Simone Bucio and Eden Villavicencio in Amat Escalante’s “The Untamed.” | STRAND RELEASING
There is something very peculiar things going on in Mexican writer/ director Amat Escalante’s ambitious queer erotic sci-fi drama “The Untamed.” The pre-title shot is of an asteroid-like object in space. Then a naked woman, Verónica (Simone Bucio), is seen writhing in pleasure, and viewers next get a glimpse of a tentacle encircling her body. The images are hallucinatory and dreamlike, but for Verónica the experience is real indeed.
It takes a while for “The Untamed” to reveal what is actually going on, but for audiences up to the challenge there are some satisfying payoffs. But only some; the film can be exasperating for anyone hoping for a full explication of events. Escalante is being deliberately cagey here, so it’s best to sit back and enjoy the wild ride. Densely plotted, his film features some stinging social commentary, but the creature it boasts is better understood as an apparatus than a metaphor.
The plot kicks in with the introduction of Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), who is married to Ángel (JesÃºs Meza). They have two sons and a troubled marriage. Unbeknownst to Alejandra, Ángel is having a hot and heavy affair with her gay brother, Fabián (Eden Villavicencio), a hospital nurse. When Fabián treats Verónica for a wound she says is a dog bite (it’s not), they become friends.
Amat Escalante’s queer sci-fi drama explores desire and denial
As Verónica and Fabián get to know one another, each talks about the unhealthy relationship they’re involved in. Fabián describes his affair with Ángel as an addiction, and he worries about people getting hurt. Discussing her inability to stop seeing her lover, Verónica says, “I’m not sure if it’s a he or a she.” In time, we learn that Verónica is being pleasured by a tentacled creature that “provides pure sensation.”
The creature sex doesn’t work for everyone. Fabián has an off-screen encounter with it and ends up in a coma. He is found naked, lying in a pool of muddy water, beaten, and sexually abused, and Ángel, who had threatened Fabián for ending their affair, is arrested. Ángel is innocent, but the evidence presented is not in his favor.
“The Untamed” is not necessarily a morality play suggesting that men on the down low deserve to be punished. Ángel’s self-loathing stems from the machismo that permeates the culture that surrounds him; just watch how he and his coworker wrestle homoerotically. Ángel makes several homophobic remarks about Fabián to Alejandra, which, of course, is really a matter of him protesting too much. When Ángel’s effort to grab a kiss from Fabián in a nightclub bathroom is rebuffed, he channels his anger into a fight with a man Alejandra is dancing with.
Ángel craves his illicit lover, but is determined to present a heterosexual front to his family and society at large. His successful middle class life only adds to his guilt; his parents are shamed when his arrest and the truth about his sexuality are splashed across the front page of the newspaper.
Escalante is clearly making a point about the negative consequences of Ángel’s repressed attitudes about sexuality, love, and gender roles. Compared to Fabián, Ángel has less self-esteem and also lacks the kindness of his brother-in-law/ lover. He and Fabián take turns penetrating each other during sex, but when Ángel has anal sex with his wife, Alejandra afterward sneaks off to masturbate in the shower, apparently unfulfilled.
Though Verónica seems content to have the creature satisfy her sexually, when Alejandra submits to the many-tentacled beast it manages to come off as both silly and sensual, with its phallic limbs entwining her body, caressing her breasts, and moving slowly in and out of her orifices. The imagery is surreal, and viewers who don’t suspend disbelief will find themselves struggling with “The Untamed,” which mixes harsh realism with strange, vivid scenes such as blood pooling around Verónica’s crotch when she falls asleep on a couch.
If Escalante fails to connect all the dots, his striking imagery provides some compensation — as well as one of the year’s strangest, most unforgettable scenes: dozens of wild animals paired up and fucking in a crater likely caused by the asteroid from the opening shot.
That and other scenes might leave viewers scratching their heads, but they cannot help but be impressed by the brave performances of all four leads, each wholly committed to the demands of this unusual film’s eroticism. “The Untamed” is never uninteresting, Escalante having crafted a film as slippery as its creature. Engaged viewers, caught up in its spell, will likely feel compelled to puzzle it all out.
THE UNTAMED | Directed by Amat Escalante | Strand Releasing | Opens Jul. 21 | IFC Center, 323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St. | ifccenter.com