Amal Escalante discusses ‘The Untamed’, his film about a creature in the woods pleasuring women, just one layer in a story that confronts many of society’s ingrained ills
The first thing we see in The Untamed is a meteorite floating through space. As provocative openings go, it’s hard to beat, but then we cut to something stranger and perhaps related. It’s a young woman, naked apart from some boots, moaning in pleasure; the camera pulls out to reveal she’s in a wooden hut with a slimy tentacle that’s located her G-spot. “Let me stay a little longer,” she says. “Please.”
In other words, Amat Escalante has really shifted gears with his new movie. The Mexican auteur’s previous films, including Heli, for which he won Best Director at Cannes, were all grounded in realism. Which makes The Untamed even more astonishing. An alien in the woods provides unspeakably powerful orgasms to those who willingly surrender their mind and body to it. On the surface, it sounds like an X-rated version of E.T., or at least something more likely to play at porno theatres than your nearest arthouse.
That’s the trick, though. The Untamed is a smart, socially conscious drama which could just as easily exist without the sci-fi elements. In Guanajuato, an ultra-conservative city in Mexico, Alejandra endures a loveless marriage, while her husband, Angel, a violent gay-basher, secretly sleeps with Alejandra’s brother. That’s when the creature crawls into the picture. But deep down, the extra-terrestrial fucking, as graphic as it may be, is just one layer in a very human story about repressed desire, misogyny, and how a machismo society fuels homophobia.
As we learn from speaking to Escalante, the film’s roots are in a real tragedy that occurred in his hometown. Also in our conversation, we touch upon the dangers of Mexico’s male-driven culture, the cult of Morrissey, and – yes, it had to be asked – whether he researched any tentacle pornography.
Can you tell me about the inspiration for the movie? I thought it must have come to you in a dream, but then I read there’s actually a news story that sparked the idea.
Amat Escalante: Yeah. A man drowned in a river, and the front cover of this newspaper was a picture of him and a very provocative, nasty headline (it read “FAGGOT IS FOUND DROWNED”) making fun of his sexuality, and that’s how they sold this local paper in the city we filmed the movie.
I read the article inside, and it turned out he was a male nurse at the hospital. Instead of putting that on the front cover – like “male nurse is assassinated in a discrimination crime” – they instead denigrated him. That made me react towards society, towards that kind of violence, and the way they’re selling this newspaper. And nobody really complained about that cover.
Also, in Mexico – I hate to say it’s only Mexico, because I think it’s around the world – there’s violence towards women that’s becoming quite extreme. In a country like Mexico, where impunity is so rampant, there’s a very low percentage of anyone being charged for anything. There’s a thing called feminicidio. I’m not sure how you translate that, but it’s the murder of women, basically, and it’s an epidemic. It appears in the countryside, the desert, and so on. It’s like a monster, because nobody gets found guilty.
“A man drowned in a river, and the front cover of this newspaper was a picture of him and a very provocative, nasty headline (it read “FAGGOT IS FOUND DROWNED”) making fun of his sexuality, and that’s how they sold this local paper in the city we filmed the movie” – Amat Escalante
Was it important for you to shoot it in a conservative city like Guanajuato?
Amat Escalante: It’s where I live, and it happens to be quite conservative. Religion is very important here. It’s why the character of Angel can’t be with a man, because society and familial pressures won’t allow him to. And that’s not healthy. There can’t be a positive outcome when you’re not truthful to yourself and everybody around you.
But the film could take place in London, and I’d change it to fit your idiosyncrasies and cultural attitudes. It just happens that I live here, and for practical reasons I like to shoot here.
Is there anything else that’s specifically about Mexican culture? Morrissey has a really diehard Mexican fanbase, and I read a theory that it’s to do with repression and how his music allows people to feel like themselves.
Amat Escalante: That’s interesting. When I lived in the United States, I hung out with a lot of Mexicans who really liked The Smiths and Morrissey. The Smiths are a good band, even though I didn’t really listen to Morrissey. The drinking culture in Mexico isn’t like in France where you have wine every day or a beer in the evening. Here, you drink on the weekends to get completely wasted, to the point where you’re not conscious of anything. That’s linked, I think, to not being able to be yourself, and needing the excuse of alcohol to do certain things. Also, the level of violence and discrimination towards women here is not just random.
