AKA LA REGION SALVAGE
AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY AND DVD: NOW, from ARROW FILMS
RUNNING TIME: 100 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
In the middle of the woods is a cabin where an old married couple monitor a large octopus which lives in an empty room and has the ability to give euphoric pleasure to men and women who are drawn to this place, but which also has the same ability to hurt them. Alejandro and Angel are a younger married couple with two children who are reduced to having very basic sex, but Angel is secretly having much more passionate intercourse with Angel’s brother Fabian, who works at the same hospital as the octopus’s current squeeze Veronica. Veronica and Alejandro become friends, but what are her motives, will she find out about her husband’s infedility, and who will be the octopus’s next sexual partner….
You will no doubt have realised from the above synposis that Untamed is not your typical fare. I hadn’t heard of it at all when our webmistress offered a screener of it to me, nor of its director Amat Escalante, despite the fact that he apparently made a film in 2012 in which a man’s penis was set on fire [not for real though]. Untamed reminded me in a few places of Andrzej Žulawski’s classic 1982 weirdie Possession, though unlike with that movie I don’t think I’ll be drawn back to watching this one again, at least for some time, despite its many points of interest. This is chiefly because it turned out to be a rather unsatisfying watch for this critic despite being about many things including sexual repression and self-destruction. More than anything else, it seemed to be to tell us that sex and sexuality are destructive things from which no joy can come, and that’s really a bit of a dead end unless you’re a very clever and incisive filmmaker indeed. The characters in the film are constantly pursuing their own lusts, be it with a human or – an – octopus, but about from having moments of fleeting pleasure tend to remain miserable and unfulfilled throughout.
After fixing our gaze on an asteroid, the screen goes black and we then see naked Veronica sitting in the dark after having obviously just experienced some considerable erotic pleasure. No, it’s not herself she’s been playing with, nor some lucky guy, something which becomes apparent when an initially very phallic tentable appears from the bottom of the screen. There’s a knock at the door and a woman’s voice tells her to leave, which she does. We briefly meet the elderly couple who own the house, and one of the most fustrating things in the film is that we barely find out any more about them. I know that the octopus [or maybe it’s a squid, though it seems to have too many tentacles to be a squid, and surely something resembling more of a monster would have been more satisfying?] is obviously a metaphor for that all-conquering beast called lust so a detailed back story was not neccessary, though we are given a brief explanation for the creature’s arrival later on which gives us one of the most bizarrely funny images I’ve certainly seen this year, the camera panning over lots of obviously CGI [no attempt seems to have been made to make them look realistic, it almost feeling like you’re watching a porno version of a kid’s cartoon] animals doing the business. But at the very least I would have liked to have been given at least a hint of an explanation as to why this couple prepare and present visitors to the octopus. As it stand, their role is borderline pointless and almost didn’t need to be in the film at all.
Anyway, after a great shot where we follow Veronica across a fog-strewn field, we see that Veronica has actually been badly injured by the creature though she tells the doctor treating her wound that she was bitten by a dog. Cut to construction worker Alejandro and his nurse wife Angel indulding in a bit of mechanical anal sex, he clearly satisfied by it, her not. She can’t even give herself some nicer enjoyment on her own in the shower because the kids want her attention. Angel is hardly a character befitting of his name. His relationship with his wife seems to be borderline abusive and, while he’s engaged in a homosexual affair with Alejandro’s brother Fabian, the ‘relationship’, if you can call it that, seems to largely consist of Angel demanding sex whenever he feels like it. He’s full of rage but fearful of being open about his sexuality in a community which is homophobic, while Fabian is a bit more open and relaxed about this. I guess that we are asked to blame the society in which Angel lives for him being such an unpleasant guy, but it’s almost impossible to sympathise with him because of the way he’s presented – something I don’t think Escalante intended. It’s Alejandro, a woman in a chauvanistic society, who we really feel for even when she goes to unusual means to get some fulfillment. She soon becomes the octopus’s next lover though not its only one, Veronica seeming to constantly want to procure more humans for it. But when will pleasure become pain, and what will Alejandro do when she finds out what her husband has been up to?
