The Untamed

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Genre collision is the dish of the day in The Untamed (La Région Salvaje) as the most down-to-earth drama, the soap, meets the most out there – sci-fi.

The result probably shouldn’t work but it really does, thanks to writer director Amat Escalante’s decision to keep the sci-fi stuff in the background for most of the film.

After an opening shot of a black meteorite in space, followed by one of a pretty young woman apparently pleasuring herself, or being pleasured by, a giant pink tentacle, we’re off into an entirely different realm until, in the film’s last section, the tentacle, and the creature it’s attached to, return for some very out-there cross breeding scenes, as human meets alien and soft porn meets sci-fi.

Meanwhile, back in the realm of the mundane, a familiar story of Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), a young woman whose unfeeling brute of a husband is, unbeknown to her, secretly carrying on a homosexual liaison with her openly gay brother, a nurse. Publicly, husband Ángel (Jesús Meza) is your Mexican male, a homophobe on stilts who refers to Alejandra’s brother Fabián (Eden Villavicencio) as a “faggot”. But secretly Fabián is probably the love of Ángel’s life, though he will never be able to admit that.

So far, so soap, of a sort you might see in a Mexican telenovela everyday. And the logic of the supercharged genre dictates that the truth is going to come spilling out at some point, and spectacularly. Which it eventually does, after Verónica (Simone Bucio), the woman with the tentacle in the first scene, gets to know Fabián after turning up at the hospital with a nasty wound given to her by the alien. It can get feisty, it seems.

Through Fabián Verónica gets to know his sister, and her husband. All of them will separately and under varying degrees of volition meet the tentacular creature being hosted at a cabin in the woods by a kindly couple, the Vegas, who helpfully explain that the creature is “our most primitive side… materialised” and worry that it is perhaps getting a bit out of control. They are not wrong.

Simone Bucio as Verónica
Simone Bucio as Verónica

The sci-fi element energises the soap opera element and the soap makes the sci-fi more plausible in The Untamed, and Escalante and his cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro walk a line between a matter-of-fact shooting style and one that’s murkier and heavier with foreboding. The soundtrack really helps up the woo factor too, and often breaks into the slightly eery in sections featuring unusual acoustic instruments, like the contrabass clarinet, octobass, hydraphone and violino piccolo.

The film is dedicated (partly) to Andrzej Żuławski, who died in 2016 just before it came out. Whether it owes anything to the great maverick, a master of the bizarre, is debatable but Escalante’s use of enigmatic, charismatic, beautiful women in the two key roles of Alejandra and Verónica is something Żuławski would endorse, as are the efforts to swerve usual screenwriting formulae. And the occasional preposterous money shot so gobsmaking you’ll probably laugh out loud, that seems very Żuławski too.

There’s plenty of nudity in this film, and lots of sex, man on woman, man on man, creature on woman etc etc and it’s a world away from Escalante’s last full-length feature, 2013’s Heli, the brutal gangster drama that won him the Best Director prize at Cannes, one gong among many. The Untamed has not been so feted – sex makes juries flinch, though they’ll never admit it – but even so it got plenty of nominations, and won Escalante the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival, the award that goes to the best director. Deserved.

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© Steve Morrissey 2024

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