Sex, Love and Videotape

On movie sex and movie love...

Category: Sex and friendship

Y Tu Mamá También

YEAR: 2001
DIRECTOR: Alfonso Cuarón
KEY ACTORS: Gael García Bernal, Maribel Verdú, Diego Luna
CERTIFICATE: 18
IMDB SCORE: 7.7
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 92%

Today’s review is a guest post from the fabulous Exhibit A – sex blogger extraordinaire and my husband! If you like his perspective, do check out his blog. You won’t be disappointed!

SEX SCORE: 5/5

✔️ It just about passes the Bechdel test – there is only one significant female character but there are lots of named secondary characters that Luisa speaks to about other subjects.
✔️Rewatchable? Well I’ve seen it at least three times now, and enjoyed it on each occasion, so that’s a definite yes.
✔️Sex positive? I wavered over this for a long time. But yes, I think it is.
✔️Inspired fantasies? Yes, though the way in which it does so has changed over the years! YTMT was released when I was 20, so roughly the same age as Julio and Tenoch. Back then, it was very easy to put myself in their shoes; now the fantasies owe more to the general air of anticipation, tenderness, and exploration running through the climactic (heh) sex scene.
✔️Fuck the cast? Tricky one. I would absolutely fuck Maribel Verdú’s caustic, no-nonsense Luisa, and if offered a threesome with either Gael Garcia Bernal or Diego Luna now, I’d say yes in a heartbeat. As bratty teenagers though, they appeal rather less! I’m tempted to go with the cop-out option and give it a half-mark, but given the many wonderful and terrible things I’d do with/to Verdú alone, I think it just about clears the bar.

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Another great movie that isn’t currently available to stream! But it’s brilliant and definitely a worthy addition to any movie collection so why not buy it.

Poster for Y Tu Mama También (And your mother too!) with Luisa looking out of the poster and both boys embracing her, looking towards each other

Until last weekend, I hadn’t seen Y Tu Mama Tambien for at least a decade. Watching it with a 38-year-old’s eyes was a bit of a revelation, and one that I initially feared would ruin my enjoyment of the entire movie. From the opening scene, I was aware in a way that hadn’t really registered before just how young and obnoxious the two young protagonists really are. I also found myself responding to one of the movie’s two central relationships – the flirtation with (and ultimate seduction of) the boys by their older companion – in a completely different way.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. First, the basics. Y Tu Mama Tambien follows two Mexican boys on the cusp of adulthood, as they prepare for a long summer without their Europe-bound girlfriends. Tenoch and Julio are best friends from different sides of the tracks; Tenoch (Luna) is the entitled son of a prominent politician, while Julio (Bernal) – teased for his ‘peasant’ background – comes from a middle-class family with left-wing, activist tendencies.

At a wedding, the boys meet the Spanish wife of Tenoch’s pretentious cousin. High on youthful braggadocio, they invite her to go with them to a hidden beach along the coast – “Heaven’s Mouth”. She declines, but after receiving two pieces of upsetting news she calls Tenoch, apparently on impulse, and asks him to take her with them.

That’s ostensibly the set-up for the film’s main storyline: the disintegration of the boys’ friendship as they spar and compete for Luisa’s attention, oblivious to the raw grief she carries on the road with her. However, there’s a lot to enjoy and to mull over in those first 20 minutes. I found myself furiously scribbling notes on everything from the solemn, 500-Days-of-Summer-esque narrative cuts to the way we’re immediately shown Julio and Tenoch’s relationship as something that’s instinctively tactile and hyper-sexual, even if those two elements are kept (superficially) separate at first. Both boys are horny all the time, and when they’re not bragging about how (and how often) they fuck their girlfriends, they’re masturbating into a pool together on two diving boards separated only by a lifeguard’s chair. The hugging and chasing and rough-housing feels like a proxy for all the things that sit the other side of some invisible line that they’re either not ready or haven’t yet thought to cross.

