'The Untamed' ('La region salvaje'): Venice Review

Courtesy of TIFF
Tentative — and with tentacles.

Mexican director Amat Escalante, who won the Cannes Best Director, honors for his previous film, 'Heli,' explores misogyny and homophobia in his latest feature, which has a sci-fi twist.

What will give you the most intense sexual pleasure, might possibly do you serious harm and — get this — has more slithery tentacles than you can shake a stick at? After having seen The Untamed (La region salvaje), the surprising and disturbing fourth feature from Mexico’s Amat Escalante, it is clear where the answer to this question resides — in a cabin in the Guanajuato countryside, of course — and more or less what it does. But it’s never clear what it actually is, though it might’ve been spawned by an extraterrestrial entity possibly also involved in the strange goings-on in films such as Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

The previous features of Escalante, a Cannes Best Director winner for Heli in 2013, were extremely realistic and often hard to watch because they were about not turning a blind eye to Mexicans’ systemic violence, subjugation and oppression. Here, most of the film is also grounded in a form of realism but what helps reveal much of Mexico’s ugly human realities is something otherworldly that promises pleasure.

The fact that The Untamed is neither a straightforward arthouse drama nor a genre film, that Escalante refuses to get specific about its most mysterious element and that some of the thematic undercurrents aren't properly connected to the material means this will be a tough sell that’ll require careful handling by festivals and specialized VOD platforms.

The film opens on the face of Veronica (Simone Bucio), a stringy, dark-haired woman who brings to mind Charlotte Gainsbourg, the titular protagonist from Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac. Not only does it become clear that Veronica is being pleasured, as the camera pans down to reveal her bare breasts and then something that slips away from between her legs, but the cinematographer on this Mexican-Danish co-production was Chilean-born maestro Manuel Alberto Claro, who also shot Nymphomaniac.

Veronica and that “thing” turn out to be supporting characters in this story, however, which primarily belongs to a tight family triangle. Gentle and disillusioned brunette Ale (Ruth Ramos) works in the pastry factory of the parents of her macho, tough-talking husband Angel (Jesus Meza), a civil engineer. Together, they have two small boys. Ale’s delicately featured brother, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), is a nurse who has to treat Veronica for what looks like a dog bite.  

It’s not clear whether Ale knows that her brother is gay, though she is very protective of him. The outwardly homophobic Angel doesn’t only know about Fabian but actually has sex with his brother-in-law on a regular basis (shown, as in all of Escalante’s films, without much modesty). And to complicate things even further, both Ale and Fabian have started to get tired of Angel’s coarse and semi-indifferent ways.

This compact set-up would have sufficed for a conventional arthouse drama about marital infidelity, being closeted and the pressure of Mexico’s macho culture. However, the tentacled creature adds not only another creepy layer of tension — heightened by the film’s minimalist, screechy and sinister score — but the pull of the creature’s promise of ecstatic sexual pleasure, possibly at a heavy cost, makes the unspoken and unhealthy undercurrents in the triangle’s actions and relationships more visible.

The enigmatic, slithering sex machine reveals the characters’ true selves because it connects them with their most basic desires, which come from a place of instinct rather than a place of rational thinking. The fact that the creature could also hurt you — if there’s a hospital in the story, you just know someone will end up there — doesn’t seem like a deterrent at all but even so, Escalante struggles to illuminate how sex and violence are connected and what this, in turn, means for more specialized types of aggressiveness and oppression, such as misogyny and homophobia.  

The small cast is very convincing but there is never quite enough material to connect their everyday struggles to the bigger underlying issues. The roles are also somewhat underwritten: Angel’s struggles, for example, feel real enough but viewers will get no sense of what his deeper, innermost and unexposed self really wants (one can guess but it's never exactly clear whether Angel's bisexual or gay, for example, or whether he really loves his sons or they're important for him because they create the impression of a "normal" family). 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.

Claro films the proceedings mostly in unremarkable medium and medium-wide shots that heighten the everyday realism, though especially in the countryside scenes, there are some painterly flourishes. Danish special effects company Soda, whose credits also include Nymphomaniac, did the creature work, which is seamlessly integrated throughout.

Production companies: Mantarraya Producciones/Tres Tunas, Snow Globe, Mer Film, Adomeit Film, Bord Cadre Films, Pimienta Films

Cast: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesus Meza, Eden Villavicencio, Andrea Peleaz, Oscar Escalante, Bernarda Trueba

Director: Amat Escalante

Screenplay: Amat Escalante, Gibran Portela

Producers: Jaime Romandia, Fernanda de la Peza, Amat Escalante

Executive producers: Nicolas Celis, Thomas Gammeltoft

Director of photography: Manuel Alberto Claro

Production designer: Daniela Schneider

Costume designers: Daniela Schneider, Ursula Schneider, Paulina Kuznicka

Editors: Fernanda de la Peza, Jacob Secher Schulsinger

Music: Guro Moe, Masse Marhaug, Martin Escalante

Sales: The Match Factory


No rating, 100 minutes