Lights, Camera, ACTION: “Y Tu Mamá También”

Welcome to the third installment of Lights, Camera, ACTION. Each month, Rachel Vorona Cote chooses an erotic scene from film or television and walks you through its quirks and kinks, particularly as they pertain to female lived experience.

Alfonso Cuarón’s “Y Tu Mamá También” leaves me with a blunted ache. It’s a gorgeous, sensitive film juxtaposing the overwhelming, yet contained experience of sexual discovery against the sprawling tumult of a nation in flux. It is, too, a film about male friendship, but ultimately not a happy one. And it is, we learn in retrospect, the story of an incandescent woman relishing the sliver of time preceding her death. Sexual desire entangles these three characters, laying bare emotional fissures previously submerged.

When we meet Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael García Bernal) they are either vigorously fucking or hoping to vigorously fuck their respective girlfriends, both of whom are leaving Mexico for the summer to travel through Europe. Post-coitus, Tenoch elicits a promise from his sweetheart Ana that she will remain true while abroad, and though his tone is playful, it is laced with urgency. That anxiety surrounds this matter—especially at the age of 18—is not especially surprising. So much can happen in the expanse of a summer; perhaps Tenoch fears that the combination of distance and time will prove poisonous to their romance.

And yet, when he and Julio see their girlfriends off at the airport, they take a starkly different tone with one another — they are blasé, even bored by the hubbub surrounding the girls’ departure. From the boys’ conversation it seems that Ana and Julio’s girlfriend Cecilia have been the sources of agitation and hoopla preceding the trip. But, in this first scene containing both Tenoch and Julio, we cannot help but detect a touch of hyper-masculine performance. Neither risks intimating vulnerability—or partiality to one girl—when the promise of vacation and all its hedonism extends before them. By extension, Tenoch’s pleas that Ana remain faithful seem at least partially rooted in a fear of cuckolding and the sense of unmanning it engenders, even if still tethered to some genuine affection.

But as we become privy to more details of the boys’ intimate friendship, it’s difficult to imagine a relationship that could rival the one they share — one that could be as visceral or naked. They swap deeply unfortunate jokes about one or the other being “a fag,” only to topple onto one another in a rollicking, fond tussle. In the locker room Tenoch ribs Julio over his unattractive genitalia (perhaps they have yet to learn how many women would be hard pressed to call most male genitalia attractive). Masturbation, rather than a solitary pastime, functions as an erotic tag-team exercise, as Tenoch and Julio call out the names of women who arouse them – referencing, perhaps, a nipple or pussy to correctly identify each one. Like lovers, they usher each other to climax and ultimately do so simultaneously. If only it were always so easy!

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This is not to say that Tenoch and Julio have an explicitly homosexual bond; in fact, they are almost certainly unaware of the erotic undercurrents pulsing beneath the surface of their machismo and boyish camaraderie. Feminist critic Eve Sedgwick would likely refer to their attachment as homosocial, indicating that the boys prefer their male bond to all else—even their relationships with Ana and Cecelia. In Tenoch and Julio’s friendship, women primarily serve as a channel through which they can express their tenderness for one another. Co-masturbating serves as one example: the boys engage in a sexually intimate practice mediated by women summoned up for mutual arousal. And while those women may galvanize their desire, they cannot discard one another as insignificant to it.

Luisa, the Spanish woman with whom they travel to the beach, intuits this charged element of their bond while still recognizing their desire for her. But for Luisa these details are largely inconsequential. Unbeknownst to Tenoch and Julio, she has agreed to this road trip one day after learning that she has terminal cancer. Already aware that her husband has been sleeping around, she unfastens herself from a tepid quotidian life and embraces a boozy joyride instead — albeit with two oversexed whelps.

But 18-year-old boys are difficult; they love and compete in equal measure. It’s no surprise that Luisa’s presence unearths the fault lines poised to trouble the friendship. Claiming the mantle of sexual tutor, she fucks them both: first Tenoch, then Julio. They are sloppy, fumbling encounters—Luisa is truly performing the Lord’s work—but to the boys they are nonetheless representative of masculine achievement. Julio appears in the doorway of Luisa’s hotel room in the midst of Tenoch’s rigorous efforts. Nearly smothering Luisa, it’s fortunate that Tenoch comes so quickly – but Julio is not focused on his pal’s deplorable technique, nor is it consolation. Neither boy had expected Luisa to seduce him, and yet she had invited Tenoch to flop around on—pardon, I mean go to bed with—her.

