It’s been five years since Alfonso Cuarón released Gravity and won the Best Director Oscar. But with the release of Roma he’s once again the front runner at the Oscars and has caused every single film critic to spill some ink over his winning streak. Yet Roma could not be a more different film than Gravity. It’s a black and white foreign language drama about a middle-class family in Mexico City. The only glimpse audiences get of Cuarón’s previous interests is the scene where the family goes to watch 1969’s Marooned.
But there have always been two Cuaróns working in the film industry. The Hollywood Cuarón is interested in high concept fantasy films that require enormous budgets to be properly realized. The independent filmmaker Cuarón is forever stuck in the 1990s indie film boom and focuses on very specific events in Mexican history that the average Hollywood audience wouldn’t know about.
Both create equally interesting and engaging movies. But it’s hard to determine why Cuarón creates such different films that focus on such different interests. How can a director who is interested in the story of a woman in her late twenties deflowering two teenagers also spend five years making a James Cameron-esque space epic?
The answer, according to Cuarón’s debut Sólo con Tu Pareja, is very easily. The movie is a combination of Cuarón’s interest in high fantasy and his interest in intimate stories taking place in Mexico City. I started “Not-So Famous Firsts” to see if I could figure out how filmmakers treat their storytelling techniques in their first film. And surprisingly, under those guidelines, Pareja may be the best example of a directorial debut, because it’s very easy to trace the line between directing this film and directing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.
Sólo con Tu Pareja follows a womanizer with the Nabokovian name Tomás Tomás. He is having an affair with his boss as well as his nurse. He also is obsessed with his flight attendant neighbor. When his nurse finds out that he’s sleeping around, she falsifies a blood test to make Tomás think he has AIDS.
The premise sounds like a straightforward screwball comedy and it many ways, it is. There are scenes of Tomás sneaking between apartments so he can sleep with two women in one night – only for him to be caught on the ledge the next morning, naked as the day he was born. Tomás also makes it a habit of running down his apartment building to fetch his paper in the nude and must hide when a woman and her child interrupt his daily ritual.
The film is, at its core, a combination of Cuarón’s two types of films. Sólo con Tu Pareja is shot in the same way Marc Caro and Jean-Pierre Jeunet shot their films – Delicatessen was released the same year as this film. Pareja is about daily life in a universe that doesn’t resemble our reality. It’s shot in a Mexico City that is built on primary colors and exists in a world Tomás Tomás created for himself. Every woman is beautiful, his apartment is large, and his ritual of running down the stairs naked is completely normal.
The film also makes references to Mexico’s past, the way not only Cuarón does in later films but the way Gabriel Garcia Marquez referenced phony South American history in his novels. Tomás works for an advertising agency and has been tasked with creating a new slogan for Gomez Home Style Jalapenos. The commercials feature a man dressed as a conquistador eating them. Later, another character talks about how those peppers are “the worst” and invents her own slogans to sell them. Cuarón is thumbing his nose at his country’s history. The point of the Sólo con Tu Pareja is to discuss how people create their own identities through their own experience and not through what’s in textbooks. Trusting history to shape you is no better than an advertising executive selling a product with a slogan.
Yet there’s more. One of my favorite scenes involves Tomás having a nightmare in which he’s on an airplane and tries to escape after the people from his past come to confront him. It features Mexican stereotypes like luchadores and mariachi bands and blurs the line between fantasy and reality – only when the scene is over do we realize that it’s a dream sequence. It also foreshadows the final scene of the film where Tomás on an airplane hoping that he’s finally discovered the key to his happiness that involves abandoning his preconceived notions of the world.
Also, while Y Tu Mamá También is shot like a documentary, Sólo con Tu Pareja looks more fantastic. Practically every location is green, a reference to the e e cummings quote at the start of the movie. The film is divided into different chapters with different literary quotes, making Tomás’s story seem more like a parable than like a real memory. Cuarón’s doesn’t want to portray real life. He wants to portray a folk tale. At a time when even Saturday morning cartoons used AIDS as a plot point, the AIDS subplot in this movie is almost forgotten until much later in the film and leads to a surreal scene with Tomás trying to commit suicide via microwave. And Cuarón takes time to deconstruct screwball comedy tropes. One scene late in the film involves the gag of a child pressing every button in the elevator to prevent the characters from getting where they need to go. After a while, they push the kid out of their way and run up the stairs. Cuarón is interested in the fantastical elements of the story. He certainly abandoned some of those fantasy elements for his later Spanish language films, but these elements reinforce his Hollywood films.
Cuarón’s directorial debut is one of the more famous debuts I’ve reviewed for this series. After all, it’s in the Criterion Collection. But most people who watch Roma on Netflix still don’t know about Sólo con Tu Pareja. That’s a shame because this film sets the template for everything else in Cuarón’s filmography. If you really want to understand Cuarón’s artistic intentions, you need to watch this movie. You’ll not only see a hilarious comedy but a deeper understanding of one of modern filmmaking’s most exciting directors.