21 June 2010
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.