Fox // 1999 // 108 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees (Retired) // January 27th, 2005
"Do you think God meant to create women this way, or was it another of His little mistakes?" -- Tomás
The title of the award-winning Mexican film Sex, Shame, and Tears (Sexo, Pudor, y Lágrimas) suggests a collection of perhaps loosely related elements, and that pretty much sums up writer-director Antonio Serrano's approach to this disjointed film. Or one could also look at this movie as a creative exercise designed merely as an excuse to show the three titular elements on screen. Either way, despite the efforts of a committed and attractive cast, and despite its glossy visual appeal, the component parts of Sex, Shame, and Tears fail to form a cohesive whole. The film doesn't know whether it wants to be a sexy comedy or a scathing drama, and the result may make you feel like you're trapped on a date with an exhibitionist who has multiple-personality disorder.
Sex, Shame, and Tears concerns three men and three women. Vivacious, passionate Ana (Susana Zabaleta) is married to intellectual Carlos (Victor Huggo Martin). Although they love each other, their relationship is troubled by her desire for more attention (and more sex) and his fierce jealousy. Into this volatile situation comes roguish free spirit Tomás (Demián Bichir), a mutual friend who has just returned from traveling the world and moves into their apartment for the time being. In the apartment directly across the street live Miguel (Jorge Salinas), an intense advertising executive, and his high-strung model wife, Andrea (Cecilia Suárez), whose marriage has deteriorated into public scenes and vicious arguments. When Miguel's former love, the zoologist Maria, drops by en route to a new job in America, Miguel seizes the opportunity to invite her to stay with him and Andrea -- but whether as a buffer or a spare woman, only time will tell. When the two marriages reach the breaking point, the men assemble in one apartment, the women in the other, each group vowing to have nothing to do with the opposite sex until they have had time to get their emotional feet back under them.
This setup would be a promising beginning for a romantic comedy, a sort of postmarital Love's Labour's Lost, and that's how the film styles itself at first. The opening credits are designed in a sophisticated, slightly retro style, as if trying to evoke Rock Hudson-Doris Day sex comedies, and the lively, energetic pace with which the film begins certainly seems conducive to comedy; even all the furious yelling back and forth between spouses has a passionate, spirited feeling to it, so one settles in for an enjoyable evening's entertainment without any sense of foreboding. After establishing itself as fairly lighthearted, however, the film gets darker, and then we are shocked by a scene in which one character brutally rapes another. This would be disorienting enough by itself, but once the men and women align themselves in the two separate apartments, the film tries to become a comedy again. Both groups open up about their thoughts on the opposite sex, sharing anecdotes and truisms. (It's the kind of film where absolutely everyone -- from the characters' mothers to strangers in restrooms -- is talking about sex.) The women play out little shows in the apartment's picture window for the men's benefit, and there's even a big comic scene when all six of the protagonists get into a noisy brawl in the middle of the street; it's silly yet cathartic, the emotional equivalent of a pie fight.
All this would be pleasant enough (if not especially insightful) if it weren't for the lingering knowledge that one of these purportedly comical characters is a rapist. Later on, this character faces up to the unpleasant person he has become and begins to examine his own motives, and this is a powerful scene -- but it doesn't eliminate the sour taste of having seen him presented as an okay guy in the interval. In another bizarre turn, after the film seems to be heading toward redemption for its damaged personae -- each one of whom bares his or her soul in a tearful and emotionally charged monologue -- an abrupt and tragic death occurs. The suddenness of this plot twist made me feel cheated, as did the fact that it killed off one of my favorite characters. Moreover, the shadow of this event taints the positive outcomes that some of the other characters experience at the film's conclusion. It feels as if some of the characters had to pay too high a price for whatever insights into love and relationships were gained over the course of the movie.
Overall, then, the film feels as if it has an identity crisis. Perhaps different directorial choices could have brought some kind of logic and emotional continuity to the story elements that are so mismatched here, but Serrano's direction only exacerbates the problem. The actors, however, are to be commended for giving their all to this crazy quilt of a film. In a way it's easy to see why the screenplay would have appealed to them: Each character is a distinct type, and each actor gets to play both comedy and drama over the course of the film. Indeed, a good third of the film feels like an almost continuous series of emotional monologues; you can tick them off on your fingers as each character turns on the waterworks, one after the other. It's a great opportunity for actors to show their range, and the cast rises admirably to the challenge -- but the end result of their efforts just doesn't gel.
On the plus side, this is a very attractive film; it has a bright, sophisticated visual style, and the director has a fun sense of color; for example, when the six protagonists make their separate vows to eschew the company of the opposite sex, they immediately begin dressing in white clothes. There are some other visually striking elements, such as scenes that take place in unusual locations like a masquerade party, a rooftop, or a deserted stadium. The DVD nicely complements this visual appeal in an anamorphic widescreen transfer that is largely clean and is only marred otherwise by very slight but recurring jiggle. The audio mix is even cleaner, and the sprightly music, which features several pop songs, sounds great in the 5.1 surround. Dialogue is very crisp, and it is never overwhelmed by the music. Unfortunately, there are no extras; a commentary by Serrano might have gone some way toward clarifying the baffling structure and warring emotional impulses of this film.
If you care more about good acting than a logical story, by all means rent Sex, Shame, and Tears. The performances of Demián Bichir and Susana Zabaleta (who won a Mexican Ariel award as best actress for her performance) are particularly fine. Or if you're an acting student looking for a dramatic monologue to perform, this film will provide a nice selection. But if you don't like being jerked around emotionally, look elsewhere for your evening's viewing. Trying to figure out what this movie is doing is just about as difficult as trying to figure out the opposite sex.
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Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
Running Time: 108 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Rated R