It is a greatly satisfying thing that the first shot of Sólo con tu pareja, the first feature directed by Alfonso Cuarón, is a tracking shot towards an exquisitely-lit man and a woman having sex. That's as close a one-image summary of the director's subsequent career as you're likely to run into, particularly when that director has worked in so many genres aimed at such wildly divergent audiences as Cuarón.

Would that I could go right from there to assuredly declaring that the film thus represents a fully-formed birth for the director, and that everything which makes the best of his later films so damn great is to be readily found in Sólo con tu pareja; but no, this is very much the work of a young filmmaker of obvious talent in need of just a smidgen more discipline, training, and experience. This mostly shows up in his management of the film's comedy - for this is an outright farce, and it's probably telling that nothing he directed ever again more than intermittently cracks a smile - which is scattershot: for every scene that ends up flawlessly balancing on a tightrope for the whole run of absurd moments and huge character reactions, there's another one that drags out and feels flaccidly redundant, or one that just feels like a pointless aside designed to desperately lunge for just one joke, to hell with character or story logic. It's also a bit deflating to note how little Cuarón is able to extract from virtually his entire female cast, given the prominence of women in his later work (and especially in Y tu mamá también, the film most directly descended from this one), in what is effective a male-driven satire of male sexuality and male privilege. But since I mostly liked the film, and occasionally loved it, I would prefer to at least initially accentuate the positive.

The male who chiefly occupies our attention is Tomás Tomás (Daniel Giménez Cacho), the first of many characters in the film with doubled or nearly-doubled names, the first indication that Sólo con tu pareja is eager to align itself with the wacky, borderline-cartoon tradition of humor exemplified by American screwball comedies, though present in the cinema of other countries as well; I am told, for example, that Mexico itself had a robust genre of wacky satires a generation prior to this film's 1991 premiere, though I myself have no firsthand knowledge of them, and that's as good a cue as any to admit that the viewer who comes to Sólo con tu pareja without a fairly strong knowledge of Mexican culture in the early 1990s and Mexican film history up to that point - subjects on which I am almost wholly ignorant - is not in a position to give the movie its full due.

Anyway, back to Tomás. He's a lothario of the worst sort, plowing through women at a fevered clip, and treating them, literally, as cum dumpsters; he has an intense aversion to condoms, and to acknowledging the existence of a sexual partner that might not, for whatever reason, want to have unprotected sex with him (the film's title, in fact, translates as "Only with your partner", the slogan of a contemporaneous campaign to encourage safe sex in Mexico, one of the exact sort of important cultural references that make the film richer, and that I would absolutely never have picked up on). This probably results in a lot of broken hearts, but Tomás certainly doesn't know a goddamn thing about that, never paying any attention to his conquests ever after.

You can't build a narrative out of that, and the situations that force Tomás life into a new direction are two: first, he starts to fall for his next-door neighbor, flight attendant Clarisa (Claudia Ramírez), despite her handsome pilot boyfriend Carlos (Ricardo Dalmacci). The second is that he arranges a "date" - that is, a quick fuck without so much as dinner beforehand - with Silvia Silva (Dobrina Liubomirova), the openly antagonistic nurse who works for his doctor, Mateo Mateos (Luis de Icaza), who's also his across-the-hall neighbor. And this date happens at the same time that his boss, Gloria Gold (Isabel Benet), stops by to demand that he deliver the ad copy she's been patiently waiting on for days. And also to deliver his penis into her vagina. Thus it is that Tomás has Silvia in his apartment, and Gloria in the Mateos' apartment (he's watering their plants while they're at a convention), and to sneak between the two, he has to cross on the ledge outside, wearing nothing but a towel, stopping every time he passes Clarisa's window to admiringly gaze at her screwing Carlos. It is the classic old "man with two women at the same restaurant" sketch, only it's about casual sex and the dangers of leaving women carnally unsatisfied. Because Silvia, who receives far less attention and finds out bout Tomás's game, decided to get him back: when she mails him the results of a complete blood test, she falsely informs him that he has AIDS.

Lord knows that's dangerous ground for the movie to wander into, and accusing Sólo con tu pareja of gross tasteleness is absolutely fair game. But I think the movie mostly avoids the trap it sets for itself, first by delaying this plot development as long as possible (it's over halfway through the 94-minute film that Tomás gets the news), filling up the time with every drop of character development that can be squeezed out of its protagonist, and throwing in a subplot with a pair of Japanese businessmen that Tomás has to entertain for a night, for no obvious reason other than to jack up the comic stakes. Second, it's actually a fairly sharp way to criticise a society in which fuck-crazy men like Tomás are free to run wild, and the collage of STDs that result, and the way that his fake diagnosis punctures the self-aggrandizement that defines his life is used strictly as character material. AIDS itself is never the joke; only Tomás is.

Regardless, the result is astonishingly subversive, even two decades on. At its best, Sólo con tu pareja has a take-no-prisoners approach to depicting its characters and society, the mark of punk kids rather than sophisticated satirists, perhaps, but the film's attitude and its busy comedy mesh well, for the most part.

It's funny stuff, all in all, though it often feels like it could be funnier: the handful of top-shelf physical comedy scenes (the back-and-forth on the ledge including a running gag with a cat; an inspired slapstick bit involving a microwave oven used as a suicide device), and the way that Cuarón and Luis Patlán edit the film so that cutaway jokes and reaction shots shoot by the viewer with almost metronomic precision, call attention to the various places where things fall flat, almost always because the timing is off and gags go on far longer than their expiration. It also hurts that Giménez Cacho and de Icaza are mostly alone in giving a generally loose, fun performance; Liubomirova has some tart line readings, but that's about it. Often as not, even the good performances drift a little to far on the side of being shrill.

And while I greatly admire Cuarón's visuals, which pair him up with his totally essential collaborator, the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, there are points where the images threaten to drown the movie. Some of the sweeping, probing camera movements for which the Cuarón/Lubezki partnership would become justly beloved are perfectly-suited to giving the comedy a big boost of energy and flow (particularly in the "two apartments" setpiece, which really is the highlight of the film in every way), Lubezki's lighting can err on the side of being too pretty: as the Pedro Almodóvar films of the same period prove, creative farce thrives on poppy colors and brightness, not the graceful shading that Lubezki brings to the table, which is glamorous as all hell, but just not fun.

Still, the movie's got spunk, and the way that it mines jokes from a cruel place without ever turning into a black comedy is impressive; screenwriter Carlos Cuarón, the director's brother and infrequent collaborator, had some problems structuring scenes, but the madcap plotting that yokes them all together gives the film a bounciness that keeps it from being as nasty as the satiric edge, and the concept, could easily fall into. All in all, the film is not chiefly interesting for any reason other than the career it kicked off, and I don't suppose it would deserve to be widely remembered on its own merits, but its frankness, its high spirit, and its excellent craftsmanship make it a perfectly worthy launching pad for bigger and better things.