More than one movie critic has compared director Alejandro Iñrritu’s Amores Perros (Love’s a Bitch) to Pulp Fiction, describing it as a south-of-the-border imitation of Quentin Tarantino’s highly influential magnum opus. Without a doubt, there are points of connection between the two movies. Both construct their narratives from separate stories that are made to collide occasionally; both aspire to cult status through their fetishism of “late” American pop culture; and both stage acts of extreme violence only to shrug their shoulders at the carnage. Amores Perros goes beyond Pulp Fiction, however. While Tarantino includes literal scenes of sadism in his movie, they are played within a framework that gives context to these acts. In Amores Perros, the obsessive displays of cruelty and the sense of gratification that accompanies them suggest that sadism is operating at a far deeper level here. A vortex of pain and pleasure determines the movie’s style and content, which raises the question of who are the sadists (the moviemakers?) and who are the masochists (the audience?). The answer is surprising.
A more apt comparison, at least at the level of style, would be to Michael Mann’s recent movie The Insider, from which Iñrritu seems to have derived his camera work and editing technique. It’s possible that the anti-aesthetic of The Insider, and even that of Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, reaches a minor apotheosis in Amores Perros. The indiscriminate deployment of space in Iñrritu’s film comes from its use of a hand-held camera to swipe over, run behind, careen into, and lunge past characters and props that are otherwise fixed, at least in relation to each other. The movie’s convulsive photography is combined with other elements–rapid cutting, a preponderance of close-up shots, shallow depth of field–to create an overall hodgepodge of queasy images. And the surface of these images is also appropriated straight from Mann’s film. High-speed film stock is shot in situations that stress the grain, and the film is push-processed to saturate the colors and to “blow out” the brightest portion of the image. The result is an acid-wash look that gives everything the camera happens to bump into a near-ecstatic glow, however inappropriate it may be. Perhaps the most striking effect of the style is the way it renders the movie’s plot illegible and ultimately inconsequential.
Three individual stories combine to form the movie’s mock treatise on violence and decay in modern Mexico, and the similarities between them outweigh the differences. The first is about two young brothers–the older one is a wife and child abuser, the younger one is unmarried. They live together, along with their mother, in a low-rent apartment. The younger brother claims to be in love with the older one’s wife, but all he really wants to do is screw her, which he eventually does. Since the younger brother’s explosions of rage rival those of the older one, it seems he too might abuse a wife. But because he’s not married, he instead abuses the family dog, which he claims to love, by entering the dog in a high-stakes dogfight. The idea is that he wants to win enough money to run off with his brother’s wife.
The movie asks us to sympathize with the younger brother by presenting him as the sensitive (however misguided) hero of the movie’s first episode. Obviously, this poses a problem for an audience that isn’t used to cozying up to a character who exploits and harms others–even if he does sport a charming smile (in contrast to the older brother’s perpetual grimace). In the end, the beloved dog is dealt a fatal gunshot from a dog owner seeking revenge, the older brother is killed while attempting to rob a bank, and the younger brother is nearly killed in a brutal car crash. Between all of this, a variety of other horrors are served up as side dishes: beatings, stabbings, dead dogs, and the quivering bodies of dogs near death. At moments of suffering in the movie, the camera goes into a trance-like state–it lingers, for example, on a close-up of blood-soaked fur. This aspect of the movie’s partiality toward the grotesque intensifies with each successive episode: The second and third stories are as incoherent, melodramatic, and carcass-strewn as the first.
Another critic has compared Amores Perros to Luis Buñuel’s 1950 film Los Olvidados (The Forgotten Ones), about a group of juvenile delinquents struggling to survive amid desperate living conditions. If there is a connection between these two movies, it’s limited to the obvious and incidental–both are set in Mexico and both treat themes of deprivation and suffering. But the comparison is interesting, nevertheless, for the way it clarifies what is lacking in Amores Perros. Buñuel’s film is also set in a poor neighborhood, but on the fringe of a city, stranded between rural insignificance and urban anonymity. Everything in the setting is marked for its use-value only and is governed by an oppressive transience. No distinction is made, for example, between the ramshackle structures that the people inhabit and those where their animals cluck, strut and bray. There is not even much regularity to the shabby accommodations–the characters sleep in a different place each night, depending on the shifting relations between them. But unlike the formless background and indiscriminate parade of images in Amores Perros, the landscape of Buñuel’s film is intrinsically coherent.
Watching Los Olvidados, one becomes aware of a sensibility behind the quality of the images (carefully composed), the pace of the editing (precisely felt), and the overall structure (devastatingly logical), a sensibility that is grounded in social responsibility and informed by a commitment to progressive forms. Buñuel is able to reveal, through the very rigor of his approach, the political and economic structures that underlie the movie’s geography and give rise to the interminable acts of violence that it depicts. The same cannot be said of the director of Amores Perros, who appears wholly complicit with the reactionary and commercial forces that produce his characters’ misery. This is the difference between a movie that is about a subject and a movie that is identical with its subject.
Which brings us back to the fact that Amores Perrros is less a movie about sadism and more a sadistic movie. At first, the movie seems to objectify the audience as passive consumers of trash, but soon it becomes clear that the moviemakers are, in fact, passive producers of the very trash they desire themselves. In other words, they are masochists. In their effort to produce a commodity that they would like to consume, the makers of Amores Perros have fashioned a movie that is less notable for its attempt to inflict pain on the audience, and more remarkable for the obliviousness that they bring to this task.