Any attempt to explain the career of director Alfonso Cuarón has always defied writerly cliché; the task is even more difficult now that that arc has taken him to space. Earthbound objects leave the pull of our atmosphere only through excessive force and a multitude of calculations, and oftentimes it seems as though Cuarón has glided, featherlike, from one project to the other with little concern for rhyme or reason. But in hindsight, it's a pretty smart feather, one that has allowed him to do a little bit of everything, from franchise blockbusters to low-budget foreign-language hits. And it's a well-calibrated feather, too, not to industry strategy, but to Cuarón's own honesty about what he can and wants to invest himself in artistically. Sometimes this is commercially rewarding, as with Gravity, a four-year labor of love to whose $55.55 million box office take you likely helped contribute this weekend; sometimes you get Great Expectations. But there is no throwaway Alfonso Cuarón film, partially because there are so few of them, but also because he never seems to go on autopilot.
Does this mean his résumé is filled with solid gold? No, but for a while there it seemed to have found its own kind of monochrome.
The Green Period
"I have to say that green is the only color I understand. I can really frame it; I know how to work with it. I see other colors, and they feel alien. I cannot give you a rational explanation why." —Cuarón, the New York Times, 1996
I suppose we should start with the color green. To see an Alfonso Cuarón film in the '90s was to have your eyes drenched in every shade of it: Kelly, mint, lime, forest, the warm olive wool of the boarding-school uniforms in A Little Princess, Tomas's emerald high tops as he sprints nude down the staircase in Sólo con tu pareja. Goodness gracious, Gwyneth Paltrow's mossy crushed-velvet Donna Karan dress in the climactic scene of Great Expectations. There's been a fair amount of speculation over what the significance of the hue was, but I'm willing to take Cuarón's own explanation at face value. Sometimes you just like a color, y'know? Looking back, the use of green was probably less important than its dominance, at least in that first handful of films before Cuarón started to find qualities of interest elsewhere on the color wheel.
Whatever his attraction to green was, the willingness to listen to an instinct, however idiosyncratic, would steer the course of his often unpredictable career. His first widely seen American production was 1995's A Little Princess, but before that he had made his feature directing debut with 1991's Sólo con tu pareja (which translates to "Only with your partner"; it released in English-speaking markets as Love in the Time of Hysteria), which got a good amount of critical and festival buzz and put him on the international filmmaking map. Pareja is a surrealist sex comedy about a ladies' man who gets tricked into thinking he has AIDS; Cuarón made it with funds from the Mexican government, which then prohibited its release, forcing him to find distribution abroad. While some of its comic sensibility and timing are a little clumsy, it's easy to see what an attention-grabber it would have been in Toronto in 1991. It's willfully broad, unafraid to be weird, and quite green, in more ways than one.
Sólo con tu pareja was Cuarón's first feature with cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, with whom he had become friends as a teenage cinephile in Mexico City, and with whom he attended and was kicked out of film school. The two have worked together on every one of Cuarón's features except Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and their collaborative relationship has always gone deeper than celluloid. In 2002, Cuarón told Indiewire: "He's not just my DP; he's one of the most important collaborators. Emmanuel is not a director of photography who puts up lights and sets up frames; he's involved in narrative."
It was Lubezki who eventually nudged Cuarón to his first U.S. feature production. After Pareja’s critical success, the two moved to Los Angeles, where Cuarón had a well-received stint on the Showtime anthology series Fallen Angels (guest-directing alongside Peter Bogdanovich and Steven Soderbergh) and Lubezki shot Alfonso Arau's 1992 adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate. Both had become legitimate Hollywood prospects and were beginning to field offers from various studios. One day Lubezki brought Cuarón a script he had received for an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett's Victorian children's novel A Little Princess. The film follows a wealthy young girl with a big imagination who is reduced to rags when her father goes MIA in World War I, and Cuarón made it through 30 pages before he knew without a doubt that it was a story he wanted to tell. The move from Mexican sex comedy to American studio family film may seem like a pretty powerful zag, but it speaks to Cuarón's omnivorous curiosity as a filmmaker that his gut told him to head for Miss Minchin's boarding school.
