Thursday, November 26, 2009

Nice And Sleazy

If ever an album did exactly what it said on the tin, then Soft Cell’s debut “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret” would be the one. Released in 1981 by the appropriately named Some Bizarre Records, the title was anything but a misnomer for the lurid tales that lay underneath the cover, whose imagery was straight from the sordid streets of Soho, showing singer Marc Almond sneaking a brown paper bag inside his black leather jacket.

Soft Cell were a sleazy new romantic band that walked on the wild side. As synthesizer music took hold, they dared to be different, making innovative electronic music that sounded edgy and a little threatening, as they took us on a journey into a neon-lit world of seedy back alleys and squalid encounters. Tapping into an underground sub-culture of voyeurism and sexual deviancy not previously explored in mainstream pop music, they celebrated decadence and hacked away at the respectability of 80s Britain. “Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret” fully reflected this hedonistic atmosphere with Almond’s lyrics drawing on the darker side of his imagination to create a virtual red light district on vinyl. As the singer once said, “We sing about boy meets girl and lures her into a life of drugs and prostitution”.

"You'll go blind"

Marc Almond was a proper pop star: famous for his flamboyant, unabashed homosexuality, he had the attitude, the mascara, the tears and the heartbreak. His passionate, plaintive vocals were dramatic (even melodramatic), as he sang about the vice world in a frank, confessional way, as if he had personally lived every line. Although his own record company accused him of singing “out of tune”, the vulnerability in his voice hinted at the powerful emotions behind his trashy tales of cheap sex and desperate regret, despite all the camp cynicism. Listening to this album is like reading the most personal of diaries – and an extremely intimate one at that. Almond’s genius was to make the characters in his songs convincing, even as he acted the drama queen in bondage gear – naughty, but nice.

His fellow art school student, Dave Ball, provided the band’s unique synthesizer sound. Standing aloof behind his instruments like a twisted bouncer behind his impish, risqué friend, he created the music with the minimum of kit in line with their low-rent aura, using only a Synclavier (the first commercially available digital synth), a bass keyboard and the Roland drum machine that supplied the distinctive 80s beat. As a short, energetic front man sang his theatrical lyrics in front of a taciturn keyboard player, you could be forgiven that Sparks had been given a salacious makeover, but in truth Soft Cell were influenced just as much by the idiosyncratic synth pioneers Suicide.

"World of Leather"

One of the strengths of Soft Cell’s music was its simplicity, with Ball’s synthesized effects providing a meaty beat for Almond’s wordy vocals in his titillating tales. While their approach was undoubtedly straightforward, the music was fresh and full of life, as the band was evidently energised by making the record in New York, where they grabbed every possibility available. Their voluptuous backing singer Cindy Ecstasy reputedly introduced them to the drug of the same name during the recording process. Their formula was to take classic R&B rhythms and blend these with the icy synthesizer riffs so popular at the time – Northern Soul awash with keyboards. The infectious, inventive beats married with memorable melodies to provide the epic sound required by Almond’s kitchen sink dramas.

Of course, Soft Cell are best known for “Tainted Love”, their enormously catchy cover of a soul classic first sung by Marc Bolan’s wife Gloria Jones. Their darkly subversive version was a massive worldwide hit, completely eclipsing the original, but its overwhelming ubiquity cast a long shadow, as many people only know the group for this dance floor favourite: “Once I ran to you (I ran)/Now I'll run from you/This tainted love you've given/I give you all a boy could give/You take my tears and that's not nearly all/Oh … tainted love”. Although it’s become an iconic pop classic, it still sounds great, even though most listeners miss the more sinister, obsessive aspects of the song that hint at the yearnings displayed on the other album tracks.


A recurring theme of Soft Cell’s records was looking for new experiences, striving for new beginnings to escape their mundane existence. Their dissatisfaction with the boredom and hypocrisy of suburban life was clear in the album’s frenetic first track “Frustration”. The desire to break-out and have fun is encapsulated in Almond’s opening line, when he screams, “Fr ... fr ... frustration!”, but he really captures the ennui of his day-to-day existence, “I have life/Ordinary wife/I have car/A favourite bar/I have job/A moderate wage/I get the pains/That come with age/I am so ordinary”.

So it should come as no surprise that he’s searching for more exotic activities, which take him into the shabby world of strip clubs and sex cinemas. The album’s sexual motif is clear from the explicit “Seedy Films” and “Sex Dwarf”, which made Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” seem like wholesome entertainment in comparison. The theme is unapologetically in your face from the get-go and it doesn’t care if it shocks or offends.

"Boys just want to have fun"

The gorgeously suggestive, slow-paced “Seedy Films” could not be smuttier, “Sleazy city/Sleepy people/Down in your alleys/Seems that anything goes/Blue films flicker/Hands of a stranger/Getting to know you/And I'm getting to like you”. To a chorus of dirty giggles and breathless female vocals, Almond is in his element as he sings, “Phone me tonight/And maybe we can talk dirty”, accompanied by the haunting clarinet that would be used to great effect on a later single, the majestic “Torch”.

