Heli (2013), director Amat Escalante’s previous feature, was a slice-of-life realist drama set in a narco-terrorist part of Mexico. The Untamed, his 2016 follow-up (and fourth feature), is something quite different: it is a slow-burn drama about romantic entanglement and sexual desires, most memorable for its psychological connotations and surrealist influences.
Veronica (Simone Bucio), the first character to be introduced in the film, enters a hospital following an accident. There, she meets and befriends a gay male nurse, Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), who, meanwhile, is having an affair with Angel (Jesus Meza), the macho husband of her sister Alejandra (Ruth Ramos).
This secret affair already shows the characters as selfish, unconcerned, and unable to restrain their desires. They are widely unsympathetic as the real untamed of the movie. Things get even weirder as Veronica becomes a catalyst for the introduction of alien, octopus-like creatures with whom they begin to have intense, sexual intercourse. Therefore, what was already explored narratively through intricate and dramatic romantic entanglements becomes more explicit through the visual allegories represented by the shocking scenes of interplanetary sex.
The Untamed moves at a slowish pace, enhancing a disquieting sense of mystery, itself encouraged by the stark contrast between the shocking special effects and the beautiful shots of nature by cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro. The contrast implies perversion but also ambiguity. As likable as Fabian may appear to be, or may want to appear to be, he is quite careless when it comes to having an affair with, of all people, his sister’s husband. When he decides to have sex with the alien, he also shows his inability to restrain his sexual desire; this, in turn, reveals his carelessness for his own safety and well-being, a carelessness for his own life.
Therefore, Escalante appears to intend to examine desire in general, especially through sex, the most powerful representation of lustful desire. While it offers no narrative conclusion per sé, it perfectly conveys Slavoj Zizek’s idea that cinema does not teach us what to desire but how to desire it. By opting to play with body horror and sci-fi erotica and leaving a sense of ambivalence in both narrative and characters, he clearly goes for the gut rather than the heart or the mind. However, given the fact that it deals with physical desire, the fact that it appeals to the fact that it is more physically revolting than it is dramatically compelling, despite being sometimes overly condescending in tone, makes perfect sense. – ★★★★