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August 21, 2017 | by  | in Features |
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The Beast and Where It Lives… — La Región Salvaje (2017)

There’s some hidden, deeply rooted thing about the Anglo male American that has to do with inferiority, with not being a man, and continually having to act out some idea of manhood that invariably is violent. This sense of failure runs very deep.

— Sam Shepard

 

We must return to our bellies, to the decaying earth and the non-human to enable the birth of a new era… a direction where we are less afraid of the unknown, of insecurity, of what is ‘unsettled and unsettling.’ Perhaps then we can see who privileges from the idea of order.

— Amalia Louisson

*

CW: sexual violence, murder, rape, homophobia, colonial bullshit thought. The following review contains spoilers — but, given that it’s a Mexican film with no general release planned for NZ, perhaps that’s okay. Okay?

*

There is a scene, perhaps halfway through the film — Amat Escalante’s La Región Salvaje (literally, “the savage region”), here as part of the NZIFF and translated, somewhat problematically for me, as The Untamed — in which we see a clearing, trees receding as the camera zooms in, towards the crater which fills it, a round, concave pit, distant animal stares and writhing forms, less cornucopia and more carnival — from the Latin carnis: flesh. It is a Noah’s ark of sex and mud: copulating rats, dogs, insects; lizards entwined, two ducks, a frog pair pulse as one. And in a house not far, the cause of all this lust: an extraterrestrial form, of dirt and sky, sliding beat of life.

Described as “an arresting mix of hard-edge realism and bio-sci-fi,” La Región Salvaje charts the changing fortunes of a Mexican couple and their two young kids, set against a backdrop of Lynchian disquiet and the energy let loose in the woods on the edge of the town. As in Mexico itself, death is never far away, but here Escalante departs from his earlier work, the external force they show swapped for a more ambiguous, intimate form: this is violence that comes from ourselves.  

The movie opens to sex, the orgasmic form of a woman and a single, retreating tentacle, her breathing hard and us not quite sure… is it from pleasure or pain? Blood seeps through Veronica’s shirt as she leaves, the shack in the woods escaped and her motorbike gathered, struggling with its weight and her hurt. She tells her doctor, a man called Fabián, that it’s a dog bite, and, in a strange bit of movie magic — or perhaps still sharing in the monster’s seductive afterglow — they become friends, soon out for coffee, and the topic of sex, as always, in the air.

For the couple on which the film centres, it is just another day. Alejandra masturbates in the shower, the morning’s start a grim, mechanical affair, facing the wall while her husband pumps away. Not even the shower is sacrosanct and Alejandra is quickly distracted, kids calling and her off to get them ready, her husband Angel surly and not much use — later revealed as a product of his closeted homosexuality, masked throughout the film by an aggressive homophobia and his downfall set in motion.

Angel is cheating on Alejandra with Fabián, her brother — although there too he is a shitty lover, and as Fabián and Veronica’s friendship grows, Angel is phased out, his dissatisfaction becoming harder and harder to contain. Veronica induces Fabián to enter the woods — “It’s the most beautiful thing you’ll see in the this life, in the whole universe maybe. Nothing will ever be the same.” — but he is soon found, naked and left for dead, face down on the edge of a stream.

Alejandra is understandably shocked, and when evidence surfaces incriminating Angel, she is forced into giving him up. However, despite his violent text messages, a product of Fabián’s rejection and his own machismo, it was not Angel who killed Fabián, but the creature in the woods: a cross between Ridley Scott’s Alien and some sort of Hentai-inspired sex octopus, kept by a scientifically-minded old couple and described as “our primitive side,” responsible for the opening scene’s tentacle and capable of delivering unprecedented pleasure. Despite Veronica’s later promise, however, the beast isn’t exempt from violence, and as her “dog bite” shows, it, like us, gets bored — a trait accepted by those who guard it as inevitable, and a powerful but hard to fathom metaphor for the way we see the world.

Alejandra’s search for answers leads her into the woods, where she is soon seduced by the monster, Veronica’s injury at the start the first sign of its violence and the cause of the unease that simmers beneath Alejandra’s pleasure. Such a state, we sense, cannot last.

Blessed with rich parents, Angel returns and attempts to convince Alejandra to take him back — released, not because of, as he protests, his innocence, but, as his mother explains, their wealth and his father’s connection with the judge — his surly countenance far from innocent, precipitating rejection and a rage-filled moment where, in an attempt to free his gun from his pocket, he shoots himself in the leg. Alejandra loads him into their ute, driving not to the hospital but to the woods, where, in a process of opaque logic, he is dragged through the trees and offered to the beast.