Even more controversial is the outrageously kinky “Sex Dwarf”, which almost sounds like a manifesto for perverted pleasure, “Isn't it nice/Sugar and spice/Luring disco dollies/To a life of vice”. It’s completely over the top, hopefully ironic with its creepy whispered repetition of the title and sounds of a woman gasping from a cracked whip, but it’s also without doubt an extraordinary song that is guaranteed to fill the dance floor.

"Not how I remember Blondie"

These darker urges are further explored in “Secret Life”, which recounts the story of a married celebrity, desperate to keep his sordid secrets hidden from exposure, “In your little black book/You've got the names/And the favourite persuasions/Of the people in the headlines/I'm in there under A/And I'm rated under B/You've got photographs to prove it/And I swear to God it's not me”. Ball’s hypnotic dance beats, combined with a cold electronic soundscape, offer the perfect musical backing to Almond’s account of his depravity, which is sung with a beguiling mix of guilt and gratitude.

In fact, Almond often portrays hedonism as pleasurable but melancholy. All the new sensations are indeed thrilling and exhilarating, but the experience is not necessarily all that he had hoped for. “Bedsitter” represents the bitter hangover after the fleeting enjoyment of last night’s party in a song that simply cries out with loneliness and despair, “Sunday morning going slow/I'm talking to the radio/Clothes and records on the floor/The memories of the night before/Out in club land having fun/And now I'm hiding from the sun/Waiting for a visitor/Though no-one knows I'm here for sure”. Rarely has a song with such a beautiful melody described such a desolate existence.

"Soft Cell ... in a soft cell"

Similarly despondent, the magnificent anthem “Say Hello, Wave Goodbye” tells a story of doomed love. As beautiful as anything to have emerged from the world of electronica, Almond brings real feeling to the blatantly sentimental lyrics as he swings from resigned humour (“I tried to make it work/You in a cocktail skirt/And me in a suit/Well it just wasn't me”) to deep passion (“Take your hands off me/I don't belong to you, you see/ Take a look at my face/For the last time/I never knew you/You never knew me/Say hello, goodbye”). It’s a big, bold, lush production that, even today, raises the hairs on your arms. After listening to Almond’s Scott Walker impression here, nobody could say that synthesizer music lacked soul.

The whimsical “Youth” is even sadder, giving the perspective of a fading beauty, which was particularly important in the fashion conscious 80s and is still relevant today, “Youth has gone/I heard you say/It doesn't matter/Anyway/Don't hide the photos/Or turn off the lights/I'm quite sure we've both seen/Funnier sights”. Once again, it returns to Almond’s fear of ending up on his own.

"Marks for artistic impression"

Looking at Almond’s lyrics, you would have to believe that he suffered greatly, even at the height of Soft Cell’s popularity. While lauding self-gratification, his songs threw into dramatic perspective the downside of club life and spoke of the futility of getting away from the humdrum. These themes recur throughout his musical career, though in Soft Cell he managed the difficult balance of drawing the listener into his depressed state, but also treating the subject lightly – largely thanks to the pop sounds coursing through his veins (along with many other substances, no doubt).

The lively “Chips On My Shoulder” was a bitchy attack on hypocrites (“I'll talk about famine/While cooking my dinner”) and complainers (“I'm making a stand/While I sit on my arse”). In the vaudeville “Entertain Me”, Almond waspishly berates his audience for never being satisfied, “Entertain me/I'm as blank as can be/And I've seen it before/And I've done it before/And I think that I like it/But no I don't like it”.

"Colour Me Badd"

Soft Cell were never quite so much fun again. Following an album of remixes “Non-Stop Ecstatic Dancing” (great title remix), their later albums contained less sex, less humour and were considerably bleaker, as may be surmised from their names, the aptly titled “The Art of Falling Apart” and the prophetic “This Last Night in Sodom”. By 1983, the band had amicably dissolved leaving Marc to his Mambas, before reforming twenty years later to once again articulate a world of desperate disintegration and passionate pathos in “Cruelty Without Beauty”.

However, their music was undeniably influential with the likes of Culture Club, Duran Duran and even the Eurythmics all owing them a debt. You could argue that some groups stole their formula lock, stock and barrel, as two-piece synth bands became all the rage. Yes, I am talking about you, Pet Shop Boys, Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and (cough) Erasure.

