Whoa, Nelly

A cowboy matchmaker rustles up Mexican brides. But who gets the happy ending?

The thing that’s so difficult about Cowboy del Amor — a richly layered documentary by Israeli filmmaker Michèle Ohayon — is the same thing that makes it an accomplished work: It refuses to take sides. Ohayon presents Ivan Thompson, aka “Cowboy Cupid,” an aging Texan who has made it his business to fix up American men with Mexican women for quick-and-easy marriages. She takes us into his zany, sexist, adolescent, damaged, and hilarious consciousness long enough to tease out some charm. Then she introduces us to the Mexican women who answer Thompson’s ads, opening up space in the film for their complex feelings, hopes, and dreams. What to make of it? That’s up to you.

Ivan Thompson is quite a protagonist. Weathered and lean in aviator glasses, he swears by the kind of cowboy logic we’re used to seeing mocked, comparing women to horses and romance to an economic transaction. His opening quip about his wife of seventeen years: “She spoke perfect English, and I never could understand her.” That’s why he went to Mexico, placing an ad in the Juarez paper that connected him with Chayo, a woman who became his second wife. And his third. Perhaps their inability to understand each other is what kept them together — at least for a year, until their first divorce.

For the past thirteen years, Thompson has “served” as Cowboy Cupid, charging $3,000 to chaperone gringos to Mexico, where they place ads in the papers and meet (far younger, far more attractive) women in hotel lobbies. For instance, “hopeful truck driver” Rick, who feels that American women are “too hard to please,” would like to make a Mexican woman his second wife. Thompson claims that Rick seeks something “a little deeper than just looks,” but the ad insists that the woman weigh less than 130 pounds. (In person, the number falls to 120.) Unfortunately, Rick is not an accomplished conversationalist, explaining that his first wife was “going through the change of life.” Thompson waves his arms in horror.

When Rick meets Francis, a modest woman with a huge smile and a nervous laugh, things move quickly. They leave the hotel for a stroll, and he holds her hand, then cups his arm around her shoulder. Rick’s assessment: “She’s very, very nice. She’s easy to please.” That’s his chief criterion, so the deal is sealed. For her part, Francis does seem pleased; when she first saw Rick, it was as though they were “the only two people in the room.” But that’s not love; that’s projection, and Francis’ happiness feels tinged with desperation. Her arrival in Texas is heartbreakingly bleak. In Rick’s simple mobile home, where he sits at the table and waits for her to serve him, the reality of her new life nearly cracks her face open. It’s a testament to something (determination? denial?) that she doesn’t fall apart.

In a single moment of intrusion, director Ohayon asks Thompson if he ever receives criticism for his business. His reply: “Christ received criticism for his.” Thompson’s conviction about his work is matched only by his confidence in his “expertise,” which he asserts so often that he exposes his vulnerability. Behind the swagger is a lost and confused man, unable to get a lasso around his own romantic life. He may have isolated Chayo in a small town and prevented her from learning English (ahem), but it’s clear that he did so out of fear. He fell in love with her and her children, and by the end of the film he has neither.

That’s what’s so interesting and so frustrating about Thompson and his floundering anti-Romeos. They do want loving connection, but they don’t know what it looks like or how to get it. So they resort to a state of infancy in which the woman becomes the servant-mother. Most American women have been liberated from this antiquated paradigm, but there are other parts of the world where women still serve. Of course, empowered women are everywhere, and it’s immensely refreshing when one of them shows up in the movie. Veronica, a young dermatologist who fled from the violence of mid-’90s Chiapas to create a new life for herself, explains, “I had plans before all of this that I can’t put an end to just because I met a man.”

In the end, Cowboy del Amor is the kind of film you wrestle with, never settling in a place of ease. Ohayon gives Thompson so much rope to hang himself with that he tends to slip through some pretty large loopholes. And no matter how charming his cowboy colloquialisms and brazen self-promotion, he’s still a raging sexist whose business exploits disadvantaged women. Watching Cowboy del Amor is like sitting in a room with someone who’s making funny racist cracks; you can’t help but laugh, but you feel sullied by the implicit collusion. For that reason, the film tips over into the camp of tragedy. Or if it is a comedy, it’s the Shakespearean kind, where the marriages at the end are utterly unsettling.

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