Combustible Celluloid

Interview: Alfonso Cuarón

Hope and Stories

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

December 12, 2006—In the murk of the December movie awards season, one movie stands out above all others with its extraordinary use of the medium, its energy, poetry and intelligence, Alfonso Cuarón's Children of Men.

Cuarón, along with a band of other talented Mexican-born filmmakers, has quietly crept up through the ranks to become one of today's most formidable directors.

His unusual adaptations of A Little Princess (1995) and Great Expectations (1998) barely made any waves during their day, but his sexy Mexican road movie Y tu mamá también (2002) made a huge splash, crossing over to mainstream success and pleasing critics across the board.

That movie landed him the job of directing Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004), the third and best of the series (author J.K. Rowling has stated that it's her favorite as well).

Additionally, Cuarón has produced several Mexican productions, such as The Devil's Backbone (2001) and Pan's Labyrinth (2006) by his friend Guillermo Del Toro and together they produced the remarkable drama Crónicas (2005).

Earlier this year the Criterion Collection released Cuarón's breakthrough feature, the award-winning comedy Sólo con tu pareja (1991), on a beautiful new DVD.

But now Cuarón, 45, has perhaps topped all these earlier efforts with his latest, Children of Men, which opens in the Bay Area on Christmas Day.

Based loosely on a novel by British crime specialist P.D. James, the film is set in the year 2027. A wave of infertility has spread across the earth and no human babies have been born for 20 years. The result is a hopeless, dystopian world in which immigrants are rounded up and placed in cages on public streets.

When the youngest human on earth dies, it sets off a chain of events for a burned-out bureaucrat, Theo Faron (Clive Owen).

Soon after, Theo's former flame Julian Taylor (Julianne Moore), a distant memory from his days as an activist, re-appears to ask him for a favor. Without giving too much away, the favor involves a glimmer of hope for the future, but it also involves duplicitous, warring factions, all of whom are now after Theo and his valuable new traveling companion.

Remarkably, Cuarón tells his entire story with a minimum of explanation or exposition. He allows the pictures to explain themselves.

"I cannot stand explanation in movies," Cuarón says during a recent visit to San Francisco. "I cannot stand exposition. I prefer participation. You set up a situation and audiences have to make their own conclusions. I was not interested in explaining infertility, because if you start explaining, it becomes about that."

Most of the movie is shot in lengthy, sustained shots with very little cutting or close-ups. "It wasn't doing a long shot to say how clever we are. It was about honoring the moments of truthfulness," Cuarón says. "When we felt that we were becoming aware of the camera, then we would cut."

Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, having just come from Terrence Malick's The New World, insisted on shooting in all natural light, which fit in perfectly with Cuarón's plan.

"Character is as important as social environment," he continues. "So you stay loose, only allowing your character to blend with social environment, but also hoping to register the tension between the two. The other thing was to focus on creating a moment of truthfulness, in which the camera happened to be there to register it."

Children of Men also plays with offscreen sounds -- it is full of animal noises, suggesting that the infertility is only a human problem -- as well as cross-referenced symbols. Danny Huston has a small role as an art collector (or art thief, depending on your point of view) who hoards masterpieces in his home.

"When you see [Picasso's] Guernica as a wallpaper for a posh dining table, I think it completely loses its meaning," Cuarón says. This image has an impact in its own scene, of course, but it also connects with everything else in the film, suggesting the same displacement that the illegal immigrants must feel.

That's why Cuarón is a passionate advocate for watching films and not just listening to them. "Cinema has become a medium that you can watch with your eyes closed," he says. "You go to a movie theater, you close your eyes and you follow the whole thing. They tell you what they are doing, and you hear dialogue. It is losing its meaning as cinema, a cinema that has its own language."

Surprisingly, Cuarón hopes that audiences don't spot and connect every single image or metaphor in his film. He wants viewers to make different kinds of connections at different levels, meeting the film on their own terms.

"In the movies that I love I don't understand everything. I don't want to understand. And that's the reason I think about them all the time," he says.

But there's one thing he would like viewers to take away from the film, if they can. He would like them not so much to find a sense of hope, but rather to choose for themselves if such a thing exists.

"I cannot impose a sense of hope," he says. "The audiences have to come up with their own conclusions. Hope can be the most amazing springboard for transformations. And that is for me, more than explaining, more than the character, it's about hope and what you do with it."

Partial Alfonso Cuarón Filmography:
Sólo con tu pareja (1991)
A Little Princess (1995)
Great Expectations (1998)
Y tu mamá también (2001)
Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (2004)
Children of Men (2006)
Paris, je t'aime (2006) [segment]
Gravity (2013)

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