Does Argentina offer the most exciting film in the world right now? It’s got to be in the top 3 at least (with Spain and South Korea, perhaps?). For example, have you seen the beautiful thriller The Secret in Their Eyes (El Secreto de Sus Ojos), analyzed here by our friend JustMeMike? Feminéma especially likes Argentina’s amazing female directors: I’m obsessed with the films of Lucrecia Martel, and I learned recently that Buenos Aires was the site for the first International Women and Film Festival for Gender Equity last year. Now that I’ve seen Lucía Puenzo’s XXY, I’m ready to declare Argentina my favorite film country ever. XXY takes a close look at the confusion of gender, biological sex, and sexual orientation that arises in intersex cases — it’s fascinating, never easy to watch, and totally compelling.

We slowly learn that Alex (Inés Efron) is 15 and intersex, living on the coast of Uruguay with her parents (Valeria Bertuccelli and the always-terrific Ricardo Darín). I say slowly because the film amounts to an emotional thriller — as it unfolds we learn new insights into how each member of the family has a very different relationship to Alex’s gender and sexual identity, especially now that she’s beginning to manifest and sexual preferences as well. I say she because that’s how everyone refers to her, though that is very much one of the things up for debate.

She has long taken medication to suppress the appearance of masculine traits, but during the last few weeks she’s stopped taking them — with increasingly noticeable results. As if it’s not hard enough to be 15, Alex is twitchy, angry, highly sexed, and volatile as the meds leave her body. Watching Efron express those emotions — with all the conflicting elements of a skinny boy’s frame, her enormous, beautiful blue eyes, her soft head of hair, and her alienating glare — is stunning. I can’t imagine an actor who could more perfectly inhabit that aimless rage, nor the gender and sexual complexities of an intersex teenager. Meanwhile, her parents cycle through denial, anxiety, and panic. It’s especially touching from Darín, because as they sit together we realize how much she takes after him (those blue eyes, that tumble of hair) and how much he’s always believed she’s perfect.

If this were a Lifetime Channel movie of the week, it might unsubtly ask, what in heavens’ name can her poor parents do? But this film is too smart for that. Clearly, Alex’s mother has considered sex reassignment surgery; she’s even invited a prominent surgeon to visit for the weekend with his wife and artistic son, Álvaro. But this film doesn’t go down familiar roads. Instead, Alex propositions Álvaro and they begin an odd relationship controlled by Alex’s mecurial moods. Meanwhile, Alex’s best friend — a handsome teenaged son of a fishing family, whom she has punched in the eye during some unexplained (unexplainable?) conflict, still haunts the edges of their lives, trying to reconcile with her. He warns Álvaro off: “She’s too much for you to handle,” he says matter-of-factly, and we get yet another teeny glimpse into Alex’s sexual preferences — except that she also has a tender friendship with a pretty girl next door.

What will Alex do? Does she have to choose? She’s at a crossroads in this coming-of-age tale (the most unusual coming-of-age tale since Jeffrey Eugenides’ beautiful Middlesex). As much as XXY is about the difficulties of being intersex, we start to wonder what will happen when doctors en masse allow intersex children to grow up and make up their own minds. Which means that more children will remain both male and female. This is an amazing film that looks at sex, gender identity, and sexual orientation in such fascinating ways that I finished it thinking, this could never have been made in the U.S. It’s a subtle, real, unflinching look at one family’s experience. I’m haunted by it and I hope you’ll watch it too and join me in my reverence of Argentine cinema.

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Defined by Netflix

30 August 2010

All those years of Generation X dropout culture and don’t-define-me superiority have made me reluctant to admit it, but this is now the truth:  Netflix has nailed my viewing habits.  When I login, their site offers me suggestions under the following categories:

  • critically acclaimed foreign buddy pictures
  • cult crime comedies
  • dark workplace TV dramas
  • witty romantic movies featuring a strong female lead
  • visually striking emotional foreign movies
  • dark dysfunctional family TV shows
  • understated thrillers

And with that, they’ve turned me into a niche consumer.  There are only a few detail the site still hasn’t figured out:

  • critically acclaimed films by female directors
  • anything by Lucretia Martel
  • films that pass the Bechdel Test

I’ve been working on a longer piece, but the new semester and finishing the Hunger Games series have eliminated my free time just recently.  More soon!