"I had that Boy George in the back of my car once"

Soft Cell were without a doubt one of the most distinctive bands to come out of the vibrant 80s. They made sleaze glamorous and exciting, singing about subjects that most were afraid to acknowledge even existed. All about “Tainted Love”, but so much more than their famous single, they came with an X certificate – X for excellent.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Luck Of The Irish

Almost a week after the event, Thierry Henry’s wandering hands are still the talk of football. As a reminder to all those who have been in the jungle for the last few days, Henry handled the ball, not once, but twice, as he set up William Gallas’s equalising goal in France’s World Cup play-off against Ireland (sorry, “plucky” Ireland), effectively securing qualification for the French (sorry, “filthy, cheating” French).

Once the football match was over, the blame game began in earnest with most players pointing the finger at the hapless referee, Martin Hansson from Sweden, who was clearly unsighted by the players standing between him and the “main de dieu”. Sounding horribly like the appalling Jamie Redknapp after Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final defeat to Barcelona, the otherwise dignified Irish manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, moaned, “For this game we needed a strong referee. What criteria do they (FIFA) use to select referees?”, presumably referring to the match official’s Scandinavian roots. Funnily enough, up to that point, the Irish fans were praising Hansson for refusing to be influenced by the Parisian crowd, as he first chalked off a goal by Sydney Govou for offside and then denied a very strong penalty claim when goalkeeper Shay Given upended Nicolas Anelka.

"Fall at your feet"

Ireland’s captain Robbie Keane went a stage further, taking time out from missing open goals and berating the referee to point an accusing finger at the world’s football authorities, muttering darkly about how FIFA President Sepp Blatter and UEFA President Michel Platini would be delighted at the outcome, particularly as Platini is French. Of course, Robbie failed to mention that he had been guilty of a similar offence to Henry in the first half. Even more hilariously, Irish winger Damien Duff talked of a conspiracy between Platini, the French Football Federation and German sportswear giant Adidas, forgetting that he himself is paid £100,000 a year to wear football boots made by … Adidas.

Messrs Keane and Duff were also nowhere near as loquacious about the enormously easy chances that they inexplicably missed when they were both through one-on-one with the keeper. Is that also part of the conspiracy? Or were these just simple mistakes? Even though they are very experienced international footballers, they are allowed to make such an error, while the referee should be absolutely perfect. Life is indeed unfair.

A far more legitimate complaint is FIFA’s decision to seed the play-offs, which blatantly loaded the dice in favour of the so-called big nations, such as France. Actually, even here, it could be argued that seeding makes sense. Given that the qualifying tournament and the World Cup itself are both seeded, why would the stage in between, namely the play-offs, not be seeded? The only issue is the timing of the announcement, which came suspiciously late in the day.

"When Irish eyes were not smiling"

The story becomes more surreal with the involvement of the Football Association of Ireland (FAI) and even the Irish government, but it’s clearly very convenient for them to attach themselves to such a cause celèbre. The FAI is in desperate need of funds, which the World Cup would have helped replenish, but most of all is keen to find excuses for another qualification failure. In fact, since the glory days of Jack Charlton and even Mick McCarthy, Ireland have not reached a major tournament since 2002. The Irish government made the country look even more foolish with its absurd request for a replay. What a great idea – let’s fire up the people about a football match and hope that this will distract them from the government’s totally inept management of the country’s economy, which has seen the Celtic Tiger slink off with its tail between its legs.

The former Irish captain and professional hard man, Roy Keane, spoke with a great deal of sense, when he said that Ireland did not deserve to reach the World Cup. Reviving memories of his playing days, when he was noted for his ability to stick the boot in, he laid the blame on Ireland’s defence, rather than Henry, “I'd focus on why they didn't clear it. I'd be more annoyed with my defenders and my goalkeeper than Thierry Henry. How can you let the ball bounce in your six-yard box? How can you let Thierry Henry get goal-side of you?” Actually, I think that anyone who noticed Paul McShane’s arrival as a late substitute could probably answer that. This is a man who can’t even get into the Hull team, for heaven’s sake.

"Keane - slightly harder than the band of the same name"

Keano also questioned the honesty of the Irish, as he pointed out that controversial decisions had also gone Ireland’s way in the qualification campaign, not least a harsh penalty award, which helped them secure a 2-1 win against Georgia. Replays showed that Robbie Keane was offside and handled the ball in the lead-up to this palpably incorrect verdict. Keane (the old midfield bruiser, not the woeful striker) described it as one of the worst decisions he had ever seen, making the point that he did not “remember the FAI after the game saying we should give them a replay”. He also dismissed the FAI’s call for “honesty and integrity”, specifically calling out chief executive John Delaney, he of the Alan Partridge haircut, for not supporting him during his infamous disagreement with Mick McCarthy at the 2002 World Cup in Japan.