Julio and Tenoch are sitting on a poolside with their feet in the water

Meanwhile Luisa is quickly shown to be a more complicated and fragile character than her initial meeting with the boys suggests. I love the choice Cuarón makes not to show us the details of what we later learn to be her terminal cancer diagnosis. Instead, we get to see the more dramatic – but ultimately less consequential – details of her final fight with Tenoch’s cousin Jano. His betrayal spurs her into action and leads directly to her decision to fuck the two boys – or so we’re led to believe. As the movie’s final scenes make clear, it may have been a catalyst, but it certainly wasn’t the primary cause.

Luisa’s grief and fear are directly relevant to the question that didn’t even occur to me as a horny 21-year-old, watching this for the first time, but which I found myself turning over in my head again and again as the movie went on last weekend: are the things she does with Tenoch and Julio – and even more importantly, the manner in which she does them – in any way defensible? If not, does that make it impossible to think of Y Tu Mama Tambien as a sex-positive movie?

And honestly? I still don’t know the answer.

Case for the prosecution: while we don’t know Luisa’s exact age, she’s clearly 10-15 years older than Tenoch and Julio, and infinitely more experienced – not just sexually, but across the broader landscape of love, relationships, friendship…pretty much everything. She preys on the boys’ eagerness to please, and on their naïveté. She has sex with Julio only to even things up, having essentially ordered Tenoch to fuck her when he comes to her motel room in search of shampoo. While they’re all drunk in the climactic – and much-lauded – threesome scene, Luisa is the one who behaves like she knows what she’s doing (and has possibly done it before). Of course she does: she’s a grown-up! We see that the next morning, in the way her easy manner contrasts with the uncomfortable, awkward way the boys respond to what’s happened.

Luisa embraces Julio after they have just had sex in the car

Case for the defence: she’s a woman – and that matters. It almost goes without saying that if you take two 18-year-old girls, put them in a car with an experienced man in his early 30s who they both idolize and would do anything to please, and you have a very different power dynamic. Luisa isn’t a physical threat to Tenoch and Julio. You could also argue that she is vulnerable in ways that they are not. She is half a world away from the country in which she grew up, and preparing herself for death. The man she followed to Mexico – her husband – has betrayed her, and as she gets in the car with two crude, horny teenagers, she is pretty much alone in the world. When you’re about to die, it’s perhaps reasonable to worry less about the emotional consequences of your actions, especially when the people affected are grown adults. Luisa also teaches Tenoch and Julio several important things about sex – the film strongly implies that their techniques and attitudes could do with some serious work – which they’ll presumably take out into the world with them.

Luisa embraces Tenoch after they have just had sex in the motel

The verdict? Eh. It’s not brilliant – and I’m wary of anything that treats an older woman sleeping with a teenage boy as the height of male wank fantasy, rather than something potentially problematic that needs to be unpacked. At the same time, the relationships here feel real, and like they have something important to say about manhood, growing up, grief, sexuality, and friendship. Everyone involved brings their own soft centre to the table (I haven’t even touched on the class tension between Tenoch and Julio), and you could argue that they each end the film in a better place than they would’ve done without their shared road trip.

Because our sexual choices have consequences. They change us in ways we can’t anticipate, and they frequently reward a willingness to defy social convention. That is true for Tenoch and Julio, true for Luisa, and true for all of us – which is why, despite the odd hairy moment, I’m going to say that Y Tu Mama Tambien is ultimately sex-positive. It’s also dramatically satisfying, authentic (neither teenage love, nor teenage friendship lasts forever) full of heart, and still hot, even now that I’m forced to look at the wank fantasy element of it in a very different way.

All three are dancing

And the threesome at the end is brilliant. Y Tu Mama Tambien is a foreign-language indie movie, but it’s also a teen sex comedy, which gained a pretty wide and enthusiastic audience among my peers when it was released in the UK. For the most-hyped and eagerly anticipated scene to focus on a long, passionate, utterly uninhibited kiss between the two lead actors was kind of groundbreaking, and stands as another example of Cuarón nailing all his big dramatic choices as a director. As viewers, we know that Luisa is going down on them at the time (and obviously I really wanted to watch that too), but our entire focus is on the kiss – both as an erotic act itself, and as the ultimate expression of all the tension, jealousy, love, and energy that we’ve seen swirling around Tenoch and Julio.

