MIFF 2017 The Untamed: Bleak reality made otherworldly flesh

Amat Escalante’s latest film is a science-fiction journey, a social realist drama and an erotic exploration
Amat Escalante’s latest film is a science-fiction journey, a social realist drama and an erotic exploration | © The Untamed

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes just a few of the latter can paint quite the evocative example of the former. For Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante’s latest feature, five do the job — two in English, three in Spanish. In its English-language name, The Untamed speaks of forces that can’t be controlled. In its original Spanish guise, La región salvaje, it references a savage region. Instantly a picture emerges, as does a sensation. Judging a movie by its moniker is as ill-advised as judging a book by its cover; however this Mexican, Danish/French/German/Norwegian co-production’s two titles inspire images of wild lands, unrestrained entities refusing to hew to the world’s rules, and of feelings urges roaming free.

Thankfully, where The Untamed’s name walks, its contents follow. Making his fourth feature — and his first since winning best director at Cannes with 2013’s Heli — Escalante delivers on his titular promise and then some in a swirl of rich visuals and tension-needling audio. His film is a science-fiction journey complete with an extra-terrestrial creature, a social realist drama about the insidious destruction bubbling within humanity, and an erotic exploration of giving into one’s primal needs, all combined. Indeed, the movie provides another example of its moniker in action; nothing about it agrees to fit neatly within established boundaries or meekly chart existing terrain.

Encountering something otherworldly

'The Untamed' is a film that sees violence and desire dressed up in several costumes 'The Untamed' is a film that sees violence and desire dressed up in several costumes | © The Untamed It all begins with an asteroid, though The Untamed’s story really starts with an encounter between Verónica (Simone Bucio) and something otherworldly. Sustaining wounds during the coupling that need tending to, she is admitted to hospital and seen by nurse Fabián (Eden Villavencio), with more than a standard carer-patient bond soon forming. Fabian’s own tale includes his unhappy sister Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), who has two small children, and her husband Angel (Jésus Meza), who postures about his heterosexual manliness but is secretly having an affair with his brother-in-law. In Verónica, first Fabian and then Alejandra see an escape from their dreary existence, though neither can anticipate just the kind of release their new friend has to offer.

Escalante doesn’t hide the being at The Untamed’s centre. In fact, exposing its tentacled mass and its literally penetrating relationship with its human partners gives the film quite the memorable opening. Still, spying its fleshy presence early doesn’t necessarily indicate what is to come; a traditional body horror effort, this isn’t. Nor do Verónica’s recruiting efforts signify the film’s focus on thrusting the unaware into an unforgiving realm; Under the Skin, this isn’t either, though it shares similarities. Other characters will indulge in carnal activities with the alien figure in its woodland cabin, but much of the running time is concerned with happenings much more usual.

Untamed savagery lurking in ordinary life

'The Untamed' drawing parallels within its characters’ interpersonal connections and with contemporary Mexican society as well 'The Untamed' drawing parallels within its characters’ interpersonal connections and with contemporary Mexican society as well | © The Untamed Shot with stark naturalistic light that sits in visible contrast to the movie’s murky forest scenes, the bulk of the action charts the mundane nature of Fabián and Alejandra’s days, particularly focusing on his guilt over his trysts with Angel, as well as the minutiae of being the primary parent and dealing with an overbearing mother-in-law that springs from her discontented marriage. Co-writing the script with his first-time collaborator Gibrán Portela, Escalante dwells in the routine to dissect the untamed savagery that lurks in ordinary life, while intermittently flitting to its arresting instances of otherworldly ecstasy to highlight both commonalities and differences.

Accordingly, here is a film that sees violence and desire dressed up in several costumes, and knows that much and little lurk between their various extremes. Sometimes, they’re visceral and unpredictably alluring like a mountain of organic protrusions lurking in the woods; sometimes, they’re bleakly and brutally engrained into the everyday, oozing to the surface in heated arguments and unromantic lovemaking. One can both offer solace from and prove analogous to the other, just as being physically or emotionally possessed can prove a manifestation of deep-seeded fears as much as external forces. That The Untamed isn’t just drawing parallels within its characters’ interpersonal connections, but with contemporary Mexican society as well, is always apparent — and another example of the movie’s surging beyond its expected bounds.