Even though Ireland were undoubtedly hard done by, it is worth remembering that they would not have automatically qualified, even if the handball goal had been disallowed. Following their feeble loss to the French in Dublin, it has been conveniently forgotten that Ireland were at no stage ahead in the tie. Given their inability to convert straightforward chances in Paris, there was no guarantee that Ireland would have gone on to win the game. Apart from the amazing misses by the profligate Robbie Keane and Damien Duff, John O’Shea and Kevin Doyle were equally wasteful. The team was also clearly tiring in extra-time, which is not particularly surprising, given the effort they had put in to their energy-sapping pressing game during normal time. If there had been no more goals, qualification would have depended on a penalty shoot-out, which Ireland were far from certain of winning.

"John Delaney a.k.a. Alan Partridge"

Nevertheless, there’s no doubt that France were there for the taking. In spite of all their experience, the players’ nerves were obvious, probably because they are managed by Raymond Domenech, a man who not only looks like he has escaped from Thunderbirds, but appears to also have the management skills of a puppet. On the other hand, although they left their shooting boots at home, the Irish undoubtedly put in a very good performance, executing the game plan of their wily, old manager, Giovanni Trapattoni, almost to perfection.

That might help explain the hysterical media over-reaction that followed the game, when the English press once again exhibited an astonishing amount of xenophobic, hypocritical, self-righteous indignation. In what looked like a collective leaving of their senses, the nation’s upstanding, oh-so honourable journalists decided to slaughter one player for something that is repeated in every single game of football. Of course, the great British public is no better. Egged on by the increasingly pompous, insufferable Sky Sports News, the viewers expressed their unhappiness with an overwhelming 71% demanding that the match be replayed in the “exclusive” poll. That’s telling them. I’m sure that FIFA will be swayed by the views of a handful of barely literate imbeciles who think that a Pavlovian response is probably a fancy name for a dessert that can be stuffed into their drooling mouths.

"Ref justice"

Leading the charge was the unbearable Tony Cascarino, who labeled Henry an “insincere cheat” in his column in The Times. That’s pretty rich coming from a man whose entire international career was based on a lie, because the Irish grandfather that allowed him to play for Ireland was not a blood relative. As he said in his autobiography, “I didn't qualify for Ireland. I was a fraud. A fake Irishman.” In the same book, he confessed to being unfaithful to his first wife, while he was later arrested for allegedly assaulting his estranged second wife. With enemies like these, who needs friends?

However, the worst culprit was Henry Winter in The Daily Telegraph. Sounding for all the world like a jilted lover, Winter compared Henry’s instinctive handball with the considered, systematic cheating of “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, a baseball player for the Chicago White Sox, who participated in a match fixing conspiracy in the 1919 World Series, later immortalised in the 1988 movie “Eight Men Out”. Get real. Not only is this a ridiculous comparison, but also it comes from a journalist who ghost wrote the autobiography of Steven Gerrard, well-known for his ongoing battle with the forces of gravity, and is a tiresome apologist for Michael Owen, the man who tumbled theatrically to earn a penalty for England against Argentina in the 2002 World Cup. Of course, when such acts are performed by English players, it’s usually described as “professionalism” or “playing the game” – only Johnny Foreigner actually cheats.

"Face the facts"

Winter even called for FIFA to ban Henry from the World Cup. Although we can all understand that cheats should not prosper, this does rather beg the question of where this moral crusade should end. For example, would he also ban Cristiano Ronaldo and Didier Drogba for their noted diving ability? Should we ban any other player that has handled the ball? At this rate, I might take my boots to South Africa next year, as there is every chance of getting a game. Of course, it will be galling to the Irish when they see Thierry Henry lead his French tea out behind FIFA’s huge “Fair Play” banner, but every dishonest act on a football pitch makes a mockery of this mission – as indeed does the presence of the likes of Sepp Blatter, Jack Warner and Chuck Blazer on FIFA’s Executive Committee. In fact, given the number of times that Blatter has sounded off about fair play, his failure to comment on last week’s match is hugely disappointing. By all means, let FIFA introduce retrospective bans for players caught cheating, but any changes in the rules should only be applied going forward.

My guess is that the extent of the media outrage over this incident is because previously Henry had appeared to be one of football’s good guys, whom the press has gushed over for years. Lionised for his scintillating attacking play, his intelligence and even his good looks, they simply would not have believed that he could be as underhand as a street scoundrel like Maradona, whose “Hand of God” is the closest precedent. Not least because Henry has always presented himself as a sporting paragon of virtue with a strong dislike of any form of cheating.

"Je ne regrette rien"

Whenever Henry felt injustice, the world tended to hear about it. He was quick to remind people that he had lost the 2001 FA Cup Final when playing for Arsenal as a result of Liverpool defender Stéphane Henchoz handling his goalbound shot. In a form of “what goes around comes around”, he also recalled his goal being wrongly disallowed for handball in a Champions League match against CSKA Moscow. In Paris Henry was also feeling aggrieved, as he was convinced that France should have been awarded a penalty a few minutes earlier and actually applauded the referee sarcastically for giving his team the free-kick from which the French scored.