Where does one begin with Lucrecia Martel’s films?  After seeing her second feature (“La Niña Santa”) tonight — which becomes the third of her films I’ve seen and raved about here — all I can do is wonder at this Argentinian writer-director’s extraordinary attention to detail.  With it, she captures the constant exchange between the banal, the wryly ridiculous, and those events that might be profoundly life-altering — profound, that is, if only we weren’t so eager to let them slip by so we can return to our usual patterns.

Take the pubescent Amalia (María Alché) just for starters, the wannabe “holy girl” of the title.  With her heavy eyes and sulking mouth, she enjoys the trashy gossip of her best friend, Josefina, and might well turn out to be hard, mean, sensuous.  But she might turn instead in the direction of the wide-eyed religious ecstasy of their beautiful Bible study teacher, who weeps when singing hymns and is trying to teach the girls the notion of religious vocation:  their role in God’s plan.  “The important thing is to always be alert for God’s call,” she begs them earnestly.  Their homework is to find instances of individuals discovering their vocations — a confusing task that leads the girls to mix ghost stories, profane tales, and contradictory Bible stories as if they might all be equally instructive.

Yet when Amalia finds her calling one afternoon, it combines salvation and sexuality in a heady cocktail that she doesn’t know how to pry apart.  As she watches a man play a theremin with its eerily beautiful sounds and almost unbelievable engineering, a man comes up behind her in the crowd, slowly puts his hands into his pockets, and presses his crotch up against her.  The look on her face reflects perfectly the combined sense of violation and humiliation with the wheels in her mind trying to process the event.  He’s Dr. Jano (Carlos Belloso), a doctor in town for a conference at Amalia’s mother’s hotel — so she is sure to see him again soon, and she quickly determines that this is God’s call for her to save him.

The married Jano clearly makes a habit of rubbing up against attractive young girls without consequences — but then, he never met Amalia before.  Neither has he encountered a woman like her mother, the lissome and vain Helena (Mercedes Morán).  With her artfully tousled light hair and her knack for showing off her figure, Helena is still bitter about her divorce, and now that she’s received the news that her ex-husband’s new wife is expecting, she seems more than ever prepared to take risks.  When Jano engages in a little flirtation with her, Helena gracefully starts to put herself in his way more frequently, eagerly lapping up his attention despite knowing (or because?) he’s married.  The lubricious Jano is accustomed to enjoying his male privilege while hiding his ugly face behind heavy glasses that almost serve as a mask.  So when his glasses come off, it’s his turn to feel violated.

But here’s the thing about Martel’s films:  no matter how much one might accurately set the scene with a run-down like this, it misses the extraordinary details that make her films erotic, densely aural, tactile.  She shoots all her films using numerous close-ups that often cut surprising parts of the characters’ bodies out of the frame; we catch glimpses of eyes, hands, lips, or we see through mirrors to catch sight of someone’s foot, or the elegant Helena in a backless dress.  Her characters engage in all manner of behavior we don’t quite understand, like the radical vacillations on Amalia’s face between snarling and beatitude.  Most elegant in “The Holy Girl” is the way Martel makes a theme of sound, from the heavenly theremin to the bubbling water of the hotel pool to Helena’s worrisome tinnitus in her ear.  Finally, there is no one other director alive with such a deft facility for understanding the everyday rhythms and conflicts of talk amongst middle-aged women (and on this score American directors lag far, far behind).  Just a few of the scenes between Helena and the other women employees at the hotel are so funny while being so true and familiar that they should be excerpted on YouTube (but that will have to be the work of others, not me).

