Alfonso Cuarón is prowling the lobby of the Mercer Hotel, trying hard to get off his cell phone. Portions of his dark hair spike straight up in a kind of modified Mohawk. It's a new look for the Mexico City-born director, and he's not entirely convinced. "The result of being in Milan with a girlfriend and a pair of scissors," he explains later. Well, what the hell -- it's Fashion Week anyway.
But that's not why he's in town. He lives here -- has for seven years -- and he's gearing up for the opening, this Friday, of his fourth film, Y Tu Mamá También ("And Your Mother Too"). It was a critical hit at the New York Film Festival in October, and a huge box-office success worldwide in 2001, particularly in Cuarón's native Mexico, where, he allows, it became "a kind of sociological phenomenon."
Y Tu Mamá También opens with an explicit shot of a gleefully rutting teenage couple, and proceeds from there. On one level, it's a sexy, funny travelogue of Mexico high and low, with settings that vary from upper-class weddings to seaside dives. But YTMT is no more a simple teen road-trip sex romp than Chinatown was an examination of the water-supply system in Greater Los Angeles in the thirties. Its themes -- class distinctions, the politics of modernization, and especially the search for identity -- dovetail so intelligently and entertainingly that the 40-year-old Cuarón, after two consecutive Hollywood movies (A Little Princess and the Gwyneth Paltrow-Ethan Hawke Great Expectations) is being lauded, along with Amores Perros director Alejandro González Iñárritu, as a shining example of the rebirth of Mexican cinema.
"For a while, in interviews, I was trying to be diplomatic and say, 'Yeah, yeah,' " the affable Cuarón says over lunch. He's soft-spoken and casual -- sweater, sneakers, scruffy beard. "But really, it's based just upon Amores Perros and Y Tu Mamá También. Alejandro and I are the exceptions."
YTMT's protagonists are two 17-year-old Mexico City boys, best friends (played by Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna), and an "older" woman -- she's 28 -- portrayed by the Spanish actress Maribel Verdú. "It's a very honest movie," says Luna, who, like Bernal, is not much older than his libido-crazed character. "There's a lot of sex, but very bad sex, because that's how it is." The film was written by the director and his brother, Carlos Cuarón, and shot by his frequent collaborator, the Oscar-nominated cinematographer Emmanuel "Chibo" Lubezki. Presumably because it depicts drug use and sex -- and, Cuarón suspects, because of "the class issue" -- YTMT was deemed off-limits to Mexicans under 18. "People were calling radio and TV shows: 'I have sons and daughters and they are not like that!' " says Cuarón. "And teens would call in and say, 'Wow, this is cool, it's the first time ever I've seen my reality portrayed in a film.' " He smiles. "When the innocence of children ends is when the innocence of parents begins."
In one sense, YTMT is for Cuarón an act of revenge. "Teen comedies I find so patronizing," he says. "They don't have any respect for the characters. They're so moralistic, so simplistic. The big thing is, they want to get laid. And they get laid. And that's it! They've found their identity, and they live happily ever after." There's a lot more going on in his film. Cuarón hopes the themes are "universal," and that despite the subtitles and the foreign setting and the lack of an MPAA rating, it will play "not only to the art-house audience -- I would love this movie to be seen by younger people. That was part of the goal, after I had to suffer through all these teen comedies with my son."
It scarcely seems possible, looking at the youthful director, but that son is in college. Jonah, born of a five-year relationship Cuarón had in Mexico in his early twenties, lived with his father in his West Village apartment while attending high school at St. Ann's in Brooklyn and is now a freshman at Vassar.
Cuarón travels regularly -- his production office is in L.A. and he's dating an Italian TV journalist he met at the Venice Film Festival last year. New York might be one of the last places on his circuit where he isn't recognizably famous -- at least for now. "I lead a very provincial life here," he says.
After film school and some work in Mexican television, Cuarón made his first feature in 1992, the dark comedy Love in the Time of Hysteria. He didn't leave Mexico till he was 30 and goes back often. "I need to touch holy ground once in a while," he says. "My brothers, my sister and mom, they live there. And my nanny."
"He thinks internationally," says his friend Iñárritu. "He's not a Mexican director; he's a universal director." Sipping coffee at Le Gamin -- where he likes to write at a corner table by the window -- Cuarón becomes voluble on the subject of how "preconceptions" can dog a Latin American filmmaker. "If you're entertaining, that means you're superficial," he says. "If you're technically polished, you want to be 'Hollywood.' If your character is middle-class or upper-class, then you're bourgeois. If your film is not about ideology, then you're reactionary. If you work outside of your country, you're a sellout.
"In Venice, during the Q&A, someone asked, 'In a country that has so many injustices, how do you do this kind of movie? You should have made a denunciation about what is going on in your country.' And my answer to this guy was, 'I'm sorry, sir, but I think you're a racist. You're okay with European movies having middle-class characters, but if I'm Mexican, I only can deal with lower-class characters? You're seeing Mexico in a very simplistic way.' " Cuarón's sophisticated little "teen comedy" might make that just a bit harder to do.
Read Peter Rainer's review of Y Tu Mamá También