After Wednesday’s match, Henry seemed to argue that these incidents might have been the driver for his unconscious basketball juggle of the ball. While he admitted that it was handball, which he could hardly deny as the TV pictures clearly showed it, he suggested that it was not deliberate: “To be honest, it was handball. The next thing I know the ball hit my hand and the ball was right in front of me and I played it”. The problem with this argument is that Henry so evidently handled the ball twice. While the first may have been an inadvertent reflex action, the second looked like an intentional manoeuvre, as he directed the ball with his hand, so that it dropped nicely on to his right foot for the pull-back across the area.

"Now you've gone and Dunne it"

Much of the anger directed towards Henry is due to his apparent lack of contrition. Once Gallas had profited from his deceitful handiwork, he raced away from the scene of the crime with a broad grin on his face so that he could join in with the goal celebrations. After the game, he gave a metaphorical Gallic shrug of the shoulders, as he half-heartedly apologised through the medium of Twitter, “I’m not the referee … but if I hurt someone I’m sorry”. Another one that can’t wait to blame the poor referee. Using the same logic, no criminal is responsible for his crime – that would be the fault of the inattentive police. Further absolving himself of any responsibility, he replied to one journalist: “Should I stop and tell the referee? No. That is very funny”.

After the final whistle, Henry did appear to realise that his actions looked far from good, so he made a great show of sitting down on the pitch to commiserate with the dejected Richard Dunne. He also called for a replay, saying that it would be the “fairest solution”, but only after FIFA had categorically announced that there would be no chance of the game being replayed.

A cynic might suggest that this was Henry’s attempt to salvage his tattered commercial reputation. Henry is rumoured to earn something like £15 million a year from his various endorsements with Gillette, Reebok and Pepsi Cola. So far his sponsors have stood by Henry, but they would surely reconsider his commercial usefulness if he were to be banned from the World Cup. Even if that does not happen, any brand that listed trust among its values is unlikely to want to be associated with someone “branded” (see what I did there?) a cheat. Henry may not be in desperate need of any more money, but his wealth certainly took a hit after his well publicised divorce.

"Do it clean"

Even though Henry’s cheating should be condemned, he should not be vilified more than any other player who has bent the rules, i.e. just about every other player in the history of football, just because it was a high profile match. It’s no different from the dives, the fouls, the obstructions, the shirt pulling, the time wasting, the throws claimed when you’ve last touched the ball, etc, etc. Furthermore, one moment of madness should not destroy the memory of all of Henry’s thrilling runs and spectacular goals, in the same way that Zinedine Zidane is not defined by his sending-off in the 2006 World Cup final for head-butting Marco Materazzi.

The French reaction to their qualification was remarkably balanced. While obviously pleased that their team was going to the World Cup, the papers were unhappy with the manner of their success. Bixente Lizarazu, full back in France’s 1998 World Cup winning side, lamented, “We’re going to the World Cup, but we go to the locker room with our heads bowed. It was not something to be proud of”. The exception to the rule was the ludicrous Raymond Domenech, who showed the world exactly why he is the most unpopular manager in French history: “I do not understand why we are being portrayed as the guilty party. I didn’t see it at the time. After I watched it back, I can see it is a mistake by the referee. To me this is the game and not cheating. I do not understand why we are being asked to apologise.” Yet another one happy to have a go at the referee, rather than blame Henry. Quelle surprise.

"Domenech hands it to his captain"

Even his opponents rushed to exonerate Henry. When Henry sat down next to Richard Dunne after the match, there appeared to be no hard feelings from the big Irish defender. The reason that Dunne was not incensed is that he knew he would have behaved the same way, given the chance. Damien Duff confirmed this when he said, “If it was myself or Robbie down the other end, we’d have tried it. You just expect the linesman or referee to see it”. Here we go again with dumping on the ref. Very few players demonstrate honesty or unselfishness on the pitch. Everyone remembers Robbie Fowler pleading for a penalty award to be rescinded and Paolo Di Canio deliberately missing an open goal, as the opposition goalkeeper lay helpless with a twisted knee, but these cases are few and far between. The harsh reality is that the culture in football is to get away with what you can – and the Irish players were well aware of that. The contrast between the fans’ outrage at the handball and the players’ acceptance speaks volumes.

So, if we cannot expect footballers to behave honourably, then we must find better ways of enforcing the laws. One obvious answer is video technology, which is already used successfully in other sports like rugby, cricket and tennis. Some argue that this would slow down the game, but this could be addressed by limiting the number of appeals, and in any case it’s not as if the game has clamped down on time wasting. Others say that technology does not always produce a totally clear answer, but that surely misses the point: it may not achieve perfection, but it would certainly prevent blatant injustices. The technology is available and present at every major match, so let’s get it on.

