In an instantly notorious scene from Amat Escalante’s last outing, 2013’s Cannes-laureled cartel drama “Heli,” a kidnapped man thrashed helplessly as his captors doused his genitals in petrol and set them casually aflame. In “The Untamed,” Escalante’s fitfully freaky fourth feature, the Mexican provocateur ensures that’s no longer the queasiest thing to happen to anyone’s nether regions in his films. In all other respects, however, this strange stew of socially conscious domestic drama and tentacular sci-fi erotica is far from what Escalante’s previous work has led us to expect — not least in its relatively tempered shock factor, as the director only grazes a promised fantasy dimension of basest sexual impulse. While shot through with pointed jabs at chauvinism and mainstream homophobia in Mexican society, “The Untamed” never quite exceeds the sum of its intriguingly opposed parts.
Viewers who stay through the closing credits will notice a directorial dedication to Andrzej Zulawski — a pleasing tip of the hat to the iconoclastic, recently deceased Polish auteur. It’s also a necessary one, given that nobody who’s seen Zulawski’s “Possession” could fail to notice an indelible image Escalante has repurposed from that 1981 film: a writhing, amorphous, many-tentacled creature, sequestered in a dark chamber, that becomes an unlikely instrument of sexual agency and self-realization to those who submit to it. Rendered in glistening, discolored flesh tones, like a mass of earthworms with ideas above their station, the randy beast even visually echoes Zulawski’s creation. But if the most outwardly outlandish element of Escalante’s concoction is ultimately a take-off of sorts, it’s used to very different ends in an otherwise earthly human love triangle: Rather than initiating chaos, this slithery encounter has an oddly head-clearing effect on our protagonist.
That’d be Alejandra (an outstanding Ruth Ramos), a married young mother of two cherubic young boys, whose boorish husband Angel (Jesús Meza) does little to live up to his name. The audience is tipped off far sooner than she that Angel is having an abusive affair with Alejandra’s openly gay brother Fabian (Eden Villavicencio), a sensitive nurse who befriends lonely, mysterious Veronica (Simone Bucio) after she comes into the ER with a proclaimed dog-bite wound. Veronica’s animal encounters go much further than that, however. An early convert to the pleasures of the tentacled wonder, guarded and fed by a pair of mystic healers in rural Guanajuato, Veronica introduces it to Fabian and Alejandra — with a staggered series of outcomes that range from the tragic to the transcendent.
So far, so bizarre — though having set up this meeting of real-world prejudice and discord with the alternate reality of unfettered animal instinct, Escalante and co-writer Gibrán Portela don’t do much to advance either dimension, or the ways in which they inform and influence each other. Stood apart from the script’s fantastical trappings, the narrative of Alejandra’s home life doesn’t want for dramatic complication or complexity: The portrait of her toxic marriage to Angel, who also violently takes out his self-loathing and self-repression on Fabian, is heavy enough with subtext regarding Mexico’s gaping social and sexual imbalances.
Introducing a little mild body horror to this ménage doesn’t add much symbolic heft to proceedings, especially since Escalante — a filmmaker not exactly known for his softly-softly approach — is curiously coy around the tangiest possibilities of his science-fiction premise. Bar a few arresting shots of women’s limbs entwined with squid-like feelers, “The Untamed” is, counter to its title, hardly explicit or subversive in challenging the laws and limits of human desire.
The creature, we are told, is capable of delivering either pain or pleasure to its partners as it consumes and eventually tires of them, but the connective tissue between this idea and the film’s articulation of sexual violence in the domestic sphere is largely absent. Escalante eschews specific metaphorical implications for a more nebulous, ickily atmospheric sense of the uncanny. In the same way, the film’s deceptively genre-skewing opening shot — of an apparent asteroid, floating in space like a doomy chunk of florist’s foam — is never contextualized or rationalized; perhaps, despite his evocation of a very particular geography, the filmmaker sees a far larger world in peril.
Meanwhile, Escalante’s own dedication to the pleasure principle means loosening the tightly-wound, exactingly composed aesthetic that won him a Best Director prize at Cannes for “Heli.” Working with Lars Von Trier’s recent cinematographer of choice Manuel Alberto Claro — making it harder still to imagine that the helmer didn’t pore over the Dane’s “Nymphomaniac” in preparation for this project — Escalante often muddies the image, streaking shots with appropriately base shades of earth and dried blood. Even when the film adopts more verdant hues and Carlos Reygadas-style lens flares for the countryside sequences — natural tones to fit the emergence of natural desire, if you will — traces of bodily red are never far from the scene.