With a lot of talk about it as an awards contender with 3 nominations announced for the upcoming Golden Globes, all-round glowing reviews resulting in an impressive 99% on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes and a stunning 4.4/5 average on LetterBoxd (making it the 22nd highest rated film of all time!) there could hardly be more hype to see Gravity and Children of Men director returning to his home country of Mexico to make his first Spanish language film since his 2001 masterpiece Y tu mama Tambien…. Unfortunately, the film itself was quite the disappointment.
There were definitely commendable aspects to it, however fundamentally, there are things a film can do to make audiences engage with them emotionally that this film was just choosing not to do. Going in at the start I had little idea of what the film was actually going to be about, and having seen it I now know why. The film has little focus with the story drifting from scene to scene with events more than plots and character progressions arising almost incidentally. Broadly speaking the film follows the parallel stories of two women, a working-class maid named Cleo, and the mother of the well-off family she works for, as both women struggle with their day to day lives after the men in their lives walk out on them. As with Y Tu Mama Tambien…, Cuaron sets this against a political backdrop of 1970s Mexico City, but unlike in that film, the background regularly consumes the foreground, leaving you with a film that fails to portray either the personal or public upheavals with any kind of impact.
It quickly becomes clear that the story and characters supposedly at the centre are of little interest to Cuaron, and nowhere is that clearer than in the standoffish cinematography that is too busy being pretty to give the characters the time of day. This is a textbook example of a movie that does the wrong thing well. That is, bringing dazzling technical skill to bear on a fundamentally ineffective approach. I am sick of saying this to art house films, but I can’t feel for your characters if your camera keeps them at arms’ length! The film employs the same sterile, shallow and emotionless style that ruined the similarly gorgeous and remote Cold War. This sort of vertiginous camerawork isn't good if it's not working for the story. The black and white were probably done to give the sense of nostalgia but there are ways to achieve that that are less distancing for your audience.
At the film's centre, there is an almost positive and powerful story about women finding their feet together in uncaring times but it’s lost in the size of Cuaron’s canvas so that when the film does dive into the personal or political, it doesn’t feel earned. The film spent too much time on precious symbolism and meandering set pieces that have no payoff, so when the film does throw real drama at you it feels almost cheap and manipulative. Rather than being personal, it feels self-indulgent, rather than being epic, it feels long, and rather than being intimate, it feels distant.
The film has undeniable expertise behind it and has a certain density to its lack of focus that I almost respect, but the film ends up as a frustratingly unattractive misfire.