"He's good with his hands"

Alternatively, there could be widespread implementation of the extra assistant behind each goal line, the system that is the brainchild of UEFA President Michel Platini and is being trialed in this season’s Europa League. Yet another possibility is to simply ask the player whether he has cheated. Sounds terribly naïve, yes? Well, this is how it would work, based on an experiment in Germany. The referee would ask the player if he had handled the ball: If he says yes, then a free-kick is awarded and no further action taken. If he denies it, but is subsequently found to have lied by video evidence, then he would receive an automatic ban of, say, six matches. If he claims not to know, then the benefit is given to the opposition. Such a procedure would dramatically alter the risk/reward ratio.

What of the request for the match to be replayed? This has been rejected by FIFA and, for once, I agree with them, even if this was a really important game. The precedent cited by the FAI (Uzbekistan vs. Bahrain in a 2006 World Cup qualifier) is irrelevant, as in that case the referee wrongly applied the rules, rather than missing an offence. As a FIFA statesman said, “There is no way the game can replayed. To do so would cause absolute chaos for football. If it was replayed, then every match in the future would also be subject to these calls any time a referee misses an incident”. Then, we really would have a Never Ending Story.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Mama Used To Say

There’s a moment towards the end of Alfonso Cuarón’s vibrant, joyous movie “Y Tu Mamá También” when one of the characters gazes across the sandy coastline at the beautiful blue sea and remarks, “You’re so lucky to live in Mexico. Look at it – it breathes with life”. Her perception is equally valid for this wonderful film, which justifiably broke all box office records in its native country.

The director, Cuarón, has pulled off two incredibly clever tricks here. First, he has created a fantastically urgent experience that manages to invest real humour, sensuality and pathos into the hackneyed rites of passage movie that at no time feels derivative, predictable or manufactured. Second, he has skillfully blended a number of genres, while ensuring that the film speaks with its own unique voice. Combining elements from the coming of age tale, buddy movie, road trip, love triangle and teenage sex comedy with an unsettling dose of social commentary, this is a substantial motion picture that’s impossible to pigeonhole. The title is a boastful, boyish taunt (“And your mother too”) that hints at the sexual swagger and (misplaced) confidence of the main protagonists.

"That's what I call a headrest"

The story follows the adventures of best friends Tenoch (Diego Luna) and Julio (Gael Garciá Bernal), two boys in Mexico City on the threshold of adulthood. Abandoned by their gorgeous girlfriends, who have traveled to Italy for the summer, the teenagers quickly become bored and frustrated. Forced to attend a society wedding by their parents, they meet the elegant, stunning Luisa (Maribel Verdú), the wife of Tenoch’s cousin, and awkwardly attempt to impress the older woman with talk of a remote, secluded beach called la Boca del Cielo (Heaven’s Mouth). Intoxicated by alcohol and Luisa’s beauty, they invite her to accompany them on a trip to the imaginary beach. Initially, she gracefully declines their blatant proposition, but, to the boys’ amazement, impulsively changes her mind a couple of days later, after her husband drunkenly confesses his latest infidelity. During the journey, they discover things about themselves and each other that they did not expect.

This 2001 film represented director Alfonso Cuarón’s triumphant return to his Mexican roots after ten years in Hollywood, where he made two literary adaptations: the big budget “A Little Princess” and the surreal remake of Charles Dickens’ “Great Expectations”. On the face of it, the sparse “Y Tu Mamá También” is very different in style from his efforts in America, but, at their core, they share the same atmosphere of rich sensuality, especially the criminally under-rated “Great Expectations”, which brought a freshness and visual excitement to the updated story, featuring a luminous Gwyneth Paltrow. Subsequently, Cuarón directed possibly the best Harry Potter film, “The Prisoner of Azkaban”, and “Children of Men”, based on P.D. Jamesnovel.

"Baby, you can drive my car"

Cuarón himself said that this movie is “about two teenage boys finding their identity as adults and ... also about the search for identity of a country going through its teenage years and trying to find itself as an adult nation”. Thus, it may be considered a straightforward coming of age movie, but that does not do justice to its passionate examination of the boys’ loss of innocence. Each of them has lived a relatively sheltered life, not just due to Tenoch’s wealthy background, but because their immature lives revolve around instinctive, unthinking activities, involving large quantities of sex, drugs and alcohol. However, they now stand on the verge of manhood with its associated responsibilities and will soon experience the bewilderment caused by rapid change – as indeed will their young nation.

The film is neither complicit with the boys, nor hostile to them. Instead, it views them from an amused distance, showing us teenage boys exactly as they are. Young, dumb and full of come they may be, but the movie perfectly captures that moment in young men’s lives when they are no longer boys, but they still feel genuine excitement about the possibilities that lay before them (sometimes literally). The world is still new enough to fascinate and excite, so they embrace life with the unbridled joy of youth. This may lead to a decadent lifestyle and hedonistic excesses, but their way of life is bursting with energy, as they seek to fulfill their youthful urges.

