I have a lot to say about Huesera and do below with plenty of plot elements and details about the film. You might want to wait to read my piece until after you’ve seen the film. In the meantime, Huesera has fantastic sound design, a very fine use of texture and patterns in its cinematography, and an interesting take on fears around pregnancy, motherhood and women. It’s also far more Queer and Punk than it appears from the trailer. For people who have trouble with babies being in peril, the baby is okay in the end.
Huesera: The Bone Woman (Mexico-Peru, 2022) was not what I expected. It’s Queerer and more Punk. From the trailers and stills I had expected it to be about pregnancy and the traps of domesticity. I had expected something along the lines of Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook (2016), Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), Kate Dolan’s You Are Not My Mother (2021) or even Emily Harris’s The Wind (2018) with its demon and grief about miscarriage–something with more body horror and possibly even a sinister baby or monstrous mother. Directed by Michelle Garza Cervera and co-written by her with Abia Castillo, Huesera has many of these things. There is some body horror and the film and characters express fears around pregnancy, the physical toll pregnancy takes, the silence around that toll, the sense of an invader, and the social and familial pressures on women to be mothers and mothers to be perfectly selfless*. But Huesera‘s main character Valeria (the excellent Natalia Solián) struggles with more than fears around pregnancy, childbirth and post-partum depression. Valeria also struggles with her existential realization that, as she sings in a flashback to her Queer punk days, “I don’t like domestication.”
The film opens with a woman climbing the steps to a colossal golden statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe in Ocuilan, Mexico. She is a penitent, climbing on her knees with the help of a man who places a foam pad before her on each step. Valeria climbs past her to the statue’s base. She receives a blessing on her womb as her mother Maricarmen (Aida López) prays. Valeria wants to have a baby with her partner Raúl (Alfonso Dosal). Valeria and Raúl make love, but it looks like she might not be enjoying it. It’s hard to say, at first, maybe she’s just nervous about whether she’ll get pregnant this time. They are are a loving and happy couple, though. Valeria works as a carpenter, making furniture in her own workshop. But once she is pregnant, things change. Her mother and sister Vero (Sonia Couoh) are cruel and openly disdainful about her ability to be a mother. Only her aunt Isabel (Mercedes Hernández) is supportive. Raúl expresses concerns about Valeria’s carpentry to her male ob/gyn and together they pressure her to stop making furniture, “at least until the baby is born.” Raúl rejects her sexually, saying it’s creepy to have sex with the baby right there. He treats Valeria more and more like a vehicle for the child–interacting with her body, but ignoring her. Valeria makes a crib and then transforms her work room into a nursery. In clearing out the room, she reveals evidence of an earlier life where she played bass, shaved her head, and kissed her girlfriend Octavia (Marya Batella) among the punks of Mexico City. On the wall of her workshop, she sees a massive white and black spider on the wall and it seems like a sign.
“A house, but also a prison”
Valeria becomes anxious, sick and anemic. She loses weight instead of gaining it. She is cracking her knuckles all the time. She hears a knock on the door of their apartment, but no one is there. Then she sees woman on a balcony in a building across from hers crack her head sideways and apparently jump to her death, her body broken and spiderlike in the courtyard. She keeps seeing an entity, but Raúl thinks she is imagining things. Her ob/gyn tells her it’s normal, that she is just “pregnant.” She seeks help from her friend Ursula (Martha Claudia Moreno). After determining that Valeria wants the baby, Ursula tells her, “You’ve got the Spider. This one is a mother, but also a predator. She had you tightly wrapped in her web.” Ursula shows Valeria a bottle containing a spider inside a web and says, “It’s a house, but also a prison.” But Valeria is not ready to hear that the life she has woven around herself is a trap for her. She’s still trying hard to be a normal woman–to want what she should and what her family wants for her–a kind husband who works in advertising, being a mother, having a child. Valeria is still waiting to feel what she thinks she should be feeling, what everyone has told her that she will feel. But Valeria doesn’t and her body knows she doesn’t. Ursula exorcizes the entity, but tells Valeria there are other, much more dangerous things that can be done if the ritual doesn’t take. They involve what Ursula considers black magic and ultimately Valeria must undergo a dangerous ritual to free herself.
There will be many reviews of Huesera that focus on post-partum depression. In fact, I almost wrote, “post-partum depression” in my notes while watching Valeria alternately affectless and desperate for relief after she has brought her newborn home. It’s a valid reading. But the most common narratives around post-partum depression are that with treatment, the symptoms subside and a woman will come around to the joy of motherhood. One of the reasons I resist using post-partum depression or depression around pregnancy itself as the only interpretation of the film, is that I think Huesera does something more interesting than that. Many people are understandably anxious about the physical experience and physical toll of being pregnant and giving birth. As Valeria’s mother says, no one wants to hear about it. Pregnancy’s squicksomeness to some people aside, a lot of parents fear their children will feel unwanted if they do talk about the experience and physical changes of pregnancy and the terror of being responsible for another person’s life. Mothers, in particular, can fear they are terrible people for not being immediately filled with joy and fulfillment when holding their newborn for the first time. The story is that pregnancy and birth are miracles and that every woman wants a child–even the ones who say they don’t might change their mind–or even more realize their true purpose–when holding a child in their arms. And some people do. The final horror of Rosemary’s Baby, after all, is that Rosemary, after all the abuse and manipulation she has faced–the rape, the betrayal–loves her little antichrist and will care for it. But while we don’t talk about it much, there are women who do not want children. Valeria is one of those people. And I love Huesera for focusing on a woman who does not want a child and making her more than a monster.