The shack is in a state when they arrive. Despite having successfully passed on her burden, Veronica still lusts for the monster, and, having had a sad night’s sex with a pig hunter, returns to its tentacle-y embrace only to be killed in the process, the monster’s reaction sufficiently wild that its woman guardian is injured — leaving the shack empty but for the beast. There is much that goes unexplained. The old man returns and tells Alejandra what happened, and together they wheel the two corpses down to a cliff, where, in the first revelation of the monster’s true appetite, Alejandra notes, “the bodies are piling up.”

She then returns to pick her kids up from kindergarten. The film ends with them embracing and one asking, “Mama, how did you get that stain on your blouse?”

*

There was silence in the theatre. Thin red letters scrolled up a black screen and we sat, an elemental sense of harm in the air, the pathos thick and dark. There is much we cannot know — and yet perhaps that is exactly the end to which Escalante works.

Awarded Best Director at Cannes in 2013 for his film Heli — a hard line drama set in the shadow of Mexico’s drug trade — Escalante was criticised for being wantonly violent, a position he explicitly refutes. In contrast to America’s dehumanised approach to death, the gloss that slicks Hollywood’s biggest hits, Escalante explains that what he shows — CGI alien-sex creature aside — is real: it might be graphic, but it’s part of everyday life. Mexican papers routinely show images of dead bodies (La Región Salvaje and Fabián’s death within it was inspired by a real life murder, the headline of which read, in a sad indictment of both papers and society writ large: “Faggot Drowned”), and in many ways the criticism following his award reflects a very American expectation: that of entertainment as escape.

As Escalante notes, “What I show is an abandonment of people — and then people abandoning themselves so that they have no moral standards any more. I feel this is happening in the whole world, a bit, but in Mexico it is very intense.”

While the script for La Región Salvaje was originally realist, Escalante explains how he wanted to explain the violence in a more metaphorical way: “I wanted to have something represent the fear, the desire, the rejection that I feel a lot of people have that creates a lot of violence from men and women. But mostly from men, actually, that are repressed because they have been raised in a certain way, or the Church and family morals, and that came represented by this creature in the cabin.” Of course, the creature isn’t purely violent, but rather wild, savage: that space beyond what we know and the cause for my frustration at its English title. Describing the beast as “untamed” suggests that it can be; to acknowledge the wild is to go beyond morality, forcing us to question just what it is we include, and how we draw the line.

It’s no coincidence that “savage” was used as a colonial marker of other, the close links between the people “discovered” and the vast, seemingly unmodified landscapes cast as a challenge to European division, the closely manicured lands they had left behind and the felt supremacy over nature they represent — to the dismissal of all who’d connect. In the Western denial of dependence is a denigration of those less shy to the world, but as Escalante shows, such division — and the denial it engenders — is ultimately a form of self harm.

The film’s credits acknowledge a debt to Andrzej Zulawski, the avant-garde Polish director most famous for Possession — a distorting 1981 film starring New Zealand’s own Sam Neill and a similarly tentacled lover, induced by repression and what it had hidden forced out — but the role here somewhat broader, representing not just a couple’s trauma, but that of our wider world.

While perhaps telling that the beast comes from outside (the film opens with the image of an asteroid, suspended in space), the desires it represents are all too human. For Alejandra in her unfulfilled relationship, the beast gives her the confidence to reject Angel, but, as the deaths of both Fabián and Veronica show, such force is a double-edged sword. In confronting the desire she has denied, and that which Angel had repressed, is a freedom — not the liberation of sex per se, but something deeper and more dark, the want that drives us on — revealed here as inescapable, divine and evil and ours: the animal urge within.

Originally conceived as a being of light, technical limitations gave the beast a more earthy tone, pink, creeping skin and all the disquiet its shifting dick tentacles bring. Sometimes we get what we need. In what is perhaps the film’s most confronting scene, we see Alejandra, entwined with the beast, her eyes rolled back in ecstasy — the bizarre extra-species coupling rendered in graphic, CGI-fuelled context and the fantasy one of total possession, transcendence, escape. But even here there are limits. Ours is a corporeal fate, tied to the flesh prison and its illusion of separation: such moments, inevitably, fade. Desire itself lingers on, and as the beast’s guardian notes, “It’s never going to disappear. It’s only going to perfect itself.”

But what form does perfection take? As Escalante is so skilful at showing, ours is a deeply flawed world. In the midst of violence, blood-stained blouses, and erasure, our want remains. Once hidden, prohibited, the creature comes to stand for all that has been denied, appearing as an answer to those previously cloistered — but in its reveal, a question. What do we do with the wild? We may wish for an escape, an ending, control, but the savage within can’t be left. As Camus so wisely pointed out, it’s the return that makes for life. In us as in Sisyphus, “One always finds one’s burden again… The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart.” The stone rolls ever on.

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