Long before Alfonso Cuarón and Emmanuel Lubezki won Oscars, they made one of the most daring romantic comedies of the 1990s, the Mexican sex farce Love in the Time of Hysteria. The film tried to blend the feel, look and energy of a ribald romantic comedy with blistering pokes at the dangers of the AIDS crisis. Its Mexican title, Sólo Con Tu Pareja, translates to “Only With Your Partner,” which was a slogan from one of the country’s public-service campaigns about the dangers of AIDS. It was no wonder the Mexican government initially refused to release the film and no North American studio would distribute it, either – although Cuarón did get to show this directorial debut at the Toronto Film Festival in 1991.
Love in the Time of Hysteria shares conventions with a lot of hyperactive American romantic comedies – it even ends with a couple entangled on the rooftop of the Latin America Tower, a dead ringer for the Empire State Building. However, even with its cheeky, sexually suggestive sense of humour, the film dealt with issues of morality surrounding the AIDS crisis. The protagonist, bawdy playboy Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), is a poor ad man but an excellent Don Juan. He is sexually liberal to the point of hilarity; in several scenes, he fetches the daily paper by stripping off his rope, running down the steep, spiral staircase of his apartment, dancing and spinning around on the main floor as he picks up the paper and jogging back up. Tomás is also a slacker with a messy apartment and gets distracted easily, throwing darts instead of throwing together slogan ideas for a campaign on jalapeños.
Tomás is absent-minded and sex obsessed. He is the kind of man who can seduce the bride right before she goes to the altar, and the neighbours often joke about his promiscuous reputation. “He’s been featured in several pap smears,” a jokey but sweet-hearted doctor, Mateo (Luis de Icaza), tells a nurse. Cuarón, working with his brother Carlos on the screenplay, will later put a twist on another romantic comedy convention – that of a man going on two dates simultaneously – as Tomás tries to romance a nurse, Silvia (Dobrina Liubomirova), and his beautiful boss, Gloria (Isabel Benet). Gloria is in one apartment two doors over from the one Silvia is staying in, and Tomas navigates between the two via the ledge outside. Silvia, however, will be so infuriated by Tomás’s betrayal in the bedroom that she does something dastardly and dangerous: she marks a copy of his blood test as HIV-positive. The results return Tomas to anguished sobriety.
As he walks between the apartments, Tomás notices that a sexy flight attendant, Clarisa (Claudia Ramirez), has moved into the flat between the two rooms. He watches Clarisa from the ledge while having lewd fantasies about her pre-flight safety demonstration. In one of Tomas’s dreams of Clarisa, she escorts him to a plane where he encounters various characters in the film, former lovers and noted people from Mexican history. One wonders if he mistakenly took too many of the jalapeños he’s trying to sell.
Sex-fueled comedies were a novelty in Mexico by the time of the film’s release, but Cuarón’s film set off a firestorm in the country due to the provocative humour, with jokes focused on suicide as a result of an AIDS prognosis. Cuarón’s mix of this stained, edgy subject matter with a farcical comedic tone does not always ignite, but there are several moments of squirming, nervous laughter. One scene when Silvia gives the picky, sensitive-to-the-touch Tomás a blood test, hits this mark. As she pricks him with the needle, he is subservient to her power. His moaning and deep breathing sound like it comes from the bedroom and Silvia enjoys watching him react in pain. The scene shows how Cuarón could be dark, funny and erotic at once.
Tomás also boasts the same frisky energy as the filmmakers. Lubezki’s nimble camera captures the vitality of the character as he bounces from bed to bed, although the atmosphere and flair sedate when Tomas finds out about the positive test result. The cinematographer even experiments with long takes; although there are not many, we notice spots of inspiration that allude to his future status as one of the most innovative camera operators in cinema. Love in the Time of Hysteria also foregrounds the colour green, which normally implies something new and freshly planted. With various references to blood in the dialogue interjecting on this colour, Cuarón hints at how the spread of HIV-AIDS infringes on the natural growth of a vibrant earth.
The film moves between a cheery score reminiscent of a romantic romp, as well as reflective Mozart compositions that speak to the bitterness and uncertainty of the protagonist’s aimless life. Tomas has a rather nihilist view of death; as he contemplates taking his own life and remarks how much time he wasted, the sorrowful classical music plays above him. Later, as Tomás contemplates suicide by sticking his head in the microwave, he goes through a rather bizarre pre-death ritual. He decides to write the names of his romantic conquests on a long manuscript, although he struggles to get all the names right.
Even as Cuarón attempts a glossy, lighthearted genre, Love in the Time of Hysteria does not have a slickness that lowbrow romantic comedies do. There is an urgency and energy, as well as a shifting tone that mirrors the film’s relationship to the vibrant, vulgar Mexico City lifestyle. It is a lewd but acerbically funny film that happens to deal with questions of mortality – perhaps not as deep as Cuarón would later explore in Children of Men, but with a more surprising backdrop. It is a striking, subversive, pitch black debut from a director who will, sadly, never attempt the Almodóvar-ian mix low comedy with melodrama in the same way.