Not long ago I re-watched Y Tu Mamá También, the wonderful 2001 film by landmark Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón. This film has always been one of my favorites since the first time I saw it, which was on video a couple of years after it came out. I am bisexual, and in addition to being a great, entertaining movie, the film’s depiction of bisexuality struck a chord with me immediately. It’s one of the few films I’ve ever seen that actually shows bisexuality the way it really is–not the way most people erroneously think it is, or wish it was. For this reason alone Y Tu Mamá También is a landmark picture, but even beyond that it’s a fascinating and well-made look at Mexican society at the dawn of the 21st century.
The film’s premise and story are deceptively simple. It’s about two 17-year-olds, Tenoch (played by Diego Luna) and Julio (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) who live in Mexico City, and whose girlfriends leave them at the beginning of the summer to study in Europe. The movie takes place in 1999 and Tenoch’s father is a high-placed politician, though that’s a minor detail; the two friends, however, come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, with Tenoch’s family rich and privileged, and Julio’s poor. At a wedding they meet a woman, Luisa (Maribel Verdu), who is significantly older than they are, and also distantly related to Tenoch by marriage. At the wedding Julio and Tenoch boast about a mostly-mythical beach called “Heaven’s Mouth” to which they intend to take a road trip. A few days later, to the boys’ surprise, Luisa calls up Tenoch and asks to go along on the trip. The boys agree even though they’re not sure where Heaven’s Mouth is or even if it really exists. They pile into a station wagon borrowed from Julio’s sister. Over the course of the trip, which takes them through much of rural Mexico, each of the boys have sex with Luisa, and their rivalry for her affections at first nearly tears apart their friendship–but eventually leads to their reconciliation.
The trailer for Y Tu Mamá También.
If you’re wondering where the bisexuality is in that synopsis–or in the movie itself–let me warn you first that if you haven’t seen the picture and don’t want the ending spoiled, read no further. The most memorable scene of the film occurs at the end. Tenoch and Julio have each slept with Luisa separately. After an alcohol-fueled, truth-telling dinner at a beach resort–which is filmed beautifully in one single tracking shot–Luisa finds herself in a bedroom with both of them simultaneously. She begins foreplay with them, and then Tenoch and Julio begin kissing each other passionately. The next scene seems to make clear that they sleep together, though nothing more than the kiss itself is depicted.
The famous kiss makes clear that the hidden homoerotic tension between Tenoch and Julio has been driving the story, and their relations with Luisa, for the entire film. It works because it’s hidden. The movie is careful not to label the characters as definitely bisexual. In fact, in a final scene–where Julio and Tenoch meet for coffee a year later, after Tenoch’s father and his party have been defeated in the landmark 2000 elections in Mexico–the narrator mentions each of them is dating a girl. In Y Tu Mamá También sexuality is shown as largely fluid and situational: your desires depend more on who you’re with, and the context of the encounter, than on an identity determination, i.e., “I am straight” or “I am gay.” This is how bisexuality often works. Treating it as an immutable identity misses the point, but that’s how it’s often portrayed.
Let’s contrast Y Tu Mamá También with another “surprising” homoerotic moment from a movie, that being the 1997 British film The Full Monty. Late in the movie two of the troupe of amateur male strippers–unemployed Sheffield steel workers who are organizing a one-off strip show to earn money–escape from the vice squad and find themselves in a room together, largely undressed. They kiss. Later in the movie it’s implied these characters have begun a homosexual relationship. The male-male kiss in The Full Monty doesn’t quite work the way the one in Y Tu Mamá También does, because it’s based on identity. If a movie shows us a male character who acts “stereotypically” male, as the Sheffield steel workers do in The Full Monty, the audience simply assumes they’re heterosexual. The surprise inherent in the kiss is along the lines of, “Wow! I didn’t know those guys were gay!” thus getting across a lesson along the lines of, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” But that turnabout is only effective by unexpectedly flipping the perceived identity of the characters, from presumably straight to presumably gay, than it does by blurring them, which is what Y Tu Mamá También does. The dispassionate narrator of Y Tu Mamá También expresses no opinion on the sexual identity of Julio and Tenoch, leaving the impression that the question itself is entirely irrelevant. The Full Monty uses sexual identity as a gag in various guises, but in doing so presumes its relevance.
The steamy “jukebox scene” from Y Tu Mamá También was done all in one take. Sorry I couldn’t find a clip with English subtitles; hope you speak Spanish!
The social background of Mexico is also relevant, I think, to the sexual politics of Y Tu Mamá También. Often in the film the action digresses to show or describe some vignette totally irrelevant to the plot; usually described by the narrator (the voice of Daniel Giménez Cacho), these vignettes illustrate the human effects of Mexico’s poverty and inequality, such as a worker who is killed early in the film while taking a short-cut to his low-paying job. His body is not claimed for four days. This has nothing to do with the story, but these vignettes paint a picture–accurate, I think–of Mexico as a society struggling deeply with its own identity issues, its First World aspirations contrasted with crushing poverty and serious social problems. Being 17 and questioning your sexual identity is hard anywhere, but it must be especially confusing in a society like Mexico.
Bisexuality is a difficult topic for most non-bisexuals to get their heads around. It’s not like being “half gay” and “half straight.” It’s more like being 100% straight, and 100% gay, at the same time–a description that makes no sense to most people. Y Tu Mamá También is the one movie I’ve seen that gets it right. And it’s also a terrific movie.