A Little Princess received glowing reviews and cemented Cuarón and Lubezki as cinematic stylists worthy of serious critical attention. "There's a hint of magical realism to the spring and fluidity of Mr. Cuaron's storytelling," wrote Janet Maslin of the New York Times, "and it breathes unexpected new life into this fable." The film succeeds not despite its studio-ness but because of it; Cuarón gleefully uses the Warner Bros. back lot, here dressed up as an autumnal turn-of-the-century New York City, like a playhouse, staging profoundly composed scenes that live and speak and breathe just as powerfully, if not more so, than its characters. Cuarón clearly revels in the opportunity to tell a story from the dreamy visual perspective of its young protagonists. A Little Princess showed hints of Cuarón's future interest in class dynamics and youthful rebellion, but more importantly it was an ode to the transportive effects of storytelling and its ability to unite worlds. Cuarón has said numerous times that it is his favorite of his films, and it's mine too.
"I'm not going to tell the story the way it happened. I'm going to tell it the way I remember it." So goes Ethan Hawke's opening voice-over in 1998's Great Expectations, but it might as well have also put the artistic-statement cherry on top of Cuarón's increasingly stylized early filmography. It was his second film with Warner Bros. and his second adaptation of a work of British literature. (It would not be his last!) As he did in A Little Princess, he brought the story to American soil, but this time in our present day, with Florida's gulf coast and the New York art world standing in for Kent and London, respectively. The "modern retelling" subgenre was very on-trend for the late '90s, and the film came right on the heels of Baz Luhrmann's zeitgeisty Romeo + Juliet, which made a generation of teens fall in love with Leonardo DiCaprio and the Cardigans. Surely one would think subbing in Ethan Hawke and 20 different renditions of "Bésame Mucho" should replicate that success, but Great Expectations was a critical and financial failure. Most complaints were directed at Mitch Glazer's overcooked script, but Cuarón recalls the entire production experience as an unpleasant one, and the film as one of his least favorites. "One of the things that I'm grateful of with Great Expectations is that I learned what never to do again," he told HitFix in a recent interview. "It was not a happy experience."
Not to come off as too much of a Cuarón apologist, but most of the things that don't work in the movie are not his fault. There was the audience-belittling decision by producer Art Linson to add in the aforementioned voice-over narration, as if nobody would be able to follow the already extremely simplified narrative through Cuarón's directorial liberties. There's Hawke's performance, which never quite goes anywhere beyond where the script points him. But the Cuarónesque flourishes, here turned up to 11 as they may be, all work: the gauzily lit tongue-kissing at the drinking fountain and, notably, his and Lubezki's first stab at a climactic, scene-crossing, multi-minute tracking shot. Both Glazer and Cuarón seemed much more interested in the class-obsessed love story of Dickens's novel than in anything else, and while purists may take offense, it can't be denied that Cuarón does some kind of unabashedly over-the-top and completely effective justice to that love story.
Cuarón and Lubezki were burnt out. "After we finished Great Expectations ... we felt we were hitting dead ends everywhere and everything was feeling baroque," Cuarón told Indiewire. Given his trajectory at the time, he could have easily become a Luhrmann-like fantasist, for better or, some would argue, significantly worse. He reconvened with his brother Carlos, with whom he had written the script for Sólo con tu pareja. Cuarón had more or less divorced himself from his home country after the fallout from that film, but now he found himself wanting to tell a story there again. Perhaps he had spent enough time realizing the growing pains of American adolescents to dredge up recollections of his own youth. Or maybe he was just sick of Hollywood.
