The Journey: A Critical Analysis of The Films of Alfonso Cuarón

Academic Paper by William Conlin. Written for Roger Durling’s Great Directors Course.

American Author Greg Anderson once said: “Focus on the journey, not on the destination.” Throughout his career, director Alfonso Cuarón has done just that. Cuarón’s cinematic obsession is that everyone is on a path to death, but the journey that we take has a profound effect on those around us. His stories typically unite three characters and use a critical moment in their lives as a micro chasm of their greater journey. Supporting the three journeying leads are an ensemble of minor characters that make small contributions to the present moment but have long-lasting effects on the main characters. By critically looking at three Cuarón films (each from a different genre), I will highlight his stylistic commonalities and discuss his development as a filmmaker.

One of Cuarón’s signature filming traits is his long, documentary-style camera takes. Single shots in Y tu mamá también and Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban last upwards of five minutes and transcend great distances, but nothing compares to the climactic Bexhill battle scene in Children of Men. Just short of eight minutes in length, the scene covers a great deal of space and features an apocalyptic battle between beleaguered refugees and British soldiers. During this marathon take the viewer feels like the footage is in fact from a documentary. The focus doesn’t solely follow Theo (Clive Owen), but seems to have the mind of a verité cameraman, surveying the surroundings and occasionally acting just as confused as a person in the midst of the horror. When Theo crawls onto the bus and a barrage of gunfire hits the people who remain standing, the camera lens is splattered with blood, furthermore identifying the footage as “real”.

Cuarón also employs a significant amount of wide framing in his filmmaking. In Y tu mamá también as the three journeyers travel the back roads or Mexico trying to reach Heaven’s Mouth, Cuarón shoots the entire five-minute take with an extremely wide lens. This accentuates the documentary-feel but also separates the viewer from the characters. It is later discovered that everything spoken in this scene is a lie so by distancing the viewer from the characters, it makes it harder to discern the truth. Cuarón also makes significant efforts to pull the camera away from the action at critical moments in all of his films. By going wider and making the action smaller in the frame the viewer is forced to push themselves deeper into the film.

To accentuate the reality of his films, Cuarón also uses a great deal of voyeurism. Many shots begin or end with windows, doorways and other locations that make us feel like we are spying on the main characters. In Children of Men Theo and the audience gaze through the broken glass of the classroom to watch Kee sit on the swing, singing to her unborn baby. In Y tu mamá también the viewer remains in the apartment long after Luisa has left. The camera lingers on the empty apartment like an unwanted guest, then turns and “walks” over to the window and looks down towards the street. From the window it spies on the three characters beginning their road trip.

The final aspect of Cuarón’s technical design is his use of desaturation. A reoccurring element in all of his films is that as the characters get closer to the end of their journey, the color is drained from the picture. In Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban, Cuarón took on the monumental task of replacing director Chris Columbus who created the multi-billion dollar film franchise. Despite the expectations for a bright and happy children’s wizard film Cuarón managed to create a darker, colorless world, which acted as a turning point in the franchise. No Potter film after that had the high key feel of the earlier Columbus films. The film begins with a smattering of colors but as the action continues the color fades away. By the climax of the film everything is grayscale with a bluish tint. Even in the final shots, after order has been restored the “happy” scenes remain mostly colorless. To the same effect Y tu mamá también begins with the boys full of life. Their skin has a natural tone and the warm lights of home wash over them. As they go on their journey and grow distant Tenoch and Julio’s skin becomes pale and colorless. The final scene in the diner features such a top-heavy use of exterior lighting that the characters are washed out in the glow. In contrast with his other films, Children of Men is desaturated from the start. He doesn’t drain the life from the image because the world has already become a miserable, lifeless place. Throughout the film there are only a few moments of warm light and those only come when the characters are under extreme duress. However, in the last moment of the film we are given a brief amount of color. When the blinking red light of the water buoy appears in the distance and slowly grow bigger in frame we are given a dim symbol of the new hope for humanity.

Moving aside from technical aspects, thematically Cuarón’s obsession is evident in nearly every scene. His characters are almost always on the move and by the end of the film the viewer feels like they’ve actually been on the journey as well, instead of just witnessing it. I distinctly remember finishing Children of Men for the first time and thinking “my feet should be sore after all that running”. Y tu mamá también covers hundreds of miles in a minutes and the primary action of the film takes place in cars, boats and hotel rooms. The characters walk, run and swim as though they are part of a triathalon.

