Fans of Alfonso Cuarón’s 2001 international hit Y tu mamá también will recognize the opening shot of his 1990 debut feature, Sólo con tu pareja, which shows a couple having noisy sex in the morning. The films, indeed, have much in common, in form and content, but they could hardly be more different in terms of production. Cuarón’s first film—a sex farce that pokes fun at Mexican culture, including a public-service AIDS campaign—emerged from Mexico’s beleaguered state funding system for cinema, and was initially shelved by the government, whereas Y tu mamá también was essentially privately financed and, of course, widely distributed internationally. Despite the delays with Sólo con tu pareja, however, it did go on to be a popular and critical success when it was finally released in Mexico, in 1991. Although its U.S. release would have to wait until the fall of 2006, it made a splash at the Toronto Film Festival in 1991. That North American success helped lead the director to Hollywood, where he made A Little Princess (1995) with Warner Brothers and Great Expectations (1998) with Twentieth Century Fox, before returning triumphantly to Mexican screens, ten years after Sólo con tu pareja, with the even more risqué and socially critical Y tu mamá también.
The decade that separated Cuarón’s two Mexican films witnessed a fundamental transition in Mexican cinema. In the 1970s and early ’80s, quality Mexican films were most likely produced or coproduced by the state. By the time Cuarón procured funding from the state-sponsored production company IMCINE (Mexican Institute of Cinematography), however, the Mexican government’s involvement in film production had diminished considerably from its heyday under the administration of President Luis Echeverría Álvarez, which fostered an auteur cinema during the first half of the 1970s that helped develop the careers of such noted Mexican directors as Arturo Ripstein, Felipe Cazals, and Paul Leduc. This was a result of the failure of the national-popular economic model, which had sustained Mexico’s economy throughout the 1970s, and coincided with the country’s turn toward a privatized market economy. Public funding for film and other cultural production dried up, and, as a result, practically all that remained on the screens—with a few notable exceptions, such as Leduc’s Frida: Naturaleza viva (1984) and Ripstein’s El imperio de la fortuna (1986)—were privately funded, formulaic genre pieces, like narco-films and sexycomedias.
The 1980s were a low point for Mexican cinema, but things began to look up in the early nineties, with a batch of young, talented filmmakers straying from the tired fare of the previous decade and displaying genuine innovation, including Carlos Carrera, with La mujer de Benjamín (1991), María Novaro, with Danzón (1991), and Cuarón and his Sólo con tu pareja. Cuarón, for one, was not content to traffic in stock characters—criminals, rural folk, celebrity wrestlers. Instead, he was a trailblazer in portraying, and satirizing, middle-class urban dwellers on-screen. Around this time, Mexican films began to take, in Cuarón’s words, “a direct approach to reality.” The innovative social content of Sólo con tu pareja—its focus on middle-class urban professionals, combined with a comic take on AIDS (albeit from a heterosexual perspective)—was paralleled by the construction of new theaters throughout Mexico, which succeeded in attracting an audience of spectators who belonged to the relatively wealthy minority portrayed in Sólo con tu pareja and such later films as Rafael Montero’s Cilantro y perejil (1995) and Antonio Serrano’s Sexo, pudor y lágrimas (1999). This also happened to be the time of the rise of independent U.S. cinema, heralded by the release of Steven Soderbergh’s sex, lies, and videotape (1989)—the beginning, that is, of a worldwide shift in film production, away from traditional, often nationally based, studio systems and toward independent and international coproductions, of which Mexico was very much a part.
Although the nineties witnessed the release of a number of quality films in Mexico, for the industry overall the decade was a bumpy ride. In 1998, for example, only eleven films were made in Mexico. In 1991, there were 104. By 2001, the number was back to twenty-two, and since then between thirty and forty films have been made each year. Today, of course, Mexican cinema is famous for its well-crafted and openly critical national and international blockbusters, such as Luis Estrada’s Herod’s Law (1999), Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Amores perros (2000), Carlos Carrera’s The Crime of Padre Amaro (2002), and Y tu mamá también—and Mexican directors, including Cuarón, González Iñárritu (21 Grams), and Guillermo del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone, Blade II), are making it big in Hollywood too.
Sólo con tu pareja was written by Cuarón’s brother Carlos, one of several longtime collaborators of the director’s (they teamed up again for the screenplay of Y tu mamá también). Carlos Cuarón, indeed, won an Ariel, Mexico’s top film prize, for best original story. The film follows one Tomás Tomás, a promiscuous adman played by Daniel Giménez Cacho (who would later read the voice-over in Y tu mamá también). Tomás is a modern-day Don Juan who has no qualms, for example, about seducing a bride on her way to the altar. Basing their comedy on this type of character allowed the Cuarón brothers to create a work that combined the basic titillation of the relatively mindless sexycomedias, known all too well by bored Mexican audiences, with sophisticated formal and thematic elements—including a carefully assembled soundtrack, citing, among other works, Mozart’s Don Giovanni. The film also broke new ground in its treatment of the delicate topic of AIDS, not just broached but dealt with comically, as one of Tomás’s spurned lovers, a nurse, falsifies his AIDS test to make him believe he is HIV-positive.
