(Dir. Lucrecia Martel, Argentina, 2001)
Up Close and Personal
The debut feature film of Argentinean filmmaker Lucrecia Martel signaled the arrival of a major new talent on the international film scene. Rejecting the notion of belonging to a particular movement of national cinema (the supposed Argentine New Wave), Martel has created a captivating film with La Ciénaga that at once represents a fresh take on the well-trodden family drama and probably says more about her country’s current social climate than she may have even intended. What is most significant is that she manages to stage this social critique – mostly concerned with the inanity of bourgeois privilege and deep-seated racial tension between the upper class of European descent and the working class of native Amerindians – realistically within the confines of her many characters’ relationships rather than relying on narrative contrivances.
Martel’s film follows a loose narrative thread but leaves ample room for her story to wander and pause long enough for her audience to soak in the heightened sensory visuals that her intrusive camera captures. La Ciénaga’s frame is filled with the human body – not unlike the work of Martel’s contemporary Claire Denis – inherently sensuous as the camera lingers on half-naked bodies or glides along the length of outstretched arms and legs, but never explicitly sexual. But, unlike Denis who utilizes physical proximity to her subjects to bridge body and mind as she explores troubled psyches, Martel brings us in close allowing us to suffocate in the sticky humidity of its jungle outskirts setting and nearly feel the sweat beading on these lethargic characters lying around the dilapidated country estate. The English translation of the film’s title – The Swamp – is appropriate as this muggy atmosphere Martel creates provides a perfect space for inevitable relational tension to fester. This invigorating style coupled with a dense soundtrack of natural sounds – birds chirping, insects buzzing, water running – lends La Ciénaga a welcome palpable quality unseen in most films.
Against this stifling backdrop, Martel introduces a large extended family living in a small northwest Argentine town with two cousins, the matriarchs of two nuclear families, more or less at the center of her narrative. The film opens with Mecha (Graciela Borges), a middle-aged alcoholic, unhappily married wife, and mother of four, who suffers an accident during a boozy pool party at her neglected summer home and winds up in the hospital with severe cuts across her chest from a broken wine glass. She soon returns home to recover, but her fall prompts visits from her oldest child Jose (Juan Cruz Bordeu) and cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán) who lives in the nearby town with her own four children. The relationship between Mecha and Tali and the difference in their lifestyles and choices provides the narrative backbone, but Martel parades a host of other characters across the frame – each of them related to either woman by blood or work – whose relationship to one another she gradually reveals over the course of the film. The result is one of natural family interaction without forced exposition or dramatic conflict. The film, then, is a snapshot of a very lifelike, dysfunctional family whose members are in danger of repeating the mistakes of their ancestors.
This cycle of destructive behaviors – adultery, alcoholism, laziness – and attitudes – racism, entitlement, inattentiveness – is crucial to La Ciénaga. To suggest as much, Martel opens and closes her film with a pair of similar shots of far-off jungle-covered mountains, perhaps standing as an impenetrable wall to seal the inhabitants of the swampy valley below in, doomed to a life of repetition. Throughout, there are instances of this fateful cycle: Mecha fears, as do her children and cousin, that she’ll wind up like her mother who holed up in her bedroom and stayed there until the day she died, Jose sleeps with the woman who was once his own father’s former mistress, and even Tali falls prey to the negligence of her cousin’s parenting resulting in the film’s tragic finale – Tali’s youngest, Luciano (Sebastián Montagna), tumbles off a ladder to his death. Thus, the film begins and ends with a preventable accident, the latter with fatal consequences. It’s perhaps a bit too cynical an expression of history repeating itself, but the realism Martel commits to for the remainder of the film rescues La Ciénaga from collapsing from the burden of its denouement. Little Luciano’s death is possibly the result of inattentive parenting, cleverly foreshadowed in Mecha’s calamitous tumble, but it hardly reeks of some ambiguous, weighty metaphor. Martel has plenty to work with embedded in this narrative to deliver her subtle social critique.
It’s this very weightlessness of Martel’s narrative structure that adds an unexpected layer of poignancy to the film following Luciano’s untimely death in an otherwise non-sentimental work. There’s really no telling where the story is headed throughout, but it’s gripping nonetheless. Instead, Martel invades pockets of intense private space, getting up close and personal with these family members who share an eerie intimacy. Brothers and sisters, grown and still young, are often found half-naked, lying around in each other’s beds, or teasingly flirting with one another around the house. Jose lives with his lover, his father’s former mistress, back in Buenos Aires, but he liberally hits on other, younger women when in town. Mecha’s daughter Momi (Sofia Bertolotto) is infatuated with the family’s Amerindian housemaid Isabel (Andrea Lopez), but Isabel is clearly not interested and courts a relationship with a local boy from town. All the while, Mecha’s husband Gregorio (Martín Adjemián) remains an unwanted fixture of the background who ignores both his wife and children but insists on dying his hair to look younger for someone, certainly. In this way, Martel paints a perfect portrait of chaos with the impressive La Ciénaga, a work that reveals its astute grasp of human nature but offers little in the way of hope for their future. Thus, as an exploration of societal imperfection, La Ciénaga is a success, but its overall pessimistic view of humanity likely keeps it from being truly great.