Additional notes:
• There’s a brilliant moment early in the film where the boys appear into shot from right of camera, just as a sprinkler goes off in front of them. It’s a big, gushing ejaculation that serves as a perfect (if unsubtle) visual metaphor for the mood Cuarón’s created in those opening scenes.
• “They’re such teenage boys!” – Liv’s comment when Tenoch and Julio are running through their ‘charolastra’ manifesto. And yes, yes they are.
• The film’s title refers to Julio’s claim that not only did he fuck Tenoch’s girlfriend, he fucked his mother too. It’s never clear whether he’s serious or not, but by that stage in proceedings it doesn’t really matter!

Next week: Easy A

If you’d also like to write a guest post, click here for details on how to get in touch!

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only.

When Harry Met Sally…

YEAR: 1989
DIRECTOR: Rob Reiner
WRITER: Nora Ephron
KEY ACTORS: Billy Crystal, Meg Ryan, Carrie Fisher
CERTIFICATE: 15
IMDB SCORE: 7.6/10
ROTTEN TOMATOES SCORE: 90%

SEX SCORE: 3/5

✔️ Passes Bechdel test…just! Although most conversations between the named women are about men and dating, Sally and Marie talk about wedding dresses at one point and there are conversations at the wedding that don’t include men!
✔️ Rewatchable and still wonderful – despite my criticisms!
✔️ Inspired romantic fantasies more than sexual fantasies, and not always in a good way as it certainly encouraged me to see and believe possible futures with hot friends when I shouldn’t…
But I don’t want to fuck them – they’re all much too neurotic for me!!
And it’s not really sex positive. Sex is something men do with people they don’t like and where women must fake enjoyment in search of love..

As always, this contains spoilers so watch the film before you read on…

STREAMING: Netflix, YouTube (from £7.99), Amazon Prime (rent £3.49, buy £7.99), iTunes (rent £3.49, buy £8.99)

The poster for When Harry Met Sally with Ryan and Crystal looking at each other in Central Park

So it seems that my plan to start a blog looking critically at the sex content in movies was not as original as I thought – not only have I discovered a podcast on exactly this theme but also two days before I published my first review, my favourite sex educators and podcasters, Meg-John and Justin, released a special episode of their brilliant podcast that followed roughly the same idea. They watched When Harry Met Sally and recorded their live commentary, discussing the key themes within the relationships on screen, and I would definitely recommend listening to their thoughts as you watch the movie.

I was particularly pleased that they’d chosen this film to start as I’d always thought of When Harry Met Sally as a film about love but this rewatch has shown me that it’s much more a film about sex – and I have learned so much about sex and relationships from Meg-John and Justin that having their input definitely helped me see nuance that I might have otherwise missed.

Talking of favourite podcasts, I was also reminded of an old episode of the Allusionist that I was listening to recently that blew my mind a little. It claimed that dictionaries should be descriptive rather than prescriptive and describe current word usage rather than what might be considered the correct use, exemplified by the new definition of ‘literally’ to add emphasis. This crucial difference sprung to mind when watching this film – did Nora Ephron describe attitudes as she saw them in 1980s or did she create them?

Because this film is full of what would now be considered cliches about how men and women interact – women want love, men want sex; women are desperate to find The One amongst an ever shrinking pool of available men. And the main point of Ephron’s film is, of course, that men and women can’t be friends because they are too different. They approach sex and love too differently to relate to each other – as Harry puts it, ‘the sex part always gets in the way.’

But is that still true now? Was it even true then? Aside from being ridiculously heteronormative, it seems too simple, too stereotypical, and yet those are the stereotypes that exist in this film and are the same ones that we still have to fight against now. Women still bemoan how their age is reducing their attractiveness while men become more valuable, and friendships between opposite sexes are still often viewed with suspicion. So did the film describe how we already were or did it help create these divisions?

