Three for the Road

Even La Leche League would not approve: Overage suckling Gael Garcia Bernal and Maribel Verdú
IFC Films

In Bertrand Blier's 1974 Les Valsuseurs--that's French slang for "testicles"--Gérard Depardieu and his pretty-boy sidekick are hottie hoods on the go, committing clumsy acts of larceny and sexual imposition, not to mention various crimes against hygiene. It's A Clockwork Orange meets Dumb & Dumber. One magically jarring episode sees Jeanne Moreau, in her late 40s, captivate her young captors, turning a standing triple make-out into a steamy slide down to their belt buckles. In his equally sexed-up Y Tu Mamá También, director Alfonso Cuarón also puts a frisky threesome on the road, setting the oblivious boy-bonding of American Pie against the turbulent backdrop of emergent Mexico. Along the way, the movie hints at the identity crises of the country just as Blier used his mangy duo to represent the brutal ennui of a jaded France.

We meet Mamá's teen pothead pals ass-first: Rich kid Tenoch (Diego Luna) and working-class charmer Julian (Gael Garcia Bernal) are scrumping their girlfriends, who are about to hop the playpen for a summer trip to Italy. Without their playthings, the boys begin to fidget in the heat. When the two meet 28-year-old knockout Louisa (Maribel Verdú), the recently arrived Spanish wife of Tenoch's cousin, they fumblingly offer her a personal tour of a nonexistent idyllic beach called "Heaven's Mouth." She flirts, ultimately brushing them off, but their hopes are eternally sprung. They spend the following days happily jerking off to her memory. But when Louisa, after discovering that her husband has been cheating, impulsively takes the pups up on their offer, they are too stunned to come clean with their lie. And so the adventure begins.

The drive west from Mexico City is full of tease and play, Louisa baiting Julian and Tenoch with sexy questions, stoking their competition and coaxing out sensitive secrets. Cuarón captures the blissful hang-time just before the boys clue in to how silly things like their childhood blood-brother rituals must sound to grown-up ears. Bernal, who played a similarly rakish naif in the minor hit Amores Perros, has charisma to burn, and his eager laugh is the tinder that lights the trio's scorching rapport. This bond is happily kept in play by slow-burning Luna and the feisty, mercurial Verdú. Inside the trio, Louisa is in control. Her sexual boldness is spellbinding, vulnerable, liberating. She is, of course, heaven's mouth, and the boys struggle with the confusion she sparks.

Amid the laughs and bear-cub tussling, a silent fourth member of the party, Cuarón's camera, provides a surreal commentary out of Godard's Weekend: It lingers on roadside scenes of poverty and tragedy even as our trio flips back to panty chatter. This, along with the brewing envy between Julian and Tenoch, and the very real possibility that there will be no heavenly beach after all, creates an ominous swell that ups the urge for release.

To make matters darker still, an intermittent voiceover provides another angle on the adventure. Not the jovial voyeur of Amélie, or the hair-splitter of My Sex Life (Or How I Got Into an Argument), this narrator is a cold, knowing voice that chokes off the soundtrack, and issues its matter-of-fact pronouncements in the future tense. We learn what will happen to main and minor characters, beaches, animals, regions months and years from now. But since the voice doesn't speak in reflection, we aren't allowed the safety of a survivor's vantage.

When the travelers do reach a beach divinely suited to their desire, they eat and drink joyfully, living briefly in the limitless zone of simple pleasure. And when Louisa descends, Moreau-like, down the boys' chests in a tequila haze, the friends collide in a hungry kiss. The camera bides its time.

In Blier's French ramble, the erotic Moreau sequence ends with her lying dead on a hotel sheet, blood running between her legs. She's shot herself in a mimetic rape. Cuarón plays with this idea of radical female desire. The boys can accept Louisa's wants and fulfill them because this pair is malleable--young enough to contain multitudes. Only Louisa knows how truly transgressive her actions are. She knows her freedom is illusory. And as the merry three travel through poverty-stricken Chiapas, the surrounding hardships also stand as testament to the similarly cruel myth of economic opportunity.

And so a stripteasing, homo-erotic, hyper-kinetic road flick can also be a meditation on inequality, a feminist tour de force, a valentine to nature, a dissection of the class system. It's hard to imagine Tara Reid and pals pulling this one off, but then again, both American Pie flicks have a wistful charm that Mamá simply takes for a longer, lovelier, raunchier ride.

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