And then there’s Martel’s gaze on the confused mixture of faith and sensuality amongst teenaged girls — girls who have already begun to realize their power for both good and evil, their fierce determination.  It’s no wonder that they whisper that their angelic-looking religious studies teacher likes to French kiss, or that they might practice those kisses on one another.  Actual sexuality is mostly a mystery, but these girls are fully aware of how frequently their Bible lessons adopt a sensuous cast.

By a thin margin this is Martel’s most approachable film, but like “La Ciénaga” and “The Headless Woman” this one is dense and subtle.  One begins to realize that no matter how precise her dialogue is, it seems on first viewing so banal as to be improvised.  Her films require an attention to the billowing threads of relationships, dialogue, themes, sounds, and facial expressions as they start to combine and braid together, building into emotional problems and perhaps even climaxes.  I can hardly wait for more.

Just two days ago I speculated that Nicole Holofcener’s directorial modesty might be one reason why American critics feel the need to tell us that her films aren’t just “women’s films.”  After watching Lucrecia Martel’s debut film, “La Ciénaga,” I’m convinced.  Compared with Holofcener’s quiet gaze, Martel has an extraordinary vision that appears from the film’s very earliest moments, as in her third film, “The Headless Woman” that I liked so much last month.  It’s no surprise to find that all three of Martel’s film were recently voted to be in the top 10 of all Latin American films made in the 2000s.  “La Ciénaga” (“The Bog” or “The Swamp”) was #1.

This film would never, ever, be voted the best film of the decade by U.S. critics, simply because of its subject matter:  laissez-faire parents, children run amok, racist bile spewed against the family’s Indian servants, and languid sexuality within and amongst this extended family.  It opens in a steamy Argentinian summer, with dark clouds overhead; thunder seems to threaten in the distance throughout most of the film.  Inside the family’s country house, children and teenagers lie together in beds, napping agitatedly in the heat.  Outside, the adults sleep on chaise lounges next to a fetid, dirty pool (one of the several “swamps” of the title); they’ve been drinking all day.  We see one woman’s hands shakily pouring herself yet another glass; it’s a notably bloody red wine.  As she slowly moves around to collect everyone’s glasses, we hear them crash and break on the cement beside the pool.  The middle-aged Mecha (Graciela Borges) has drunkenly fallen on the broken glass and is covered with blood, yet no one seems to notice.  This is not the vision of family that Americans prefer to see.

Yet what we see through Martel’s eyes is the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie satirized as masterfully as Buñuel did.  She has said that she based the film on memories of her own family’s summers together.  It has the dreamy, disconnected, aural feel of a family gathering, to be sure; but there is no nostalgia here.  Those dark clouds, that thunder in the distance:  the film almost feels like a horror flick, with danger always just around the corner.  All the male cousins under the age of eleven roam through the mountains with rifles, always coming as close as possible to shooting one another; they’re covered with old scars and fresh gashes, and one of the boys is missing an eye from an earlier accident.  (“When Joaquin goes to the mountains, I’m frightened for his other eye,” his mother Mecha says fecklessly, unconvincingly, to no one in particular.)  The littlest girls perpetually appear with makeup smeared all over their faces, having been doing who knows what, and the older girls drive cars without licenses at the express wish of their drunken parents.  While the adults accuse their Indian servant Isabel of stealing (and being dirty, refusing to answer the phone for them, living like animals, eating dirty fish…), their daughter Momi seeks from Isabel all manner of attention — maternal, physical, vaguely sexual love.  It’s the same dark humor that Holofcener displays in her films, and it’s directed at many of the same targets:  the boredom, banalities, and transparent hypocrisies of the privileged.

