14 July 2010
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.