A few years back, I came across the interesting observation — I think it was in an essay on Sophia Coppola — that most directors address only a single theme or question across all the movies they make in their careers, using each film to come closer to an answer they’ll be satisfied with. This observation almost certainly applies to Coppola’s oeuvre to date, which focuses on the lives of alienated young women, just as it applies, with somewhat less consistency, to the careers of directors like Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. And while one might at first hesitate to place Mexican director Alfonso Cuarón in this category — his work, after all, includes a modernization of Dickens’ Great Expectations, a version of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess, and, of all things, a Harry Potter film — his two greatest films, Y Tu Mamá También and Children of Men, have enough thematic similarity to at least make the question worth raising.
[spoiler warning] Not being a film school graduate or a highly-committed cinephile, I tend to approach the works of a given director backwards: I usually run across his or her most recent (and usually most popular or mainstream) work in the theatre or on a rented DVD, and weeks or months later might find myself inspired to rent one of the director’s earlier films. Thus Children of Men was my first exposure to Cuarón, and Y Tu Mamá También my belated second, having finally watched the film this past weekend — only seven years after its release and perhaps four or five years after I first heard about it from a younger colleague at work (I remember thinking at the time that I would never remember the title, yet somehow I did).
Children of Men is first and most obviously a political and sociological film, and this is how I thought of it when I first blogged about Cuarón’s ruminations on the rise of illiberal democracy, almost a year ago now. Yet its political commentary is primarily allusive rather than direct, and at the more basic level of plot the film is about society’s response to impending extinction. In 2027, an unknown disease has rendered all women infertile, and the world is falling apart under the weight of the despair, confusion, and anger provoked by such an all-encompassing loss — an outcome, by the way, that provides rather depressing proof that raw individualism, whatever its prominence in contemporary culture, has only the most tenuous existence in actual human society. People do not respond to the end of the human race with a shrug of I’m-all-right-Jack indifference; they keen and weep and smash things. I know I would.
For Cuarón, the premise itself was of purely utilitarian merit. “For me, infertility was nothing but a metaphor for the fading sense of hope, it was more like a spiritual infertility, and it is a journey for trying to come to terms with an awakening of a possibility of hope,” he said in an interview last summer with the British Academy of Film and Television Arts. In this sense, Children of Men is an exploration and elaboration of themes the director raised at a more individual level in his earlier film, Y Tu Mamá También.
Luisa, a young woman who leaves her adulterous husband to drive across Mexico with two teenaged boys — and who, unbeknownst to the audience, is aware that she will soon die from rapidly-advancing cancer — similarly faces the reality of impending extinction. Yet perhaps because she knows the world will go on after her death, her own response is not to collapse into despair and nihilism, but rather to try to have a great deal of fun in the time left to her — and, not insignificantly, to share as much of herself as possible: intellectually, emotionally, and sexually. “Life is like the surf”, she tells the boys before they finally part, “so give yourself away like the sea.”
Tenoch and Julio, by contrast, are in precisely the opposite situation. They are young and have decades of life ahead of them. In this, their last summer before university, they have all the time in the world, and enough money to make work unnecessary. To Luisa, every passing minute is precious; to the boys, a week can be wasted without regret in a haze of drinking, smoking up, and masturbating at the pool (an unexpectedly graphic glimpse of semen splashing uselessly into the water acts as a nice metaphor for the boys’ wasted energies).
Yet gradually the audience and Luisa come to realize that the boys’ good-times camaraderie is an unconscious front. Perhaps because they have their whole lives yet to live, the boys are also engaged in a silent struggle with each other for status and possessions. They keep secrets from each other, the largest of which is the fact that each of them has had sex with the other’s girlfriend more than once. As this truth becomes gradually apparent, and as Luisa’s increasingly desperate need to give herself away to each of them in turn adds another ground of conflict, Julio and Tenoch quickly retreat into mutually suspicious silences punctuated by screaming arguments.
Of course, to Luisa this is an immensely frustrating waste of time, and only her furious and decisive intervention — along with the saving graces of the stunningly beautiful beach which they manage somehow to find — manages to heal the boys’ friendship for their remaining time together. Yet the damage has been done, and by the end of the film, the two are no longer friends and are hardly even acquaintances. The truth has set them free, but has also pushed them permanently apart.
Indeed, it is the audience itself, rather than the boys, that is the effective target of many of the film’s messages about the fragility and contingency of life. One of Cuarón’s most interesting techniques is the use of a narrator to make observations at key points not so much about the lives of the characters, but about the lives of the people they encounter (or might have encountered at a different time) on their travels. As they begin their trip, they pass the scene of a recent accident on the highway, and glimpse the body of a migrant worker killed by a speeding bus — as the narrator informs us, his body was left unclaimed in the morgue for several days before anyone noticed his absence. Deeper in the country, Luisa and the boys pass roadside memorials without even noticing them, but the narrator dutifully describes to us the accident — down to the burning truck and the weeping mother — which led to the memorials. Even at the emotional high point of the film, in which the characters happily frolic in the surf with a local fisherman and his family, we are notified suddenly that the fisherman’s livelihood is soon to be destroyed by the redevelopment of the beach, and he and his family driven by desperation into an impoverished urban life. In watching Y Tu Mamá También, we are in the role of the Roman general at his triumph, having “memento mori” (“remember, you will die”) ritually whispered into his ear by a slave.
Children of Men is a companion work, perhaps, in this sense too. In its bleak portrayal of an England fatally poisoned by terrorism, state-sponsored torture, internment, and vast open-air refugee camps, the film offers, in effect, a memento mori for the “enlightened” West in this time of perpetual war. It might do us some good, too — if we could pull our eyes away from our own triumphs long enough to pay heed to it, that is.