"Here's to you, Mrs. Robinson"

The boys are not entirely likeable characters, being self-indulgent, thoughtless, crass and rarely contemplating matters above the belt. At the age of seventeen, they’re still juvenile, indulging in all sorts of childish competitions, including farting in the car and masturbating on adjoining diving boards, when they encourage each other with cries of “Salma Hayek!” and “Salmita!”, but the important point is that they are not cynical or jaded. Obsessed with sex, thanks to the hormones raging around their bodies, their callow braggadocio and obnoxious machismo are essentially covering up their inexperience.

Good friends in real life, Diego Luna and Gael Garciá Bernal turn in impressively natural, spontaneous performances, which they reprised seven years later as sibling rivals in “Rudo y Cursi”. They are perfectly at ease with each other, as they are with the film’s dramatic complexities and sexual content, chatting away with complete frankness in Mexico City slang. In the role of Julio, Garciá Bernal, who first came to attention in the powerful “Amores Perros”, balances frenetic liveliness, a wicked sense of humour (with a huge grin that seems to leap off the screen) and periods of quite contemplation, and it’s no surprise that he went on to become a major international actor, starring in “The Motorcycle Diaries”, “Babel” and “The Science of Sleep”. As Julio’s jealous friend, Diego Luna is less manic, but just as intense and dynamic, though he is also capable of demonstrating real vulnerability during his first intimate moments with Luisa in a roadside motel.

"Don't fancy yours much"

As they go through all the pleasure and pain of late adolescence, the actors are good enough to make us exasperated with their behaviour, while never once risking the loss of our affection. Annoying and endearing at the same time, it’s as if we see them through Luisa’s eyes with her incredulous delight. However, from the beginning, we suspect that their exuberant over-confidence is setting them up for a fall and this comes to pass, though not before their wildest appetites have been satisfied, albeit leaving a bitter aftertaste.

The film is set in 1999 against the backdrop of the political and economic realities of Mexico, significantly the year before the Institutional Revolutionary Party's uncontested reign came to an end, when it lost its first election in 71 years. We are shown a hard-edged, gritty portrait of contemporary Mexico, which is far removed from the image painted in travel brochures. Instead the country is presented as a place of road blocks, arrests, student demonstrations and casual corruption. It’s an unobtrusive, but pointed social commentary on the vast disparities that exist in Mexico: the old and new world; urban and rural standards of living; and the profound class differences.

"Life's a beach"

In just one of a series of nods to the French New Wave (La Nouvelle Vague) filmmakers, Cuarón employs a narrative device that places what we are seeing in the context of the characters’ background or what’s happening generally in Mexico. Every so often, he cuts the soundtrack, so that a detached, omniscient narrator can inform us about the dubious state of democracy in the country or point out a specific item of interest, like the corpse of a construction worker hit by a car while crossing the road, as a pedestrian crossing would have been inconvenient for the building site. This is a very useful contrivance that enriches the story, as it explains the significance of the moment or location that could easily be overlooked while following the compelling action and superb dialogue, including private reflections and ethical dilemmas.

Indeed, the film is just as much about the changes taking place in Mexico as in the boys’ lives, though they remain blissfully unaware of their surroundings. The very fact that the political observations are made by an outside voice indicates how disassociated the boys are from these events. It is not clear whether this is due to irresponsible, ignorant behaviour or whether it is a form of self-protection, but they barely notice the country’s woes and poverty as they remain sealed in their self-absorbed, privileged environment. Meanwhile, we certainly do notice the parallel world of fatal accidents, drug busts, poverty in shanty towns, families evicted by property developers and, most memorably, a road block of flowers where villagers request (extort) a donation for their queen – a young girl in bridal white, representing the Virgin Mary.

"Stuck in the middle with you"

Magnetic as the boys’ acting is, the real stand-out performance comes from the ravishing Maribel Verdú, who provides the movie with its maturity as Luisa, only ten years older than Tenoch and Julio, but so more experienced and much wiser. Her character is in sharp contrast to the boys, refined where they are fumbling, watchful where they are eager and puppyish. She may play the standard fantasy role of the older, sexy woman, but she also acts as a maternal guardian to the boys, a figure that is lacking in their lives. When exasperated with their puerile behaviour, she exclaims: “Play with babies and you’ll end up washing diapers!”

The over-sexed adolescents may feel that they are taking Luisa for a ride (in every sense), but it soon becomes clear that she’s the one in control with a personal agenda of her own. They may make all the noise, but she calls the shots. When the seduction finally takes place, she is the one that initiates the sex, but she’s not the typical movie temptress giving the boys a fun experience, rather she’s a wounded woman with a lot of her own baggage, some of which is not revealed until the very end.