“I Don’t Like Domestication”
The entity that torments Valeria is about more than her experience of pregnancy and birth. It’s about what Valeria has given up, repressed and hidden in order to be who she thinks she should be. The truth is that, demon aside, Valeria’s problem is that fundamentally she does not want to be a wife and mother. She probably never did, but thought she wanted to be. She wanted to want to be a mother. And she felt like she had to leave her Queer punk life and her girlfriend Octavia behind and grow up after the death of her brother. She tried to become who her family thought she should be, but it was hard to tell what she wanted because so much of what is expected of women is about sacrificing one’s self to other people’s needs. Valeria thought she had grown up because she did the heteronormative, middle class things, but Valeria has been passing as something she is not and passing is tremendously damaging.
Valeria tries hard, but trying is breaking her. We hear this very literally in the sound design. So much of the horror in the film is conveyed by sound. You can’t hide behind your hands or look away from the sound of breaking bones and mastication. And we see her breaking as she has visions of her bones snapping. Both aurally and visually, Valeria’s body reflects her conflict as she tries to make herself be who she thinks she should be and then again as her real self tries to escape. We even see the trap in the cinematography. Valeria is surrounded by patterns, often woven patterns, whether shadows, curtain prints, cord, chain link, or the hard web of steel encompassing Valeria on a pedestrian overpass. Alternately cozy and confining, they replicate the home and prison of expectation and false desire she has woven around herself. Tormented by visions of broken, spider-like women and her own broken bones, Valeria realizes that she still doesn’t like domestication and her home is indeed a prison trapping herself and her baby. She sees an entity in the film, yes, and she experiences it invading domestic spaces, but she also sees herself split, in two scenes that remind me of classic giallo cinematography in the best possible way. She is tripled as she gazes at herself in a mirror. And then later as her existential crisis comes to a head, there is an artful, almost frenzied image of her splitting into two people. Valeria experiences a split between who she is and who she thought she should be to please her partner and her family. These two selves are not reconcilable.
During the ritual that saves her, Valeria sees her other self, her other life. And she makes a painful sacrifice. Valeria chooses to put herself first, lets her other self die, and walks away from her child, becoming monstrous to Raúl, her family, and society at large. The only ones who understand–the only ones who help Valeria specifically, not Valeria as a vessel for her baby and their expectations–are other women who are also liminal in society: Queer women, punk women, ritual specialists and brujas. My colleague at the Cultural Gutter, Angela Englert has talked and written about the new horror being about women embracing their monstrousness. It is smart, thoughtful, and worth pondering. I also think that in embracing the truth of their selves and lives women can appear monstrous to people expecting and trying to enforce ideal femininity, especially self-sacrificing devotion in motherhood. All too often when women find themselves it is inconvenient and often enraging for everyone else–far too close to monstrousness.
In all this, Huesera reminds** me not only of the movies I mentioned above, but another film where a woman embraces herself after becoming apparently monstrous to society– Charlotte Colbert’s She Will (2022). Watching She Will I thought of a line from a Muriel Rukeyser poem, “Käthe Kollwitz,” and I thought of it again watching Huesera:
What would happen if one woman told the truth about
The world would split open
Huesera reminds me more sadly of Agnieszka Smoczynska’s The Lure (2015), where a mermaid named Golden has her tail surgically removed and denies and destroys her “monstrous” self to try to become a woman that a doofy bass player could love. Valeria survives where Golden does not. And that is a refreshing relief to me. I am glad that Valeria embraced herself, endures being considered selfish and monstrous, and escapes her trap. I am also glad that Valeria might have escaped becoming a more monstrous mother to her daughter had she stayed. Valeria does hurt people, including her baby, but it didn’t have to be that way. If there had been space for Valeria to be who she was from the start, she would never have tried to be someone she wasn’t. Passing isn’t only harmful to the people who pass for one reason or another. It creates its own destructive web. And I can’t help thinking about the liminal women who helped Valeria. Her chosen family of Queer punks and witches who she turns to when she needs comfort, escape, and help. People who give Valeria space to be who she is and give her the help she asks for. When she is going into labor, she does so on the floor of a punk club. When Valeria escapes, she escapes through with the help of these women–maybe to the mountains with Octavia, definitely to the outskirts of heteronormative society, but herself once more.
*I don’t mention Trans men and nonbinary people who can become pregnant here because Huesera focuses so much on Valeria and social and familial expectations of her as a woman. Trans men and enby people have overlapping concerns, but they also have very different ones that would make for some intriguing horror around pregnancy and social expectations that I would definitely watch.
**I also thought about classic Hollywood movies about widowed women, but that is a whole other deal for a whole other article. I just watched one called My Reputation (1946) shortly after watching Huesera. In My Reputation, All That Heaven Allows (1955), and Holiday Affair, (1949), countercultural-ish men kinda neg widows into breaking free from convention while the women endure terrible gossip and familial disapproval. Usually disapproval from their children. But the women are blamed for holding to convention, as if the costs were not real and as if men do not benefit from it.
I received a review copy of Huesera: The Bone Woman. Huesera is streaming on Shudder and many other places. I also recommend this excellent piece on Huesera and interview with Michelle Garza Cervera at by Annie Lyons at Letterboxd.
Carol Borden is an editor at and evil overlord of The Cultural Gutter, a website dedicated to thoughtful writing about disreputable art. She was a writer for and editor of the Toronto International Film Festival’s official Midnight Madness and Vanguard program blogs. She has written for Biff Bam Pop, Soldier of Cinema, Mezzanotte, Teleport City, Die Danger Die Die Kill, and Popshifter. She’s appeared on CBC radio, The Projection Booth podcast, The Feminine Critique podcast, the Book Club for Masochists podcast, and the Infernal Brains podcast. She’s written a bunch of short stories including Godzilla detective fiction, femme fatale mermaids, an adventurous translator/poet, and an x-ray tech having a bad day. You can find them here.
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