Whatever the case, Alfonso and Carlos met up in New York and wrote the script for Y Tu Mamá También in 10 days, basing it off a story they had worked on years earlier about two teenage boys who go on a sexually charged road trip across Mexico with an older woman. It was made for a fraction of the cost of either of Cuarón's studio productions and demanded a run-and-gun visual style that completely departed from the highly composed aesthetic he and Lubezki had been perfecting over the last decade. But that turned out to be exactly the move they needed to make. Julio, Tenoch, and Luisa's journey to a perfect beach of questionable existence was too variegated for Cuarón and Lubezki to limit themselves to a central color; red rocks and dusky purple sunsets all pass by the car's smudgy windows. Street vendors and motels encountered on the production's real-life road trip get cameos throughout the film. It is also Cuarón's most explicitly political film, with Julio and Tenoch unwittingly standing in for two sides of the increasingly class-divided Mexico that they hornily stumble through. But all that vérité didn't mean Cuarón had lost touch with his mystical side.
In what seems like both an homage to the French New Wave and a knowing parody of Great Expectations’ awkward voice-over, Y Tu Mamá También makes ample use of an omniscient narrator, for whom the entire soundtrack cuts anytime he speaks, and who explains everything, from the inner thoughts of the three leads to the most minute history of the landmarks they pass, with the matter-of-fact detachment of a PBS nature documentary. Rather than ground and clarify the story, the narration makes us aware of the multitude of other stories that have taken place on the trio's route and, by extension, in the same couch or theater seat from which are watching it. It doesn't let us forget about the smallness, in the scheme of the universe, of the conflicts between the boys or even Luisa's tragic impending death, while never making the scenes between them anything less than visceral and immediate. Y Tu Mamá También may have been the first time Cuarón's toes left the surface of the earth, if only by a few millimeters, hovering over the fallout between the three travelers the way a ghost or a close-range satellite might.
Y Tu Mamá También was a wild success, becoming the highest-grossing film in Mexico and a relatively lucrative critical darling in the States. It turned Gael Garcia Bernal and Diego Luna into buzzy breakout stars, and Alfonso and Carlos were nominated for the 2002 Academy Award for screenwriting and the Golden Globe for foreign-language film. Cuarón had now proven his versatility as both a risk-taking auteur and a studio stylist, and I'd say this was about the time that he actually became a recognizable name, alongside his film school friends Alejandro González Iñárritu and Guillermo Del Toro, who were also experiencing pivotal moments in their careers. This would be the point at which most directors would go full auteur, leveraging their accolades and reputation to realize an even grander personal vision, as Iñárritu had with Amores Perros and Babel. But of course Cuarón defied expectations again, taking his ball and jumping into the biggest franchise of them all.
When Cuarón was announced as the director for the third Harry Potter film, A Little Princess was usually cited as his sole qualification for such a job; you could practically feel Warner Bros.' flop sweat as it prayed parents didn't go searching through his filmography and happen upon Bernal and Luna making out while receiving oral sex from Verdu (not that such a scene would be out of place in most Harry Potter fan-fiction forums). But Y Tu Mamá and Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban are very much films by the same director, both built on a thrillingly shaky foundation of raging hormones and those first confusing, infuriating adolescent run-ins with the realities of a larger world. Cuarón was lucky enough to get handed the franchise right as Harry and his friends were entering their teens, and made the entire wizarding world grow up a little bit with them, too; Azkaban is the first time we see our heroes in jeans and hoodies, and the first time the word "mudblood" is uttered. Fans not quite ready to leave Chris Columbus's soft-edged, juvenile vision of Hogwarts from the first two films bristled at Cuarón's more realist approach and his unapologetic rearrangement of the school grounds into sprawling landscapes, but the new look was a logical marriage of Y Tu Mamá’s freewheeling spirit and the gothic lushness of his previous work for Warner Bros., and was the perfect stage for adolescent anarchy.
Though it is widely agreed that his Harry Potter was the best Harry Potter, Cuarón stayed for only one round trip on the Hogwarts Express. "I guess I have a short attention span," he told Empire magazine. "I’m interested in new worlds, new universes, new challenges. I always said the only reason to make a film is not for the result but for what you learn for the next one." His contributions to the franchise are innumerable — including the casting of Gary Oldman as Sirius Black and Michael Gambon taking over for the late Richard Harris as a spryer, weirder Dumbledore, now less a magical grandpa, more a hippie stoner uncle. He injected personality and life into a multimillion-dollar property that was at risk of falling into by-the-numbers whimsical banality. But Cuarón also took a lot with him from Hogwarts — it had been his first experience helming a CGI-heavy blockbuster, and he now wanted to try his hand at the form outside the confines of a franchise.