The story seems to run out of steam just over half way through as it sacrifices many possible developments of a more interesting kind for an almost kitchen sink-style family drama interspersed by quick bouts of sex and, yes, a bit of quite full-on octopus/human action though it’s surprising what the film also leaves to the imagination. There’s much emphasis of the growing friendship between Alejandro and Veronica, but because we’re never given a chance to figure Veronica out it’s hard to get involved. There are some badly misjudged moments, such as some domestic abuse set to opera music. There are far too many scenes when the cast members just look awkward and don’t seem sure of how to play their lines despite Escalante’s penchant for lots of retakes that’s shown in the ‘making of’ documentary on the disc. The women tend to fare a bit better than the men, which is just as well as the camera spends far more time on their faces. And I’m sorry to say that I saw the ending coming a mile off. On the other hand there’s a really nice bit when rather irresponsible parent Alejandro is letting her son watch a zombie movie on TV and, thinking that her sadness is because she’s scared of it, says to her: “Don’t be afraid mama, zombies don’t really exist”. But of course in this film sex-crazed octopi with a fetish for a whole different species of animal do – mind you, that’s probably an unfair thing to say given the creature’s almost entirely metaphorical role.
Of course The Untamed is most obviously about our need for pleasure, but it could be taken as a cautionary tale about the dangers of following our desires. In fact all trouble seems to stem from sex. There’s a brief but telling scene featuring none of the main characters where a drunken punter at a bar tries to snog the barmaid. The barman leaps over the bar and starts attacking the other man, causing a brawl. All caused by lust. Even a child’s penis is the cause of hassle, a boy peeing all over a play hut in a moment which initially seemed pointless to me but on reflection just strengthens what the film appears to be telling us. Our sexual desires and organs are just trouble right from the beginning and there’s nothing that we can do about it. It’s a depressing point of view, really, even though almost as much of horror is based on fear of sex as it’s based on fear of death though in that respect this is nothing new. But The Untamed‘s gritty, unhappy vibe, interiors often a murky green, seems to make it much more obvious and it’s all just so heavy handed. Cinematographer Manuel Alberto Claro’s camera likes to slowly zoom into something in a film which is very restrained in its filming style, the camera choosing to often just sit there. At one point it zooms into a black area in the centre of a forest, and I had to chuckle, unless watching this film had given me a dirty mind and I misinterpreted Escalante’s intentions.
An ambient score credited to no less than six people tries its best to provide some sense of dread. The Untamed certainly offers much to think about, and these days I’m a bit more prone to liking something that you’d never get in your local multiplex then something you certainly will. I’d almost say that “interesting rather than good” sums it up, but even interest lessened for me, the film significantly weakening as it went along, getting a bit lost and bogged down, while Escelante is not yet a good enough writer/director to succeed in pulling off a story which has been constructed more in terms of theme and symbolism more than anything else – though he probably will be one day.
Arrow present The Untamed in a fine digital transfer which is accompanied by two special features even though they don’t seem to be listed on most websites. The Making Of The Untamed is nearly an hour and a half long, and I have to say that I enjoyed what is one of the best ‘making of’ I’ve seen in ages more than the actual film. I tend to prefer the slower paced, more ‘fly on the wall’ style documentaries to the faster, slicker kind, and this one has a great, jazz-like free form feel as we go from the filming of key scenes and interviews with the main cast members [two of whom talk about sex!] to more unusual things like two of the main cast members who seem to be a couple gong on an excursion into the forest, or two musicians recording a piece on a rocky ledge surrounded by trees, or a trip to a bar where one person goes on about transgender issues. Interesting that for the octopus scenes it seems like the tentacles were actually models moved by hands and rope with just some CG enhancement later on. Despite often dwelling on things like an aerial track over the forest or Ruth Ramos having a cigarette, it’s not boring whatsoever and I loved it. And I was also impressed by Amarrados, a 16 minute black and white short film by Escalante which is a rather poetic if upsetting experience as it details sexual abuse within the family and a traumatised boy who can only find some escape by sniffing glue.
I personally neither enjoyed nor got as much out of The Untamed as I expected, but it’s safe to say that it’s also one movies that some may find to be something of a subversive, important near-masterpiece so on balance if your taste leans towards the strange then it’s still probably something that you ought to see, while the extra features certainly add some value.
SPECIAL EDITION CONTENTS
* High Definition digital transfer
* 5.1 DTS-HD Master audio
* Optional English subtitles
* The Making of The Untamed
* Reversible sleeve featuring original international art and newly commissioned artwork by the Twins of Evil
FIRST PRESSING ONLY: Booklet featuring new writing on the film by critic and author Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, writing by critic Jonathan Romney, the director s statement and extracts from the press book, illustrated with original stills.