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The Untamed

* * * - -

Ultra-realism and queasy sci-fi prove uneasy bedfellows.

Image of The Untamed

Amat Escalente/ 2016/ Mexico/ 100 mins

Available on Blu-Ray Mon 9 Oct 2017

As you may expect from the director of the unflinchingly gritty and violent Heli, The Untamed isn’t a film that shies away from uninhibited imagery.  It opens with a young woman apparently pleasuring herself, only for the camera to pan down just as a slimy tentacle slides out of shot.  It rather sets the tone for a piece of work that sits on a fence between austere realist family drama, and queasy sci-fi with debts to Japanese fetish art and Andrzej Żuławski’s surrealist horror Possession.

The Untamed detonates a bomb into an already complicated love triangle drama.  Alejandra (Ruth Ramos) is married to Ángel (Jesús Meza), a boorish lout of unbridled machismo who masks his affair with Alejandra’s nurse brother Fabián (Eden Villavicencio) behind the vicious homophobia that riddles the small town Guanajuato setting.  When Fabián treats Verónica (Simone Bucio), the young woman from the opening scene for a nasty injury inflicted by the tentacled sex beast.  She lets him in on the secret to devastating effect as the monster isn’t choosy about its partners, and it isn’t always gentle.

Escalente is interested in the way that sudden shock and violence can rip a family apart.  Even if that family is already dysfunctional and stuck in ruts of eroded hopes and dreams.  As in Heli, Escalente’s camera is dispassionate; almost surgical.  This is both a strength, as his dedication to focussing with absolute candour on his characters goes further than most others dare (an almost feral bout of sex between Ángel and Fabián being a case in point), and a weakness as it feels more like an anthropological study than a drama.  It’s as if we’re watching from the detached point of view of the alien visitor.

Which brings us back to our amorous entity.  To get the most out of the film requires a mental reset every time it’s on screen, which is wisely limited.  The shift between the earthy and the fantastical is a big leap to make.  It’s easy to drift back to Possession, but that film really worked through its sense of heightened anxiety and perpetual threat in its Cold War nuclear chill, which made its monstrous element feel bizarrely more natural.  As a metaphor for our pure sexual desires, detached from the other baggage that comes with it, Escalente’s monster works; albeit with his now characteristic bluntness.  A scene in which hundreds of animal rut in a meteor crater risks unintended mirth for example, as it’s so on-the-nose.  In humans, such desires are never without danger; both emotional and very, very physical.

It appears that Amat Escalente is a maker of films that are easy to admire and difficult to love.  As with Heli, The Untamed is a troubling and bruising encounter that you won’t be in a hurry to repeat.  As with Heli though, it’s worth making that effort.