By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Two years later, he made an instant children's classic. A Little Princess is the story of a young girl, Sara, forced into servitude at a boarding school when her father is presumed dead, who manages to turn her misery into compassion. Although this seemed a counterintuitive choice for a man whose previous feature had centered on the hero's unwillingness to use condoms, the movie showcased Cuarón's extraordinary ability to capture subjective experience, and on Lubezki's exquisite photography. Otherworldly in its beauty, yet deeply rooted in childhood fears and the realities of social class, A Little Princess was a great Hollywood debut. Cuarón calls it, simply, "my most personal film -- so close to me that it's organic."
Despite Warner Bros.' best efforts, A Little Princess never found the audience it deserved. But Cuarón was showered with critical hosannas and the love of an industry whose embrace can sometimes be a death grip. He was signed on to update Dickens' Great Expectations, starring Robert De Niro, Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow. The project adapted another English novel, charted another spiritual journey from childhood innocence, and told another story about the pain of social class as Hawke's character, Finn, goes from a blue-collar life on the Florida Gulf Coast to the high life of the '80s Soho art world.
Great Expectations could charitably be termed a disappointment, neither a box-office winner nor a succès d'estime. Critics compared it unfavorably to the David Lean original (to say nothing of the novel), whacked it for looking like MTV, grumbled about its coldness and ridiculed the duff performance by slack-jawed Hawke. Still, Cuarón's style was so lushly inventive that Fyou could almost forgive the fact that (aside from a touching turn by Chris Cooper) the story felt dead at the center. Almost, but not quite. The movie created a glorious imaginary world; unfortunately, nobody lived there.
WITH GREAT EXPECTATIONS, CUARÓN and Lubezki felt they'd reached a stylistic dead end. Even as they finished that film, they were already discussing how to shoot Y Tu Mamá También, a movie that's freer, simpler and more anthropological than anything they'd ever done. They stripped away the luxuriant visual schemes they'd built up over the years -- including Cuarón's trademark affection for ravishing greens -- and adopted a kind of filmmaking he'd adored during film school, the objective style used by Jean-Luc Godard's Masculine-Feminine and, especially, Jacques Rozier's little-seen 1962 classic Adieu Philippine, which Cuarón says was his inspiration.
The new movie didn't just mark a radical transformation of Cuarón's technique. It gave him a chance to work on the screenplay with his brother Carlos (apparently the real writer of the two) and let him rediscover his home country.
"I always go back and forth to Mexico," he says. "I need to be in touch with holy ground. It was the first time in years that I spent a long period in Mexico and traveled the roads. You could see the damage modernism and liberalism have done to the country. You could see new construction and shopping centers, but things were as socially bad as before, if not worse. And when I first went to the beaches, they were all virgin. Now they're being developed. They're still beautiful, but . . ."
While this journey sharpened Cuarón's sense of the changes in Mexico, one of Y Tu Mamá También's virtues is the way it tosses off its political ideas rather than hammering them home. In fact, people don't come out of the theater talking about its portrait of Mexican society at all. They come out excited by the movie's openness about teen life -- its ä acknowledgment that kids love to get high, its willingness to show teen nudity, its amusement in the face of Tenoch's and Julio's propensity for coming too soon: Y Tu Mamá's the sexiest movie ever made about premature ejaculation.
When I mention this, Cuarón, joking about how he might use the line in the movie's ad campaign, rewards me with that overgenerous laugh:
"I'm glad that people find the movie sexy, because, except for the end, the sex in the movie is really bad." He pauses. "You know, what people like about sex is not so much the act itself but the feeling of desire, the dance of desire and seduction."
FOR MOST OF THE PAST 30 YEARS, THERE'S BEEN very little seduction by Latin American cinema. Aside from the odd gay Cuban comedy or Brazilian sex romp (Sonia Braga baring her breasts above faded subtitles), Latino filmmaking has barely registered in the U.S. That's one reason why it's so striking that today there are three Mexican directors -- all around 40 -- currently making a Hollywood splash. While Cuarón initially scoffs at the notion that we've entered a new era in which Mexican filmmakers will freely work on both sides of the border ("I've been hearing that since 1991," he sighs), he doesn't deny that things are opening up.
It's one of his missions to push this process along. For him, much of the task lies in changing the mentality of Latin American filmmakers, getting them to make films the world might actually want to see. Their cinema still suffers from what he terms an "ideological hangover" from the politicized 1960s, which left behind a suffocating set of unwritten rules that Cuarón ticks off in a scolding litany: "If you're entertaining, you're no good. If you're technically polished, you're trying to be Hollywood. If your characters are middle-class, you're bourgeois. If you don't do straight ideological productions, you're a reactionary. If you travel, you're a sellout."