18th Aug2017

‘The Untamed (La Region Salvaje)’ Review

by Guest

Review by Matthew Turner

Stars: Ruth Ramos, Simone Bucio, Jesús Meza, Eden Villavicencio, Andrea Peláez, Oscar Escalante, Bernarda Trueba | Written by Amat Escalante, Gibrán Portela | Directed by Amat Escalante

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The fourth film from Mexican writer-director Amat Escalante (Heli) mixes social realism and weird sci-fi eroticism to mesmerising effect.

Co-written by Escalante and Gibrán Portela, The Untamed begins with a shot of a meteorite, drifting through space, before abruptly cutting to a young, naked woman (Simone Bucio as Veronica) being pleasured by a tentacled creature in a shed, somewhere in the Mexican countryside. As if that wasn’t already strange enough, she’s also being observed by an older couple (Oscar Escalante and Bernarda Trueba), who appear to be the creature’s guardians.

When Veronica sustains a nasty injury during her encounter, she attends the local hospital, where she befriends first charming, openly gay nurse Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), and later his sister Alejandra (Ruth Ramos), whose homophobic husband Angel (Jesus Meza) is having a secret affair with her brother. Sensing that both Fabian and Alejandra are unhappy, Veronica guides them towards the pleasures of the creature in the shed, but her actions have destructive consequences.

From the outset, the script surrounds its central creature with a compelling air of mystery and eroticism – Veronica is drawn to the creature and returns repeatedly, even after it causes her injury. The parallels between Veronica’s relationship and the other sexual relationships in the film (Angel and Fabian, Angel and Alejandra) are immediately obvious, and the film plays an intriguing game of shifting dynamics as various characters come into contact with the creature.

With so little directly explained, the film leaves itself pleasurably open to the audience’s interpretation, with the creature variously representing addiction, obsession, transgressive desire, abusive relationships, and all of the above simultaneously. There’s a strong social commentary element too, since the film is set in a small Mexican town, where everybody knows everybody and homosexuality is a taboo subject.

Escalante gained a measure of notoriety for the scene where torturers set someone’s genitals on fire in Heli and his eye for an uncompromising image has not deserted him, with the brutal sex scenes (both human and tentacular) presented in an unflinching manner. Similarly, the effects work on the creature (which remains mostly in the shadows, but reveals itself in a startling shot) is excellent, courtesy of Danish special-effects company Soda.

There’s also a discernible strain of jet-black humour running through the film, whether it’s the shots of various animals engaging in frenzied sexual activity near the meteor crash site, or a rather nasty accident involving a gun going off at the wrong moment.

The performances are excellent: Bucio projects a strange, haunted quality that makes you wonder if Veronica is acting under the creature’s spell, while Ramos is superb as the put-upon wife in an abusive and unsatisfying relationship who has her eyes opened by her friendship with Veronica and discovers a new sense of her own power. Similarly, Meza is compelling as Angel, bringing layers of tragic complexity to what could easily have been a stock scumbag character.

In addition, the film is strikingly shot by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro (Lars Von Trier’s DP on Nymphomaniac), who skilfully contrasts the shadowy shed interiors with the bright, sunny Mexican countryside, suggesting a Lynchian, dark undercurrent of seething desire and sexuality.

To that end, the film owes an obvious debt (pleasingly acknowledged in the end credits) to Andrzej Zulawski’s Possession (1981), which explored similar themes of erotic pleasure and self-liberation through the medium of a strange tentacled creature. It would also play well on a double bill with Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

By turns provocative, chilling and darkly compelling, The Untamed wraps itself around you and exerts a powerful, unforgettable grip. The result is unlike anything else you’ll see this year. Highly recommended.

**** 4/5

The Untamed is in UK cinemas now. Arrow Films will release the film on DVD and Blu-ray on September 25th.

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