Martel eschews background music or a soundtrack in favor of developing a layering of sound, glances, and conversation, all brilliantly edited together in her scenes.  Take the one in which the heavily bandaged Mecha lounges in her bed, sunglasses on as she nurses another hangover, while her cousin Tali (Mercedes Morán) sits and chats with her; slowly the bed fills with girls.  This was so believably one of those idle conversations amongst middle-aged women that I almost felt its rhythms from memories of family reunions during my childhood.  The two older women chat about the appearance of the Virgin of Carmen on a water tank in town.  “She said it was incredible,” Tali reports about another cousin.  “She was transformed.  She phoned me in tears. ‘You have to see it to understand, Tali,’ she said.”  As the younger girls watch their mothers with that mix of curiosity and boredom, throughout this conversation Mecha’s handsome teenaged son José (Joan Cruz Bordeu) skirts the room after his shower, standing shirtless before the bathroom mirror as his pubescent cousins sneak long looks at his lean, tattooed torso.  As the older women talk about the Virgin, José takes advantage of being the only man in the room by hamming it up a bit for the girls’ benefit, appearing as a kind of male god to them.  He clearly enjoys their admiration, and will continue to enhance it almost to the point of impropriety — sneaking into one cousin’s shower, or dancing seductively with Isabel, the servant, at a club.  Only later, on reflection, does the viewer recognize what a brilliantly complex scene this is, with the meandering chit-chat, the girls’ searching looks at their mothers or the beautiful José, the tangle of subjects and themes, the sense of risk.

And then there’s the loneliness.  Despite the perpetual tangle of bodies, they each feel adrift; think of the scene of the bleeding Mecha lying in glass surrounded by her unwitting husband and friends, or the deludedly hopeful faces of people on TV who have flocked to glimpse the image of the Virgin of Carmen on the side of a water tower.  Tali’s youngest son frets that he will be attacked by the urban legend of an “African rat” his cousins have described to him — a huge doglike creature with two rows of teeth — none of the adults bothers to disabuse him of this fear.  No wonder that Martel has indicated that, for her, the film is about abandonment.

It is Martel’s mastery in storytelling and editing (and this done with only a modicum of film-school training) that turns a lazy family summer into a metaphor for the corruptions of Argentine society; she has explained in interviews that despite its highly naturalistic, almost blasé conversational rhythm, the film was tightly scripted. (Even before it was complete, the film won Best Screenplay at Sundance back in 1999, which permitted her to complete the film and obtain further funding.)  Asked at a recent forum in the San Francisco area how she does this, Martel used the example of long phone conversations with her mother as a source for the oral structure of her films:

After 40 minutes of talking on the phone — in which she and her mother discuss everything — Martel still doesn’t know what her mother is trying to tell her.  But when the conversation is over and Martel asks herself what it was about, she comes to a gradual understanding of how all that has been said ties together.

Considering the worldwide successes of other Latin American directors — most notably Mexican directors Alfonso Cuarón (who directed the very best of the Harry Potter films, “Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), Guillermo del Toro, and Alejandro González Iñárritu — the writer-director Martel can’t be far from similar recognition.  She’s already received virtually every Latin American film award, as well as prominent nominations and awards at Cannes and the Berlin Film Festival.  The Academy Awards is one of the only major institutions to stiff her for a nomination.  Nothing about her filmmaking indicates a modesty that will keep it hovering around the dreaded “woman’s” ghetto.  Martel is a force to be reckoned with.

They’re vastly underrepresented in all aspects of filmmaking, a new study shows us.  Of the 100 top-grossing films made in 2007, only 2.7% of the directors were women, while only 11.2% of the writers and 20.5% of the producers were women.  This radical gender imbalance is likely largely the reason why women characters onscreen are so few — and generally so shallow or used as eye candy.  As the authors of this study show, “the lack of gender symmetry on-screen” (only about 20% of films feature a solo female as the main character) might be at least partly explained by “the biological sex of behind-the-camera content creators.”

Director Aparna Sen

This study led by Stacy L. Smith of USC shows that overall, men in prestigious positions behind the camera outnumber women by five to one, and women are most profoundly underrepresented in the role of film director.  Yet when women do serve as writers, directors, and producers, their films are far more likely to show girls and women on screen.