Sólo con tu pareja was visually innovative as well, and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki—who also shot A Little Princess, Great Expectations, and Y tu mamá también for Cuarón and has gone on to great fame with Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Terrence Malick’s The New World (2005)—was nominated for an Ariel for his work, marked by high-contrast juxtapositions of dark, claustrophobic interiors and light, open exteriors. The scene in which Tomás bids farewell to Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez), the love of his life, at the threshold of the apartment building is, perhaps, the most captivating. The darkened interior where Tomás remains becomes bathed momentarily in the blinding sunshine into which Clarisa has disappeared, a visual contrast that foreshadows Tomás’s eventual passage to personal freedom. Lubezki’s work here prefigures both the wandering tracking shots of Y tu mamá también and the almost baroque interiors of A Little Princess and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the last not actually shot by Lubezki but attesting to the influence he has had on Cuarón.
In one of the funniest moments in the film, Tomás finds himself naked on the window ledge outside his apartment, his bath towel having just fallen to the ground near a group of serenading mariachis. They are singing “Despierta” (Wake up), a song once recorded by Pedro Infante, one of the most well-known actors of Mexican cinema’s golden age of the 1930s through ’50s. This reference establishes the film’s most important thematic element, an ironic commentary on Mexican national culture. When Gloria Gold (Isabel Benet), Tomás’s boss and one of his latest lovers, begins singing the lyrics to the song, it illustrates that the film’s characters—and its audience as well—are familiar with the Mexican popular culture that Cuarón skillfully interrogates.
The film also pays homage to the golden age of Mexican cinema, specifically to the films of comedians Cantinflas (Mario Moreno) and Tin Tan (Germán Valdés), who were famous for deftly combining physical humor, wordplay, and social critique, a winning formula famously illustrated in the courtroom scene in Cantinflas’s Ahí está el detalle (Juan Bustillo Oro, 1940). Examples of wordplay abound in Sólo con tu pareja, from the characters’ endearingly repetitive names—in addition to Tomás Tomás, there is, for example, Mateo Mateos (Luis De Icaza), Teresa de Teresa (Astrid Hadad), and someone referred to as Patricia from Pathology—to a number of verbal and visual puns. In one particularly well-executed comic scene that combines physical and linguistic humor, Cuarón shows Tomás trying to do himself in by sticking his head in a microwave oven. Needless to say, his efforts get him nowhere. On the floor, not far from the microwave, Tomás’s computer screen lists his hundreds of lovers and bathes his darkened room in green, a predominant color in Cuarón’s palette. Scattered across the floor are dozens of inverted conical paper cups that he has placed carefully to represent each of his conquests, reminding the viewer, appropriately enough for a Don Juan story, of the pointed hats penitents used to wear when facing the Spanish Inquisition. Just as he is about to turn the microwave on, the one woman Tomás has fallen in love with, the stewardess Clarisa, bursts into his room, crying. She is devastated by her discovery that her husband, a pilot, is sleeping with a flight attendant from Continental. She laments to Tomás that her husband’s betrayal is “worse than an emergency landing,” adding, “He clipped my wings.” Such exaggerated jokes are complemented by more subtle examples, like the jalapeño peppers for which Tomás fails to write a catchy slogan. His inability to package the jalapeños reflects his anxiety about his sexual prowess, which is threatened by his love for Clarisa and his mistaken belief that he is infected with HIV.
The film’s unique importance lies in two of its prominent themes: its focus on AIDS (the film’s title comes from a government slogan encouraging Mexicans to have sex “only with your partner” or use a condom) and its sophisticated satire of the shopworn clichés of Mexican national culture. When Tomás’s friend Mateo asks him to escort a pair of doctors visiting from Japan, he takes them to a mariachi bar in Mexico City’s Garibaldi Plaza, an all-too-typical tourist destination. The film’s predictable parody of camera-clicking Japanese tourists becomes meaningfully ironic when we see Tomás validating the kitschy stereotypes of his own nation. After an evening of outrageous excess, filmed as a fast-paced, drunken montage of guitars, tequila, and sombreros, Tomás dreams of Clarisa. In the dream, she leads him onto a plane, where Tomás encounters friends, former lovers, and a cast of characters from Mexico’s collective past, including the movie-star wrestler El Santo, a Spanish conquistador, and an Aztec wearing a feathered headdress. This dream sequence conveys brilliantly the idea that such cultural commonplaces have been as ridiculously touted and canned as the jalapeño peppers that plague Tomás. When considered alongside the fact that Sólo con tu pareja was Cuarón’s only state-produced film, this critique of national clichés can also be understood as an indictment of officially endorsed culture.
In the film’s final scenes, the suffocating interiors of the airplane dream and the mariachi bar stand in dramatic counterpoint to sweeping aerial shots of Mexico City at night. For most of the film, the viewer receives few visual clues that Sólo con tu pareja is set in Mexico City. Those signs that do appear first reproduce and then, through Cuarón’s ironic style, undermine cultural stereotypes. But the shots of the seemingly infinite cityscape that rotates around Clarisa and Tomás as they consider leaping from Mexico City’s tallest building, the Latin American Tower, suggest something new. They represent expansive freedom for Clarisa and Tomás, who end up staying alive and together. They also suggest the possibility of new cinematic visions of Mexican culture, which would become more critical, more nuanced, and more relevant in the contemporary age of Mexican film that got off to a promising start with Cuarón’s debut success.
Ryan F. Long is an assistant professor of Spanish at the University of Oklahoma. His research focuses on contemporary Mexican culture and politics. He is currently completing a book project titled “Fictions of Totality: The Mexican Novel and the National Popular State.”