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Solo Con Tu Pareja
The movie would have remained unknown outside Mexico had it not been directed by one Alfonso Cuaron. The filmmaker parlayed this calling card of a first feature into English-language gigs -- the hit "A Little Princess" and an unusual update of "Great Expectations" with Ethan Hawke and Gwyneth Paltrow -- then returned to Mexico to make the international sensation "Y Tu Mama Tambien." "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban" confirmed Cuaron as an A-list director, so it's natural that his early work is now being pulled out of the vaults: "Solo Con Tu Pareja" finally received a limited U.S. release via IFC Films in September as a prelude to this DVD.
Fans of "Y Tu Mama Tambien" shouldn't expect the same originality and depth of feeling here. Cuaron and his screenwriter brother Carlos Cuaron have fashioned a conventional, mildly entertaining farce. Advertising copywriter Tomas Tomas (Daniel Gimenez Cacho) is a Don Juan living in an urban apartment building, where he keeps a close eye on pretty neighbors. He can't keep his mind on his work because he's always angling for a new woman, and his job is in jeopardy until a new date, a sexy doctor's office nurse, Silvia Silva (Dobrina Liubomirova), comes up with a slogan for him at the eleventh hour. Silvia turns on him, however, when she realizes that the reason he kept running in and out of his apartment the night he spent with her was that he had another woman -- his boss -- in the bed next door. As revenge, Silvia, who works for Tomas' friend and neighbor, Dr. Mateo Mateos (Luis de Icaza), tampers with his AIDS test to make him think he's HIV-positive.
Tomas has fallen hard for an angelic new neighbor, Clarisa Negrete (Claudia Ramirez), a stewardess, but his shocking health news makes him suicidal, and there's some comedy to be milked from his attempts to off himself, most improbably by putting his head in a microwave oven. Clarisa, meanwhile, makes the shocking discovery that her pilot boyfriend is cheating on her -- with a stewardess from Continental, no less! -- and becomes suicidal herself. The movie's climax comes atop an office tower, but it's hardly a high point in comedy.
Picture and sound
Criterion hangs a lot of DVD weight on this slight movie. The esteemed label does its usual superb job, starting with a vivid high-definition digital transfer created from the original 35 mm camera negative. The Mexico City of "Solo Con Tu Pareja" is a gleaming, modern metropolis full of handsome, sophisticated people, and it's all photographed beautifully, with the nighttime greens particularly stunning. While the story may be one-dimensional, Cuaron shows a fine eye for composition -- Tomas' apartment building is a character itself -- and it all looks great in its original 16:9 aspect ratio. (On standard 4:3 televisions, the picture is letterboxed; on widescreen TVs, the movie will either fill the screen or appear with a black border all around.) The hiss-free sound is Dolby Digital two-channel stereo. The soundtrack is, of course, in Spanish; the white subtitles are crisp (and crisply written).
A new half-hour making-of documentary provides background, with (separate) interviews with Alfonso and Carlos Cuaron, star Daniel Gimenez Cacho and others. The brothers both cite the screwball comedies of Ernst Lubitsch as early inspirations, while Alfonso says he played with aspects of Mozart's opera "Don Giovanni" and Daniel Defoe's 1722 novel "A Journal of the Plague Year." The director says that in 1990 Mexico, AIDS was widely considered purely a gay problem, and that he was trying to change the dialogue by placing the disease "within the context of heterosexuals." He points out that the title, which translates as "Only With Your Partner," was a familiar slogan created by the Mexican health industry as a sex advisory for the age of AIDS. (The movie has also been known as "Love in the Time of Hysteria.")
The Cuaron brothers mention episodes they did for a Mexican "Twilight Zone"-like TV series at the start of their career, but none of that work is included here. Instead, there is a 24-minute student short by Alfonso from 1983, "Quartet for the End of Time." The grainy black-and-white drama centers on a man who spends nearly all his time in a dingy apartment, playing with a little turtle and blowing up balloons. It's a more mysterious and psychologically probing work than "Pareja," and it references Herman Melville's short masterpiece of existential negation, "Bartleby the Scrivener." Screenwriter Carlos Cuaron tries his hand at directing with the 2000 short "Wedding Night," a five-minute joke about two newlywed couples who have seemingly booked the same hotel room. A vintage Mexican trailer for "Pareja" completes the disc.
There's also a 30-page booklet containing a new essay by scholar Ryan F. Long that elucidates the dodgy state of Mexican film in the 1970s and '80s, and a 1990 piece written by Carlos Cuaron for the benefit of star Gimenez. It's a complete life backstory for the fictional Tomas, starting with his birth -- it's the ultimate answer to the actor's eternal question: "What's my motivation?"
The belated arrival of the first film from a now-major director is always something to be applauded by cineastes. If only Alfonso Cuaron's "Solo Con Tu Pareja" were an extraordinary film. This would-be screwball comedy about a womanizing adman who is tricked into thinking he's HIV-positive might have seemed trenchant back in 1991 (and indeed it became a cult hit in Mexico), but in 2006 it has the whiff of quaintness. The cinematography is exemplary and the performances are fine (if a bit hammy), but there's nothing very surprising from the man who would go on to create the far sexier road movie tragicomedy "Y Tu Mama Tambien." Criterion has done its usual rich work, but the movie doesn't quite deserve it. Hardcore auteurist collectors will want to own this DVD, but for everyone else this is rental material.