous reverie, and Escalante throws in a brief multi-species orgy scene featuring sheep, ducks, snakes, armadillos and even a pair of tortoises which is almost worth an entire star in itself.” Otherwise, “Escalante’s characters aren’t written or performed with the kind of emotional detail that invests you in their fates, and aside from the film’s central horrific coup-de-Jung, there isn’t much that lingers in the mind afterwards.”

The Untamed does that very rare thing in cinema in that it blends mystery, horror and pseudo-reality with a kind of dark subconscious arousal,” finds Rory O’Connor at the Film Stage. “The ending comes out of nowhere and might leave viewers rattled, but there is something in that radical imagery, and the illicit taboo nature of the characters’ actions, that will linger with the viewer long after.”

The Untamed revels in a release of repression, and an escape from the stifling repression, or containment of desire,” writes John Bleasdale at CineVue. “The comedy is obsidian and sly, but occasionally nicely ordinary as with the incredibly naturalistic depiction of Alejandra’s young children.”

Update, 9/8: For Gonzalo Suárez at Cineuropa, it’s as if Escalante “were lamenting that the head-on approach and harshness he has used in the past have borne no fruit, and he is now trying to tell us that the scourges of violence, chauvinism and the rejection of diversity have reached such unbearable proportions for him that the only option is to find a way of drawing nearer to some kind of original source, perhaps love—a force of life and death that we feel is unknown or that we have forgotten, but without which this world is already becoming completely uninhabitable.”

Updates, 9/10: “The thing is seen very graphically, in minutely realized detail,” notes Jonathan Romney, writing for Film Comment, “and that doesn’t make it, or its lovemaking, any less disturbing—this is one of those rare occasions when a CGI creation is imbued with absolutely real-seeming tactility, even a kind of sensuality. It makes perfect sense that we should see it—but the groundwork for its macabre spell is surely laid by certain moves in the film which are menacing and sinuous in their own right, like the seemingly unmotivated shots in which the camera creeps with intent around the passages near Alejandra’s home.”

Meantime, Escalante has won one of two Silver Lions for directing.

Update, 9/12: “Escalante’s knack for high-concept premises… is undone by his obvious, brute-force execution and his indelicacy with characters,” argues Angelo Muredda, writing for Cinema Scope. “Escalante’s dogged literal-mindedness makes this an incomplete Zulawski homage at best, and at worst The Untamed is as basic as its title, a joyless slog through an austere sci-fi-adjacent melodrama about the weaponization of desires unexpressed.”

Update, 9/13: At the Playlist, Jessica Kiang suggests that “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.”

Update, 9/16: For Nicholas Bell at Ioncinema, “the protégé of Carlos Reygadas makes his most distinctive work yet with this strange mixture of sci-fi, socially conscious neo-realist drama and Freudian metaphor.”

The 2016 fall film festival indexes: Venice, Telluride and Toronto.

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