Now, I must emphasise that I do love this film and could happily watch it every day, but I also feel that it is starting to look dated and parts of it are certainly at odds with current attitudes. For example, this is another film where, on rewatching now, the male protagonist proves to be a bit of a creep! I have always struggled to like Harry and, while I can see why they’re friends, I now equally struggle to see him and Sally being happy long term. They’re just too different! She’s blonde, light and breezy while he has a dark side. They are optimist and pessimist, innocent and sexual, controlled and emotional, and as much as I enjoy this film, I just don’t think Harry is the nice person he’s supposed to be and it makes it difficult to like him.

I may be accused of making generalisations here but I think a lot of people know a guy like Harry and a lot of women know to be wary of him. He talks about sex even though he barely knows you, he lets you know whether or not he’d want to fuck you even though you’ve just met and now have to spend a long car ride alone together, he doesn’t listen when you say no and still sits next to you on a plane anyway or buys you a drink when you don’t want one. He feels that lying to or subtly manipulating the people he’s dating is just part of the game – ‘I don’t have to lie because I’m trying to get her into bed. I can just be myself.’ He mocks and negs you, making you feel grateful for every compliment. He’s funny but often at someone’s expense and he’s astonished when people don’t like him or when partners leave him.

Harry in a book store, pretending to read but staring somewhere else

Harry and Sally’s inevitable sex scene is both the culmination of the plot and the key moment in my understanding Harry’s character, because the fact that they had sex shouldn’t have been inevitable and it certainly shouldn’t have happened when it did. After controlling her emotions for so long, Sally’s breakdown at the news of Joe’s marriage does demonstrate how close a friendship she has with Harry as he is able to support her and actively listen to her, not ridiculing her for her hyperbole and just being there for her. But this means that he should have understood how vulnerable she is and he should have stopped the escalation to sex. As Meg-John questioned, was their friendship ruined afterwards because they had sex or because they had sex in a poorly consensual way? Harry knows that Sally hasn’t had sex since Joe, he knows that she doesn’t see sex as casually as him and yet he doesn’t stop. Even though he questions how she values sex – ‘I’m not saying it didn’t mean anything. I’m just saying why does it have to mean everything!’ – he knows how she feels about it. He is able to see clearly, he has the power; he took advantage of her.

Harry and Sally in bed together. She looks happy, he looks horrified

So Sally’s distress afterwards is understandable – to put it mostly bluntly, she’s been violated by her friend – and Harry’s persistent demanding of her attention to try and fix his mistake is practically harassment. Again, Meg-John and Justin’s view here was really interesting – why do they need to fix their relationship by doubling down on their mistake? They both agreed that the sex didn’t feel right so why do they want to fundamentally change their relationship to a more sexual one? Perhaps Harry should have apologised and given Sally time to allow their friendship to recover instead. As Meg-John so succinctly put it, you can’t just show up and say I love you and make everything alright. In reality, can we expect the same fairytale ending?

Despite my concerns about Harry, however, Ephron does write about women in a much more positive and inspiring way. In her book about 80s movies, Hadley Freedman notes that the women have strong careers that are equal to their male counterparts – Sally even has same job as Harry’s friend Jess, both working as journalists for New York magazine. This is just not how professional women are now depicted in movies. They’re either bitches that need a man to put them in their place or work in safe, female friendly professions such as bakery, florists or fashion. The women in When Harry Met Sally are smart and capable, but it’s hardly even relevant. It’s just how it is and that’s kind of wonderful.

And although it is used as another way for Harry to mock her, Sally’s specific ordering habits do suggest a level of self-awareness that is admirable and, if I’m honest, somewhat enviable. It took me a really long time to know what I want and even longer to be able to ask for it, and I still sometimes struggle, but Sally is able to ask confidently for very complex meal orders right from the start. ‘I just want it the way I want it,’ she says and I would hope that this also translates to knowing what she wants sexually too! (This was another insight from Meg-John and Justin that makes a lot of sense!)

