Released in 2001, it’s easy to see why this road movie stands out as a classic. It organically delves into heavy issues such as sexuality, maturity, relationships, politics and death. With Cuaron’s new movie, Gravity, hitting theaters this weekend, I felt it was the ideal time to finally catch up with this movie.
Without spoiling much, the film tells the story of two young best friends (Julio and Tenoch) who convince an older, attractive woman to road trip with them to a gorgeous beach that does not exist. The girlfriends of the two boys are vacationing abroad while the woman is struggling her own romantic status and internal problems. During their adventure, they open up about their ideas on sex, leading to the revelation of each person’s secrets and bonding them in a profound way.
The cinematic style is as free and open to possibilities as the three characters are. The camera moves anywhere it pleases, boundless and wandering, like the group searching for “Heaven’s Mouth”, an imaginary beach. For example, when in Luisa’s apartment, viewers exist in the room with her as she leaves and joins the boys. Almost like a ghost spectator, we see her answer the phone and grab her bags then we steadicam over the kitchen wall containing all the pictures and memories of her and Jano, Luisa’s fiance. Finally the long take ends with a shot framed through the window and down at the street where she is received by them. The omnipresence of the camera is seemingly from the POV of a voyeuristic human.
Other shots like this involve actual scenes on the road. As the embark on their journey, the camera will often shoot at three friends from outside of the car from the side, then pull ahead or fall back to shoot from in front of or behind their car in a far shot. This way, Cuaron is truly presenting a portrait of Mexico, his home country, with this film. Rather than limiting himself to intercutting close ups of each character within the vehicle, the auteur contextualizes the story and prioritizes the landscape, the political turmoil, and the country people, even if those interactions are brief.
The sound from these car scenes never pull away from the conversation of the three main characters, even when we see them in a distance. This allows their personal growth to be connected with their environment as we visually are presented with Mexico, but audibly receiving Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa’s dialogue. Their discussions about sex and relationships go from embellished stories to truthful enlightenments by the end.
After the characters reach a new sense of honesty with each other and themselves, the movie climaxes with its infamous jukebox scene.
Their open (and drunk) dialogue about each other’s lies and deceitful behavior takes a humorously honest turn as we, the viewers, sit at the table with them. The camera then rises and follows Luisa to the jukebox and back in one long take. She realizes that the relationship between the characters has reached a new level and that she has accepted her personal fate. So she decides to celebrate that. Luisa puts on a song and seductively dances back to the group. As she does this, she stares directly into the camera, dancing with us first. In this shot, Cuaron blatantly reveals that we, too, are characters in the film and have endured the journey and reached the same open mindset, hopefully. As we dance with the group, the film transitions into its final and most sexually freeing scene. By the conclusion, Cuaron hopes to have left a mark on us, as Luisa did with the boys, and helps us question our own thoughts on sexuality, maturity, relationships, politics and death.
*Update* I have since watched Gravity, Cuaron’s newest film, and it’s a masterpiece that will influence future space and 3D movies. Yes, watch it in 3D. Cuaron has said that the movie will lose 20% of its impact if watched in 2D. So please go view this in the best theater possible because it truly is experiential.
Most recently, I was able to catch these two amazing movies and both really made an impact on me. Each film is really a great example of how expansive and wide independent cinema has become because one (Short Term 12) comes from an up and coming director working with mostly unknown actors and the other (Frances Ha) comes from an established auteur with some young successful NY talent. Without going into a black hole and ranting incoherently about every thought I have on these two movies, I will note a few things that stood out about each.
”Sometimes it’s good to do what you’re supposed to do when you’re supposed to do it.” It really feels as though that happened with director/writer Noah Baumbach and writer/actor Greta Gerwig. Baumbach is an established auteur in independent cinema with classics such as The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, and Greenberg along with collaborations with Wes Anderson. Gerwig is newer to the scene but nonetheless has had complementary roles in notable movies and is considered to be on the verge niche stardom. Thus, this duo could have managed to get financing for a comfortable production budget but chose to keep this project close. The movie is in a filmic black and white which adds a nostalgia for the offbeat humor that nods to the early works of Woody Allen. However, the setting and vernacular is very much contemporary New York through the eyes of twenty somethings. The character of Frances is portrayed as an offbeat individual struggling with growing up or finding someone other than her distanced best friend to understand her. She also has a hard time making it as a dancer and her character often uses the world as a stage. From comical running to strangely timed headstands, Frances is never one to hide her emotions and does so with both words and actions, making the film very much a slapstick comedy in one regard. Beyond that, the writing touches upon social class, which adds a very interesting layer to the script. With New York being very expensive, yet dense, Frances represents the middle class chasing after a dream but often mingles and socializes with wealthier artists or kids with financial stability. This premise leads to some quick-witted, comedic conversations about the struggle of the twenty something in New York which will undoubtedly draw comparisons to the HBO series, Girls. However, Frances’s journey has a clear start and finish and is as unique as her character. If you didn’t get to see it this summer, it will luckily be a Criterion release in November. Get it.
Sidenote: As a production nerd, I was astonished to find out that the entire movie was shot on a Canon 5D Mark II DSLR camera, a very low budget piece of equipment that is barely a step above a consumer product. Amazing, especially for that rich silvery black and white film look that could fool anyone. For more about it, check out what cinematographer Sam Levy’s insights on how he shot Frances Ha here.