It’s been an uphill battle, but more and more we’re seeing filmmakers who are unafraid to use on-screen sexuality as a way for characters to reveal their innermost feelings. In the same way that one close-up of an actor staring out a window can replace pages and pages of dialogue — or how a good musical number can reveal a character’s most intimate thoughts and desires while also moving the plot forward — sexual expression in film can impart important information about how people relate to each other, and even to themselves, in a way that dialogue can’t.
This use of explicit sexuality is nothing new, of course: you can trace a line from the “I Am Curious” films to “Last Tango in Paris” to “Intimacy” to “Blue is the Warmest Color.” In recent years, several queer filmmakers of note have taken up the mantle — a bold move, given the taboo that the film industry in general, and the MPAA in particular, have placed on the male erection — leading to groundbreaking dramas like John Cameron Mitchell‘s “Shortbus,” Travis Mathews’ “I Want Your Love,” Andrew Haigh‘s “Weekend,” and Justin Kelly‘s upcoming “King Cobra.”
Joining those films on the front lines is “The Pleasure Is Mine” (“El placer es mío”), screening at the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in a sub-section of Mexican films from female directors. Filmmaker Elisa Miller and her co-screenwriter Gabriela Vidal tell the story of the rise and fall of a physical relationship with unsparing analysis, but their dialogue tells only a fraction of the story.
The film begins with a devastated-looking Rita (Edwarda Gurrola) and Mateo (Fausto Alzati, in his screen debut) unable even to look at each other. We then jump backward to see what brought them to this state. They arrive at a country home owned by Mateo’s family. There is some discussion that Rita has been working toward her PhD, and that she has a career and an apartment in the city, but she is clearly smitten with Mateo and delighted to have followed him out to the sticks. (No sooner are they in the house than they engage in the first of several explicit couplings.)
They’re clearly in the honeymoon stage, where everything the other person says is funny, and the sacrifices of living off the grid are charming, and they’re optimistic and excited about fixing up the house and becoming self-sufficient. (This is also the phase, needless to say, when both people in a relationship are constantly turned-on.) Rita starts raising chickens, while Mateo begins restoring an old car.
Time passes. Mice get into the walls. People get upset over imagined slights. A female cousin (by marriage) of Mateo visits, and Rita intuits that they used to be lovers. The cousin and her boyfriend throw a party with lots of mescal and cocaine. Rita’s mother and grandmother visit, and the mother is clearly horrified that Rita has walked away from her life and into this shambles of a house. Things fall apart.
Gurrola and Alzati throw themselves into their performances, completely unafraid to explore the full range of physical and emotional characteristics of the people they’re playing. Neither of them fit the narrow definition of what Hollywood casting agents generally consider “sexy,” but their earthy sensuality and unfettered passion makes them an electrifying screen couple. Their intensity, particularly as Rita and Mateo begin resenting each other and growing apart, can sometimes be hard to watch.
Miller and Vidal incorporate elements such as the mice and the car as metaphors, but they never beat the audience over the head with them. In fact, the notion of Mateo’s car mirroring the state of the relationship culminates in an unforgettable final shot.
Cinematographer Matias Penachino accentuates the outdoor light of country living, giving the movie a naturalistic tone that never veers into idealized romanticism, and that’s a perfect match with the story and the characters. “The Pleasure Is Mine” is a thrilling and assured feature debut from Elisa Miller (who won a Palme d’Or in 2007 for her short “Ver llover”), and it deserves to bring her to the attention of a global audience.