But I suspect that this was an accidental element of sex positivity as the female characters are generally shown as wanting love, rather than sex. Harry is able to have sex with people he doesn’t even like while Sally waits for someone she loves. The women are just so desperate to find The One – Marie, played by the wonderful and much missed Carrie Fisher, carries her Rolodex with potential dates on index cards with her and whips it out as soon as Sally announces that she’s single again, making jokes about literally finding someone before they all die. As a 34 year old women, I thought it was interesting choice to make the characters over 30 when the main action takes place. It adds a definite note of desperation to their search as their biological clocks keep ticking while the list of potential partners gets smaller and smaller. Is that why Harry and Sally are happy to risk having a sexual connection that isn’t perfect as they don’t think they have time to find better? Or do they just not see how they could stay such good friends if they’re not lovers?

Harry and Sally, smiling at each other at a party

There is a sense that Great Love means sacrificing great sex and Ephron uses Casablanca, a movie I might write about soon, as an analogy. Should Isla have stayed with Rick, claimed to be the best sex that she’s ever had, or gone with Victor, her steady and safe love? Young Sally chooses Victor, much to Harry’s disgust – ‘You’ve obviously never had great sex’ – but older Sally understands Rick’s appeal. Of course, Isla does choose Victor, perhaps just as Sally chooses Harry.

The loss of sex is longer term relationships is also almost stated as a fact without any critical judgement or contradiction. Initially Sally doesn’t want marriage or kids so that she and Joe can fly off to Rome at the drop of a hat or have sex on kitchen floor. She wants to keep all of the hot sex and freedom, even if she admits that she doesn’t utilise it, until her desire for a family trumps those needs. I risk being called hopelessly optimistic and as a new mother of a 6-month old I’d rather you didn’t contradict my hopes, but why can’t we have both? Surely it’s not too much to hope that we can fit our wish for a family into a relationship that otherwise satisfies us? Yes, spontaneous holidays may be a thing of the past but there are other ways to scratch that itch!

OK so I’m running out of space and oh my gosh, there is so much more that I could write about this film! Why are the men only able to talk intimately when they’re doing masculine activities, like playing baseball? Isn’t it clever that the film is set in such beautiful locations and yet the characters never notice them, just as they don’t notice the possibilities of love with each other? And because I can’t ignore the fake orgasm scene entirely, why do we always equate orgasms with good sex? Harry’s partners may have had great sex, even if they didn’t come!

So after all this, can men and women be friends?

It’s an area where my opinion has definitely changed over the past few years. I think I knew about When Harry Met Sally long before I actually saw the movie, so much so that I can’t actually remember when I first saw it, because my parents had a similar love story and were also friends for years before falling in love. As I wrote in my sex blog in 2015, this gave me a pretty skewed opinion on friendships between men and women because I always believed that everlasting love was a possibility. I argued that the sex part does get in the way and that friendships were always unbalanced, even if that was never acted on or acknowledged.

But I can see now that it’s actually a really messed up way to approach friendships! I fear it may be why I had so many unrequited loves in my twenties – they wanted friendship, I wanted more and, deep down, expected more and couldn’t see how weird that was. I do blame When Harry Met Sally for perpetuating this myth and giving hope to dreamers like me.

Because although it may be possible to fall in love with your best friend, it is much more valuable to understand that romantic relationships aren’t necessarily the top of the hierarchy. Deep, intimate but not sexual friendships can exist and can be wonderful. Feeling a strong emotional connection to someone doesn’t mean that they have to be a sexual partner, just as thinking they’re hot and wanting to fuck them doesn’t mean that they have to become a great love to stay in our lives. Changing relationship boundaries doesn’t need to ruin a friendship if it’s consensual and communication is open and equal. One person doesn’t have to be everything all the time.

We can have it all; we just have to be willing to ask for it and accept that some relationships have limitations. Or am I still being an optimistic dreamer?

‘You’re right, you’re right. I know you’re right.’

Next week: What Women Want

Copyright
All stills and photos are sourced from MovieStillsDB and CineMaterial, and are the courtesy of their respective production studios and/or distribution companies. Images are intended for educational or editorial use only. Gifs from Giphy.com.