This event galvanizes a pernicious cockfight. His pride wounded, Julio chooses to tell Tenoch that he has slept with Ana, thus sending Tenoch into a tailspin of jealous fury. In an attempt to reestablish balance, Luisa explains to Tenoch that she prefers neither of her companions over the other, demonstrating as much by having sex with Julio. Folded together in the back seat of Julio’s decrepit car, she valiantly attempts to prolong intercourse as her eager lover nearly suffers an aneurism in his effort to stay ejaculation (he makes it roughly 30 seconds, and it seems to be a matter of life or death). Tenoch, meanwhile, pouts nearby, awaiting the opportunity to tell Julio that he has fucked Cecilia too.

At the movie’s beginning, Tenoch, the son of a wealthy politician, and Julio, raised by a working single mother, seem undisturbed by their unequal socioeconomic. But the one-two punch of Luisa’s romantic indifference and sexual betrayal propels Tenoch to class-based shaming. He calls Julio a “hillbilly”; Julio returns with the less stigmatizing barb “yuppie.” And as the two scream at each another in the blankness of rural Mexico, Luisa cries, “What you really want is to fuck each other; that’s what you really want!”

Does the impulse to have sex with the same women derive from homoerotic desire? Is it the result of a compulsive need to assert—even secretly—one’s dominance? We cannot know for certain. And yet, as we learn, Julio and Tenoch have clandestinely slept with one another’s girlfriend countless times. This consistency implies not simply an effort to emasculate, but to lay claim upon each other through heterosexual intimacy. Neither boy expresses romantic distress over his girlfriend’s transgression; they are rather tortured by how the other has “fucked [their] friendship.” In this context, fucking one’s friendship means to pierce the fragile veneer of machismo bearing the burden of sexual insecurities. Ana and Cecilia who, as the film suggests, are likely engaged in their own European dalliances, enable Tenoch and Julio to perform the role of men who know how to fuck according to social norms. But they are moreover a buffer shielding against “unnatural” make intimacy while simultaneously providing a secure conduit for it.

At the film’s conclusion, when Luisa, Tenoch, and Julio are magnificently drunk and, seemingly, once more at ease with one another, the boys clink glasses to being “milk brothers.” But their surprise must be to some extent feigned. Each knew he was consistently having sex with the other’s girlfriend, even if they did not comprehend the fundamental impulse. Finally Julio confesses to having had sex with Tenoch’s mother (thus the film’s title, “and your mother, too”). Here, too, is another means of uniting himself with Tenoch, this time by gaining access to the same body that nurtured his friend to life. But it moreover permits him to access, via penetration, the upper-class life he seems to both resent and desire. It’s unclear the extent to which Tenoch is unsettled by this news, though he is first startled. But tequila soothes tension, and the boys erupt into raucous laughter.

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And so we reach the pivotal scene, the one for which the film is perhaps most famous. Luisa begins to dance, inviting both boys to join her. In the harmony of their rhythm erotic charges enwraps the trio, leading to a threesome later that night. Luisa kisses each boy, alternating between them as she gently draws their faces nearer to one another. She need not force them; as she descends to pleasure them simultaneously, Tenoch and Julio grasp one another, kissing passionately.

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Their night together could have been a poignant moment of sexual discovery, or, at the least, an undeniable event forcing them to articulate the complexities of their fraught affection. It could also be reason to sever a bond, their mutual terror slicing it in two. If you’ve seen the film, you know Tenoch and Julio choose—to the extent that it is a conscious decision—the third possibility.

They meet on the street a year later, reluctantly deciding to get a coffee. Tenoch, distantly related to Luisa by marriage, tells Julio of her swift death without, of course, referencing the events the night before their departure. Now they each understand that Luisa, who stayed behind, did so to die on her own terms. Perhaps if that had not been her fate she might have inspired Julio and Tenoch to push against the blinkers that prevented them from a more nuanced view of their friendship. But that was never her responsibility in the first place. When Tenoch and Julio say farewell, this time forever, we understand the tragedy of friendship — the tragedy that we are so loathe to conceive of it in more capacious ways. Tenoch and Julio are products of this heterosexual ideology; once they kissed —once they understood—the bond they so cherished became impossible.

Rachel Vorona Cote is a contributor and columnist at Jezebel, but she has a tendency to write all over the Internet. You can find her on Twitter here.