"She wears it well"

Not only is she stunningly beautiful, but she’s also emotionally raw, fiercely proud and extraordinarily vital. This is a complex, empathetic character, who at times may be sad and uncertain, but also shows courage in her willingness to be alive to her feelings. Mourning her failed marriage, she is seeking to liberate herself rather than tease the boys. Her search for happiness has much more desperation than the boys’ innocent lust.

Importantly, Luisa also sees through the façade of the boy’s camaraderie. She’s the catalyst for their deteriorating rapport, as their friendly rivalry for her favours escalate into open jealousy. This triggers a rift that makes them realise that their friendship is based on very little. They might talk a lot, but they really spend their time posturing rather than conversing. Actually, it was a heavily flawed relationship from the start, due to their class differences. Tenoch is the son of a wealthy, corrupt politician, who is an associate of the president; while Julio’s single mother is a secretary and his sister a political activist. In truth, it was never really “Me and Julio down by the Schoolyard”, but the road trip will make or break their friendship, as they are forced to reveal previously guarded secrets and hidden sides of their personalities.

"Hi, I'm your pool boy"

Whatever divides this trio, what they share is equally important and some of their happiest moments come as they drive through the glorious Mexican countryside, exquisitely shot by Cuarón’s long-time collaborator, the gifted cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki. Although many road movies can feel like a highly contrived excuse for a series of embarrassing escapades, this is more like Wim Wenders’ “Paris, Texas”, where you feel that the characters do not quite belong. In this case, the journey exposes the emptiness of the boys’ lives. The days on the road are sweaty with possibilities, creating an atmosphere that something will happen, and eventually Luisa sleeps with first Tenoch, then Julio. However, be careful what you wish for, as you might just get it, and the boys get about as many life experiences as they can handle. First, in a fit of envy and resentment, the boys admit that they have both slept with the other’s girlfriend:

Tenoch: Fuck you, asshole! You fucked up our friendship! You fucked up my trust! You fucked my girl! You fucked me up! When I brought your fucking comics from Lake Tahoe and the fucking dress for Ana, that whore!

Julio: Tenoch, dude, I'm sorry man. It was an accident, really.

Tenoch: An accident? You poke some girl's eye by accident, asshole! You don't fuck her! You don't fuck her!

Julio: Right … right.

Then, Luisa’s shrewd bedroom strategy makes Tenoch and Julio confront their homoerotic attraction to each other and they end up kissing during a threesome. They begin the trip with a hollow sense of indestructibility, but by the end they face confusion and insecurities.

"Mexican stand-off"

This is certainly not a film that is coy about acts of love, beginning with an unflinching sex scene that sets the tone for what follows. Unabashedly erotic, in no way does the sex feel offensive or gratuitous. At all times, it feels very human and serves to illuminate the characters. The teenagers’ sexuality is treated with the respect it deserves, as a natural part of life, instead of a smutty joke like the standard American teen “comedy” – “Mexican Pie”, this isn’t. The glamorous older woman teaches the boys that girls are not conquests, prizes or targets, but the other half of a precarious unity. She also does not spare them when discussing their sexual technique, advising them that the greatest pleasure comes from pleasing your partner:

Who cares who you two fucked, when you come that fast.

Luisa: You have to make the clitoris your best friend.

Tenoch: What kind of friend is always hiding?

In fact, it could be argued that the film is more about the consequences of sex (insecurity, regret, guilt, mistrust) than the sex itself with echoes of the poignant ending of Flaubert’s “Sentimental Education”. Even though the setting is indisputably Mexican, there is a distinctly French feel to this film with that country’s lengthy history of movies featuring young men lusting after a more worldly older woman, like Francois Truffaut’s “Jules et Jim” in the 60s and Bertrand Blier’s “Les Valseuses” in the 70s.

Behind the outrageous humour, there is a more serious message. What starts out as a simple, funny tale about teenagers grows into a thoughtful character study. The boys develop a shared manifesto of ridiculous rules, but the last one is quite profound: “The truth is totally amazing, but also unattainable”. On the other hand, as the real world looms ever closer, the travelers do ultimately find their mythical beach – even though it only ever existed in their imagination. Even as the film comments on the fragility of life, it seems to encourage you to follow your dreams.

Cuarón leaves it open as to whether Tenoch and Julio will cherish the memory of their adventure with Luisa or whether it will haunt them as a symbol of their lost freedom. That is how it should be, as “Y Tu Mamá También” is a film that manages to combine the heady enjoyment of youth, while never losing sight of the darker side of life. Although the characters may be foolish at times, the film is a clever and affecting take on society in Mexico, though the issues could apply anywhere. As a rites of passage movie, it invites the glib tagline, “After that summer, nothing would ever be the same again”, but it’s genuinely full of surprises. Not only that, but this exhilirating journey of discovery will leave you with a real sense of joy in being alive.

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