Can you tell me about balancing the realism with the fantasy?
Amat Escalante: When I was writing the screenplay with Gibrán Portela, we had versions without the science-fiction element. But sexuality is so hidden and ambiguous in each of us, and it became frustrating trying to show that. So I created this creature to represent what’s inside the characters, and it exposes this rejection and attraction towards their own sexuality. But at the same time, I like that different audiences have their own theories on what the creature is, because that’s all part of what’s natural about sexuality.
You start off with the sci-fi imagery, which establishes a certain tone. Why did you choose to reveal the tentacle within the opening minutes?
Amat Escalante: It wasn’t originally like that. We shot it so that it started on Earth and was very grounded, but then we found in editing that you’d be 45 minutes into it and unsure what kind of movie it is. It’s not like in Alien where, because of the space setting and title, you know there’s a creature coming.
So during editing, I said we needed a meteorite floating through space. It just helped establish what type of movie this was quicker. I also liked showing Veronica with the creature because it’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed show the monster in the first scene of a movie. So I went ahead and did it.
“I also liked showing Veronica with the creature because it’s not what you’re supposed to do. You’re not supposed show the monster in the first scene of a movie. So I went ahead and did it” – Amat Escalante
Andrzej Zulawski pitched Possession to Paramount in one sentence: “A film about a woman who fucks an octopus.” Did you have to do a similar sell?
Amat Escalante: I didn’t know that (laughs). I’m lucky, in that I work within a certain budget, so I never have to convince anyone about my strange ideas.
Was Possession a big influence? You thank Zulwaski in the credits.
Amat Escalante: The creature in my movie is from many movies, but specifically from Possession. We designed it this way because it had to do certain functions with humans, and it’s probably a similar process to what Zulawski’ went through. Since it was similar, I felt I had to mention it.
Also, it impressed me as a young cinephile. My father’s in my movie as the scientist in the cabin, and he saw Possession in the early 80s; after watching it, he couldn’t see another movie for another year, and that always stayed in mind. Zulawski died before we finished the movie, and I thought it’d be a proper gesture to dedicate this movie in his memory.
Did you watch any tentacle porn for research, or look into why it’s more popular in some cultures than others?
Amat Escalante: No, I was actually more inspired by the still photography of Nobuyoshi Araki, the Japanese photographer. He has pictures of squids and octopus with women in a sexual way. Though I was also interested by how it’s a very popular book genre on Amazon. People write and sell erotic eBooks about Greek monsters having sex with humans, and it’s become a really big underground industry. I mean, I know it’s on Amazon, but it’s not from the big publishers. Maybe this is the movie version of those books.
Did you see Elle, the Paul Verhoeven film?
Amat Escalante: Yeah, there was that videogame scene.
In the original script, Isabelle Huppert was a screenwriter, but Verhoeven added the pornographic tentacle videogame to make it more visual. Olivier Assayas did something similar in Demonlover. What makes it such a shocking image on a giant cinema screen?
Amat Escalante: I think it’s to do with fantasy. A monster can only have sex with a human in our heads. At this point in reality, anyway. For thousands of years, books and paintings have described these fantasies, and now with technology we can achieve that in cinema. For me, it’s to do with some people’s reactions to homosexual couples. Some people perceive homosexuality as unnatural, or as something that’s not supposed to happen. In my film, I show homosexual sex as something that’s real: it happens, it’s natural, and it’s a natural instinct that we have. But I also wanted to show something separate that’s not real, something that’s impossible, something that’s the opposite.
“I show homosexual sex as something that’s real: it happens, it’s natural, and it’s a natural instinct that we have” – Amat Escalante
When Heli came out, you complained that critics were too preoccupied with the violence. Now with The Untamed, are you sick of people like me who have so many questions about the tentacle sex?
Amat Escalante: No. With Heli, I was surprised critics were distracted by that, but I knew I was playing with fire. Movies are forever, and they’ll be perceived differently in the future. That’s exciting for me. It’s the same with The Untamed. We’ve seen stories about love triangles before, and I just wanted to destroy this love triangle. When you put a science-fiction element into a realistic drama, I expect it to jump out and attack people. I’m happy with the reaction so far.
The Untamed comes to cinemas August 18th and on DVD/Blu-ray 25th September