The Long Take
Children of Men was Cuarón's sixth feature, but arguably his first stab at truly "adult" storytelling. Yes, Y Tu Mamá was unrated or NC-17 depending on where you saw it, but it very much lived alongside its teen protagonists, and took their struggles seriously in the same way Great Expectations had treated the lovelorn Finn and Azkaban treated Harry, Ron, and Hermione. Children of Men, loosely (that should be a given by now) based on the P.D. James novel of the same name, was a dystopian sci-fi tale that was not only about grown-ups, but about the fate of all humanity. And even though going from a big-budget effects franchise to a sci-fi thriller seems logical enough, I'd argue that it was the sharpest left turn in a career chock-full of them.
Cuarón's subtle trademarks are fewer and further between in Children of Men, though Michael Caine in apocalyptic Dumbledore drag asking Clive Owen to pull his finger in the car is a reassuring giveaway. Azkaban was wonderful for how much Cuarón let the characters breathe and behave like people in between suspense sequences; those moments are hard to find in Children. But you can see Cuarón, now happily reunited with Lubezki, actively using his new technical toolbox — at one point there's a glimpse of a newsstand in 2027 London stocked with newspapers adorned with Potter-esque moving images.
Of course, the most famous sequences of the film were the uninterrupted long takes he used in some of the most pivotal and tense action sequences, and for which he and Lubezki soon became famous.
I don't think these scenes are gimmicky; far from it, they're highly effective and about as nerve-shattering as an entire season of Breaking Bad packed into four minutes. But it's a little unfortunate to me that a filmmaker with such a soulful track record, even in only six films, gets pigeonholed for such a highly technical feat. I admire its visual ambition and its lived-in and occasionally quite comfy vision of the near-end times, but Children of Men might be my least favorite Cuarón film because it feels so suddenly impersonal. Cuarón cowrote the script with a team of five, and I think somewhere along the way they lost track of what would make the story matter to those of us here in the baby-filled present. The best stories about the future can be directly applied to the present; Children of Men offers a compelling "what if" but never digs too deep into the "why then." We eventually have to accept the infertility epidemic as some kind of magical curse, making the religious protestors shouting "Repent!" through their megaphones seem not all that crazy after all.
What Children of Men was very, very good at, however, was winding up the audience so tightly that they never trusted a scene, no matter how safe at the outset, to not explode in their faces. And it usually did. As a rhythmic action director, Cuarón had never been better. And, possibly sensing that he was on to something, he decided to strip everything else away — the guns, the flaming cars, the scorched earth, the earth altogether — and boil it all down to the chase.
Gravity took a torturous four and a half years to develop and produce and left a yawning six-year gap in between Cuarón films. Happy as Cuarón and audiences are with the end product, he admits to New York: "Film is my means of survival, and Gravity was a miscalculation of time. It’s not the best investment I’ve ever made." But by taking the hot-lava rhythms of Children of Men and telling it through essentially one character, Gravity is, at the very least, a powerful reminder of both Cuarón's virtuosity and economy as a filmmaker — and its huge box office success ensures his probable financial and artistic freedom going forward. (As far as adventures deeper into the solar system go, however, he'll probably rein himself in; he emphatically told Wired, "I will never do another space movie.")
Of course, it goes deeper than that: If you see the film in IMAX 3-D (as you should), you are brought face-to-face with an uncanny replica of the so-called overview effect, every detail of life simultaneously more insignificant and more profound. The narrator from Y Tu Mamá También is still here in a way, silently reminding you of all the different lives and times that have played out on the planet that Sandra Bullock finds herself drifting over. Maybe you find Bullock's grief for her daughter to be underdeveloped or don't buy George Clooney's chill pixie dream astronaut, but you can see the old Cuarón in there through the satellite debris, forever trying to unite the biggest pictures with the most intimate gasps for air. It's nice to have him back; fancy meeting him up here.