Director Lucrecia Martel

The study is hardly a feminist rant, especially considering that its authors specifically reject a particularly ignorant New York Times piece last year that claimed, preposterously, that a small group of female screenwriters now constitutes a “fempire” of their own.  (Can we please have a moratorium on these words?  I’m as sick of “mansplaining” as I am of “fempires.”)  Indeed, the study’s authors frequently imply that they expect things will improve for women behind the camera as in front of it.  “As women inhabit these prestigious posts, we may begin to witness a representational sea change on-screen,” they write in a representative line.  Smith et als, let me conduct your rant for you:  considering it’s 2010, when exactly is this sea change going to occur?

Jane Campion directing "Bright Star"

Look: there is no “fempire” of women behind the camera.  Even more due to this study, we must celebrate Kathryn Bigelow’s Academy Awards win as a Pyrrhic victory, as it was one of those few films that featured no women characters at all.

Wow.  See this film:  “The Headless Woman,” or “La mujer sin cabeza,” a 2009 Argentinian film by director Lucrecia Martel.  My best analogy is that it’s a modern-day The Yellow Wallpaper, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s canonic 19th-century story of a woman suffering from “nervous depression” and driven to madness by the “resting cure,” which prescribed that she remain in a room, stripped of responsibilities as a means of restoring her to health.

21st-century women may have pharmaceutical solutions for depression, but as “The Headless Woman” shows, they too are insulated in ways that might prompt the same kind of madness.  The film is concerned with Veró (María Onetto), the wealthy, pampered, middle-aged woman enmeshed in family, work, and home — until one day, as she drive home and is momentarily distracted by her cell phone, she hits something.  The camera pauses on her for a long time, watching her recover; when she finally pulls away, we see a dog dead on the road.  But there are now two ghostly little handprints on her driver’s side window.  Is a dog all she hit?

Though we don’t know what happened, we quickly realize that Veró is deeply affected by this event (does she have amnesia? a traumatic repression of the events? a dangerous concussion?), yet no one else notices.  With her blonde dye job and bland half-smile always plastered on, she can’t even go through the motions of her life — so it’s lucky she’s surrounded by servants, her husband, and her relatives, all of whom fail to register that anything’s wrong.  As we see everything through her eyes, we are as disoriented as she is.  Who is this man in the house — her husband or someone else?  Why is she here at the dentist’s office?  Every time she appears mildly bewildered, one of the many servants or men steps up to take things out of her hands, shepherd her to her next appointment, remove responsibility from her.

By the time she hesitatingly tells her husband that she fears she hit someone, he assures her that it can’t be true.  “It was just a scare,” he says patronizingly, unconvincingly.  With that apologetic little smile on her face, does she agree?  Or simply acquiesce?  In the meantime, she has nothing to do — her languid movements are only prompted by the random doorbell, a phone call, or the need to move out of someone’s way.  Cared for by an endless stream of working-class employees and paternalistic men, her life has little meaning or direction — so how can she bear responsibility? 

Perhaps it’s simply madness, an early version of the dementia her mother suffers from.  One day, in her mother’s bedroom, her mother rambles a bit, as she’s given to do.  But this time Veró begins to see her mother’s phantoms and generalized disorientation.  “Don’t look at him,” her mother says out of the blue.  “They’re … the house is full of them.  Shhh!  The dead.  They’re leaving now.  Don’t look at them.  Ignore them and they’ll leave.”  As a little boy gets up from under the bed and leaves the room — is he real, or is this the ghost of the little boy Veró might have killed? — her mother continues:  “I would have preferred modernity.  Here you move and everything squeaks.”

I can’t believe this film didn’t get more attention, that it wasn’t nominated for an Academy Award.  It’s a haunting, unsettling statement about the lives of women in a safely cushioned world, where madness lurks.