Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Voy a explotar" ("I'm Gonna Explode") - Review

So I've just returned home after watching "Voy a explotar" at the Walter Reade Theater, where the film is enjoying a week-long engagement. A film that plays more than once is a rare occurrence at the Walter Reade, and I have to say it was great to have a choice of dates and times to see the film. I guess this is a kind of test-run by the Film Society of Lincoln Center in preparation for the two new underground theaters they're currently building as part of a $40 million expansion. The plan is for some of the theaters to operate more like commercial cinemas and screen films for longer periods. As long as the programming remains unchanged, I say the more theaters the merrier!

But I digress. This is supposed to be a review so let's get to it. "Voy a explotar" is Gerardo Naranjo's 2008 much acclaimed, festival favorite, reportedly inspired by Godard's "Pierrot le fou." Naranjo has transposed the story of two desperate French lovers (Jean-Paul Belmondo and Anna Karina) on the run to Juanajuato, Mexico and substituted Godard's über-sexy protagonists with two disaffected Mexican teenagers. Standing in for Belmondo is Román (Juan Pablo de Santiago), the son of a corrupt politician who has a morbid fascination with gory photographs from traffic accidents and keeps a journal that outlines his plans to commit mass murder and suicide. Maru (Maria Deschamps) is the antithesis of Anna Karina. Sullen and chubby, she lashes out against her mother at every opportunity and cuts all her hair off just because. We're not talking about a sophisticated pair of misfits here, but that's part of their charm. The first time Román catches Maru's eyes, he pretends to hang himself from a noose on stage at the school talent show. While the stunned crowd remains silent, Maru applauds.

The first opening minutes of the film have a terrific, wham-bam energy and appeal. Naranjo unleashes all of the trademark New Wave devices - voice over, a fragmented structure, alternating color treatments, disassociated images, lingering close-ups, etc. The film promises a Godardian romp, Mexican-style. But those expecting "Y tu mamá también 2" will be sorely disappointed since Naranjo is more interested in the messy emotions of adolescence than in adventure. In fact, the stylistic change comes early and abruptly. After pulling off a shoot-em-up escape from school, the kids go on the lam only to end up... in a tent on the roof of Román's house, unbeknownst to the worried parents below.

The switcharoo grows on you, especially because the film finds its footing in the exploration of Román's and Maru's comedown after the thrill of escape and the fleeting fulfillment of childish dreams. It's fantastic to see these two outcasts - trained to guard themselves against ridicule or indifference - try to connect, first through music and eventually through sex. Román is revealed to be innocent and self-conscious, despite his daring heroics. Stripped of her brooding armor, Maru is a scared and tender child seeking a protector. It's a testament to the honesty of their performances that the slow peeling away of their emotional shields is conveyed in an utterly realistic way.

"Voy a explotar" has its contrivances as well. In the service of social and political criticism, the parents and their peons are portrayed as clowns (for what good is a Mexican film nowadays without a dash of social satire thrown in?). And of course, as is always the case in films about lovers on the run, too much time is invested in setting us up for the tragedy to come.

Perhaps it was those conventional plot mechanics that made me feel strangely detached from the story at times. My wife had a similar reaction but her take on it is that the characters didn't show enough desperation. I agree that there wasn't enough tension and after much thought I think it's a result of a miscalculation on Naranjo's part. He thought real teenage angst would mesh well with Godard but unfortunately the experiment split the film in two. The (borrowed) cinematic theatrics Naranjo employs (on occasion) have the effect of pulling us out of what is a beautiful and nuanced study of two teenagers who foolishly put themselves in a situation where they end up feeling even more pressure than they did before and then try to save face by pretending to one another that they're enjoying complete and utter freedom. Maybe the director thought that wasn't an original enough idea (granted) but he is so keenly attuned to his characters' fragile need for connection that I wish he had just trusted his main story without trying to be Mr. Cool Filmmaker.

Still, "Voy a explotar" is wonderfully engaging for most of its 106-minute running time. And I must say that even though it fell short of greatness, it was wonderfully refreshing to see a film where the lead actress wasn't Hollywood-perfect (this is a particular gripe of my wife, so credit where credit is due), or where the lead actor has a unibrow, or where the sex is awkward and painful and real, even in a film as stylized as this. Why is it that American films - indies, even - feel so fucking sanitized? Why are they so devoid of piss, shit, semen, and all the other things that make life disgusting and true? The other day I was watching a film from a Latino filmmaker who will remain nameless and the moment the perfectly angular lead actress showed up on screen, I went "oh, come on!" When people use the word visceral to describe a film, it's always about gore and blood - Eric Roth and Quentin Tarantino come to mind - but to me, it's about getting your insides twisted when confronted by the excruciating nature of real life - which at its most real is both ugly and beautiful simultaneously.

Back in the 70's - the decade considered by many as the best in American cinema - movies had that visceral quality that I'm talking about. Just watch "Panic in Needle Park." It was so because directors were afforded unparalleled creative freedom and because back then people were still unafraid of the human body. Now, America is obsessed with hand-sanitizers, plastic surgery, and shaved pubes. So go to a soccer game in Argentina and endure being pissed on, literally, by a guy from the upper tier, as I was once. Or catch an impossibly crowded bus in Mexico City without air conditioning and smell the sweat from the bodies pinned up against you. Come on, try it! You'll live! And it could also make you a better film director.