Cuarón also deals with the journeys we have already taken. All of his films feature moments where one or more of the currently journeying characters reflect on photographs depicting themselves or their travel companions previous voyages. The only exception to this is Y tu mamá también, where the audience is in fact the one looking at photographs. As the camera slowly creeps through Luisa’s apartment we see numerous photos depicting her “happy” marriage. The same false images of happiness are seen in Tenoch’s mansion and Julio’s tiny living space. We are given a brief look into the characters lives before we knew them and we see the foreshadowing truth of each person’s misery. In Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban the ominous photographs of Sirius Black provide an added layer of uneasiness to anyone who is unaware of the films outcome. Last, but not least, in Children of Men Theo reflects on his own journey by looking at photos of his youth in Jasper’s house.

Class warfare and societal norms also play key roles in Alfonso Cuarón’s films. Throughout the Harry Potter franchise, the issue of pure blood vs “mudblood” wizards acts as an allegory for modern class disparities. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, however, takes the issue to a higher level while also upsetting the delicate balance of English propriety. Hermione Granger’s cool, collected manner takes a strong departure in Cuarón’s turn as director. She verbally attacks a teacher and physically attacks the series perennial enemy Draco Malfoy. Cuarón also takes “normal” people and places and puts them in a scenario where they must buck social trends and act upon pure instinct. In Children of Men, Theo is a middle class office worker who has disavowed his rebellious lifestyle but is forced to take extreme action when his journey begins. Along the way he encounters all manner of social classes. From his cousin, the government-funded art savior to the squalor-ridden “fugess”, Cuarón shows that when the world is coming to an end, no one is far apart in the social ladder. In Y tu mamá también, Tenoch and Julio are already “social deviants” so the change must come from the previously level-headed Luisa. When she discovers she has terminal cancer there is nothing left to be proper for so she embarks on her own journey of vice.

Finally and maybe most importantly, Cuarón deals very strongly with the interconnectivity of humanity. In each film’s journey the characters encounter numerous individuals who deeply affect their travels, even if it unknown at the time. More recent in Cuarón’s career it has become evident that he’s developed a subtle way of incorporating the minor characters into the greater story, whereas in Y tu mamá también the audio of the film fades into a non-diegetic narrative about the people and how they have affected the main journey. At times, these minor characters also act as comic relief within the drama-based plots. Numerous witches and wizards work to keep Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban light and “child-friendly” while allowing us to easily reenter the dark drama of the film. In Children of Men Theo and Julian provide a light moment of comedy by playing with the ping-pong ball before the group is attacked by their own comrades in arms. Kee also acts as a comic relief with her dry wit and seeming childlike attitude in trying to decide what to name her baby.

In my opinion, as a filmmaker, Alfonso Cuarón sits somewhere in between Pedro Almodóvar and Roman Polanski. His shameless portrayal of social deviance and voyeuristic methods of storytelling create a unique way of taking us on the journey. Though this essay only covers a minor portion of Cuarón’s knowledge of mise-en-scene, it is quite evident that he is an uncompromising expert of the craft of filmmaking. His obsession with death and our journey towards it are universal and can be truly enlightening experiences. I distinctly remember the first time I saw a Cuarón film. I was 17 and desperately hoping for a darker, more gothic Harry Potter film. I walked out of Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban praying that he would continue to direct the franchise. Though he did not, the succeeding director did follow his style. When looking at who else was in the running to direct the third Potter film, Cuarón was the only one qualified to take the series to a new level and I thank the cinematic gods that he took the project. Three years later when I saw Children of Men I knew for certain Cuarón was a genius. I named Children of Men as my favorite film of 2006 and I try not to let a year go by without watching it. In preparation for this essay I took the time to watch Y tu mamá también for the first time. Although it is an early piece and shows his still-developing style, it is a staggering example of the power of filmmaking and left me sitting in the dark thinking for numerous minutes before I could even move. Though he only has seven features to his name, at the current age of 49 I expect we will see many more exhaustive journeys from this incredible director. I look forward to taking another journey with him soon and I wonder where it will lead me.

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