Sólo con tu pareja (Love in the Time of Hysteria) Review

Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho) is a successful advertising creative, currently working on a campaign for a brand of jalapeños. He also has an active sex life, specialising in one night stands and often juggling two women at once. He even seduces an old flame on the day of her wedding – to another man. However, he’s due a taste of his own medicine, and with the help of one of his cast-off conquests he gets one.

It’s very often the case if you look at a director’s first film – not his or her best, or best-known, but their debut – and you can see the talent there. It may be in embryonic form, let down by reach exceeding grasp, or by script flaws or a too-low budget, but even so you should notice some spark there. There are exceptions: I’ve not seen the film in question, but by all accounts you’d have had to be psychic to identify any future in the business for the director of Piranha II: Flying Killers, one James Cameron. But more often than not, I do find that this rule of thumb holds true – and, on the evidence of Sólo con tu pareja, Alfonso Cuarón is not an exception to it.

A combination of social satire and bedroom farce made in 1991, Sólo con tu pareja has an English title of Love in the Time of Hysteria. It was something of a cult film in its native Mexico, but its showings in English-speaking territories have been sparse. It did not receive a US cinema release until 2006 and has not been commercially released in the UK at all. (It has been shown at the National Film Theatre in a season of recent Mexican films.) Cuarón has since worked mainly for the major studios, beginning with one of the best children’s films of the last decade or so, 1995’s A Little Princess. He followed that with the underrated modern-dress adaptation of Great Expectations. in 1998 and more recently contributed to the Harry Potter franchise with The Prisoner of Azkaban. His latest film came out earlier this year, an adaptation of P.D. James’s SF novel, Children of Men.

Attentive readers will note I’ve left one film out of that brief summary of Cuarón’s career, and that’s his only other Mexican-made Spanish-language film to date, also written by his brother Carlos, Y Tu Mamá También. In some ways Sólo con tu pareja is a dry run for the later film, sharing a theme in its undercutting of a young man’s (or young men’s in the later film) views of sex, in favour of something a little deeper and more mature. In both cases, it’s a lesson delivered by a woman to the central character(s). Y Tu Mamá También is certainly the greater achievement: there’s clearly a gain in craft and confidence, notably the use of a narrator (who undermines the central characters’ world view as well) and the first major use of long takes in Cuarón’s work, something that would feature in his Harry Potter film and in Children of Men. That’s not to say that Sólo con tu pareja, written by Alfonso’s brother is negligible: it’s an entertaining, generally fast-moving comedy that harks back to the “Yuppie Punishment” films that Hollywood made in the mid 1980s, though it’s a little warmer than some of those. Daniel Giménez Cacho plays Tomás just right: he’s engaging and good-looking enough to see how he might score so often, but you can sense the shallowness without him being too cold and alienating. The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki, who became a Cuarón regular with this film, glows. Some of the images he and Cuarón conjure up, such as the scene where Tomás eavesdrops on air hostess Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez) practising her onboard afety demonstration are quite haunting, and sexy as well. (This scene is used by Criterion for their main menu, and it's the source of the screengrab below.) And as for the director, the film is a confident showcase which would (had I seen it at the time) have made me curious as to what Cuarón would do next.

Sólo con tu pareja is number 353 in the Criterion Collection, released on a dual-layered disc encoded for Region 1 only. The transfer is anamorphic, in the ratio of 1.78:1, opened up from the original 1.85:1. (Criterion’s transfer notes leave out the usual word “original” from “aspect ratio” – in ay case, the DVD transfer was supervised and approved by Emmanuel Lubezki. There’s little to say here except that if there is a fault in the transfer I didn’t spot it. Admittedly the film is more recent than many in Criterion’s catalogue, and the original elements in presumably better condition, but we get a sharp, colourful and rock-solid picture which shows Lubezki’s camerawork off very well indeed.

The soundtrack is in the original Spanish, surround-encoded Dolby Digital 2.0, which would no doubt be faithful to the original Dolby Stereo sound mix. Given the importance of the dialogue, it’s clear and well balanced with the music score, which is all you can really ask for. It’s not the most inventive track as far as directional sound goes – there isn’t much at all, with the soundstage widening occasionally for ambience, notably at a scene in an airport. English subtitles are optional, if you are fluent enough in Spanish to follow the dialogue without them.

This disc is one of Criterion’s lighter efforts in terms of extras, but what is present is certainly worthwhile. There is no commentary, but instead there is a featurette, Making Sólo con tu pareja (28:49), featuring interviews with Alfonso and Carlos Cuarón and Daniel Giménez Cacho. Alfonso speaks in English, the other two in Spanish with optional subtitles, all recounting how the film was made and pointing out its element of satire on the Mexican middle classes (which may otherwise be lost on foreign viewers). Alfonso ends the featurette by asking the question: if the film had been successful (which it wasn’t), he suspects his future career would have been very different. The featurette is divided into five chapters and has a separate index. The only nitpick is that subtitles are not available for Alfonso’s English-language contributions.

Two short films follow: Quartet for the End of Time (Cuarteto para el fin del tiempo) (23:45), directed by Alfonso in 1983 and Wedding Night (Noche de bodas) (5:04), directed by Carlos in 2000. The former, as you could judge from the running time, is the more ambitious, a mood piece shot in 16mm black and white, taking its title from the Olivier Messaien musical piece which is played during the film. Wedding Night is a short skit with a true-life inspiration, as Carlos explains in a one-page text note. Neither film is in particularly good condition: Quartet (in 4:3 with a Dolby Digital 1.0 soundtrack) has a lot of scratches and speckles, and a bad splice which causes the frameline to jump into view early on. Wedding Night (non-anamorphic 1.85:1, also with a 1.0 mono soundtrack) seems to have been transferred from a video copy which has suffered some colour fading, especially near the beginning – at least I assume it isn’t deliverate. The disc extras are completed by the theatrical trailer (anamorphic 1.78:1, 1.0 soundtrack, running 3:00 with optional subtitles).

Included with the DVD is a booklet which contains the usual credits, chapter list and DVD notes. It also contains an essay, “Sex, Lies and Mariachis” by Ryan F. Long and a “biography” of Tomás Tomás written by Carlos Cuarón in 1990 as an aid to Daniel Giménez Cacho to playing the character.

Sólo con tu pareja is hardly an essential purchase, though anyone interested in the career of someone who is rapidly becoming one of the best directors around will certainly want to take a look. Criterion have done their customary good job with this release.

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